Monday, June 14, 2010

Bourne Yesterday

It’s a familiar scene: a secret agent falls into the sea but manages to survive, with just one problem – he can’t remember who he is. Spy novelist Jeremy Duns takes a look at the surprising antecedents for Jason Bourne in some vintage British thrillers

‘He has a stolid face and solid musculature, which we know because he goes topless more than his leading ladies do. He has vigorous skirmishes on roofs, in cars and in hotel rooms. He takes as severe a beating – and shows as much emotion – as a crash-test dummy. He’s a government spy whom his government wants dead, and he’s mourning the violent death of his girlfriend. He so resembles another famous agent that you half-expect him to say, “The name is Bourne. Jason Bourne.”’
So ran Time’s review of the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace (1). It was one of several that felt that the film was imitative of or influenced by the Jason Bourne films starring Matt Damon. The three films in the series to date, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, have grossed around one billion dollars globally, and are loosely based on the novels of the same name by Robert Ludlum, primarily The Bourne Identity. That novel features a man who is shot and falls into the sea, but manages to survive and make it to dry land. His former colleagues presume him dead, but he recovers, with one crucial setback: he has lost his memory, and has no idea that he is in fact a ruthless secret agent. On discovering his identity in a Swiss bank, he is stunned: ‘My name’s Bourne. Jason Bourne...’ (2)

The book was a worldwide best-seller on publication in 1980, as were its two sequels, and a new writer, Eric Van Lustbader, has written five more novels featuring the character since Ludlum’s death in 2001. The films took the central premise of Ludlum’s novel and fashioned new plots around it, reinvigorating the spy genre in the process. But that premise, of a secret agent on a mission presumed dead at sea, surviving, but discovering he has amnesia, has a surprising legacy of its own – and its most immediate precursor is Ian Fleming.

In the closing scenes of Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice, James Bond is on a mission in Japan under cover as a local fisherman when he is hit on the head and plunges into the sea. He survives, but loses his memory:
‘When Kissy saw the figure, black-winged in its kimono, crash down into the sea, she sensed that it was her man, and she covered the two hundred yards from the base of the wall as fast as she had ever swum in her life. The tremendous impact with the water had at first knocked all the wind out of Bond, but the will to live, so nearly extinguished by the searing pain in his head, was revived by the new but recognizable enemy of the sea and, when Kissy got to him, he was struggling to free himself from the kimono.
At first he thought she was Blofeld and tried to strike out at her.
“It’s Kissy,” she said urgently, “Kissy Suzuki! Don’t you remember?”
He didn’t. He had no recollection of anything in the world but the face of his enemy and of the desperate urge to smash it. But his strength was going and finally, cursing feebly, he allowed her to manhandle him out of the kimono and paid heed to the voice that pleaded with him.
“Now follow me, Taro-san. When you get tired I will pull you with me. We are all trained in such rescue work.”
But, when she started off, Bond didn’t follow her. Instead he swam feebly round and round like a wounded animal, in ever-increasing circles. She almost wept. What had happened to him? What had they done to him at the Castle of Death? Finally she stopped him and talked softly to him and he docilely allowed her to put her arms under his armpits and, with his head cradled between her breasts, she set off with the traditional backward leg-stroke.
It was an amazing swim for a girl – half a mile with currents to contend with and only the moon and an occasional glance over her shoulder to give her a bearing, but she achieved it and finally hauled Bond out of the water in her little cove and collapsed on the flat stones beside him.
She was awoken by a groan from Bond. He had been quietly sick and now sat with his head in his hands, looking blankly out to sea with the glazed eyes of a sleepwalker. When Kissy put an arm round his shoulders, he turned vaguely towards her. “Who are you? How did I get here? What is this place?” He examined her more carefully. “You’re very pretty.”’ (3)
Bond comes to believe that he is his cover identity, Taro Todoroki. But his amnesia has a very unusual side-effect: he has become a complete innocent in matters of the flesh, having apparently forgotten ‘how to perform the act of love’. This is soon remedied, and Bond finally regains a glimmer of memory triggered by seeing the word ‘Vladivostok’. The novel ends with him leaving setting off for the Soviet Union, unaware that he is heading straight into enemy territory.

Robert Ludlum was a fan of Ian Fleming. In 1992, he wrote the following in an article for Entertainment Weekly on the 30th anniversary of the Bond films:
‘Fleming was a contemporary nexus, a vital connection, as well as a necessary contribution, that forced my generation of suspense writers to look deeper into the intrigues — political, geopolitical, and international — than we might have before he arrived in print. Fleming was a bridge over critical waters: He romanticized terrible inequities by obliterating them. But by doing so, he led those who followed him, followed in the wake of the extraordinary promotion and acceptance worldwide of the novels and the movies and eventually the videocassettes, to make those genuine inequities and intrigues perhaps — only perhaps — a touch more literary (a pretentious term, and certainly arguable).’ (4)
Ludlum certainly followed Fleming in The Bourne Identity. The opening and premise of the novel were both clearly inspired by the ending of You Only Live Twice: another writer’s musing on the idea of what might happen if James Bond forgot who he was. Fleming himself didn’t follow it up particularly satisfactorily; his next and last novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, opens with Bond returning to London. As he recaps to M what has happened to him since we last saw him, his journey between Japan and the Soviet Union is not explored:
‘“I'm afraid there's a lot I still can't remember, sir. I got a bang on the head” – he touched his right temple – “somewhere along the line on that job you sent me to do in Japan. Then there's a blank until I got picked up by the police on the waterfront at Vladivostok. No idea how I got there. They roughed me up a bit and in the process I must have got another bang on the head because suddenly I remembered who I was and that I wasn't a Japanese fisherman which was what I thought I was.” (5)
Bond has in fact been brainwashed by the Soviets and sent to London to kill M. When this fails, he is swiftly un-brainwashed and sent on a new mission, and his amnesia is never mentioned again. It seems Robert Ludlum felt that there was more mileage to be had from the premise, and spun out a new story along the lines of what a James Bond who had lost his memory might have gone through between leaving Japan and ending up on the waterfront at Vladivostok. Ludlum made his character an American agent and gave him some different characteristics from Bond, but the core idea is the same, and both Jason Bourne’s initials and the wording of his discovery of his identity make the homage to Fleming clear.

But, ironically, it seems that Ian Fleming’s idea for James Bond to lose his memory may also have had its roots in previous thrillers. In Dennis Wheatley’s novel Faked Passports, published in June 1940, British secret agent Gregory Sallust travels to Petsamo where, after taking a hit to the back of his head with a spent bullet, he finds he has lost his memory:
‘“Petsamo?” Gregory murmured vaguely. “Petsamo? Where’s that?”
“Wake up, man!” Freddie laughed. “It’s the Finnish port in the Arctic circle.”

A look dawned in Gregory’s eyes that none of them had ever seen before; a frightened, hunted look. “But, but–” he stammered, “the Arctic! What am I doing up in the Arctic?”

They all stood there in silence for a moment regarding him anxiously until, in a very small voice, Erika said suddenly:

“You do know me, darling, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” he laughed uneasily. “As though I could forget your lovely face in a million years! But wait a minute – that’s very queer – I can’t remember your name.”

“I’m Erika,” she said softly.

“Erika,” he repeated. “That’s a pretty name, isn’t it – and marvellously suitable...”’ (6)
And just as In You Only Live Twice, amnesia has a very unusual effect on his sex life, as Erika laments:
‘In those hectic days they had spent in Munich and Berlin together early in November they had been the most passionate lovers. When they had met again in Helsinki his absence from her had seemed only to have increased his eagerness; but their opportunities for love-making had been lamentably few. Then his injury at Petsamo had changed his mentality in that respect as in all others. On waking on their first morning in the trapper’s house he had accepted quite naturally that he was in love with her, but it had been an entirely different kind of love. He was tender and thoughtful for her and followed her every movement with almost dog-like devotion, but he did not seem to know even the first steps in physical love-making any more.’ (7)
This is soon remedied, and Sallust regains his memory and completes his mission. It is likely that Fleming had read this novel: Wheatley was an acquaintance, and also a friend and close colleague of his brother Peter, who modelled the protagonist of his novel The Sixth Column on him. Wheatley was also one of Britain’s best-selling thriller-writers, and Fleming was a thriller aficionado. In addition, both the central plot premise of From Russia, With Love and many of the biographical details of James Bond in You Only Live Twice were influenced by another Wheatley novel, Come Into My Parlour. (8)

In Faked Passports, as in You Only Live Twice, the device of a secret agent contracting amnesia is more of an intriguing incident than a driving engine of the plot. Not so in Pray Silence by Manning Coles, published in October 1940, just six months after Faked Passports.

Coles was the pseudonym of two writers, Adelaide Manning and Cyril Coles. Their first novel, Drink to Yesterday, was published in March 1940 to great success (the jacket of the 1947 edition proclaimed it ‘The thriller that made Manning Coles famous in a day’). Drink To Yesterday is set in the First World War, and ends with British secret agent Tommy Hambledon being hit on the head and shoved into the sea while undercover as a German. His colleagues in London presume he has drowned. Pray Silence reveals he did not, but was washed ashore, discovered, and nursed back to health. Unfortunately, he has also forgotten who he is. He is presumed to be German, and presumes so himself. As ‘Klaus Lehmann’, he rises to become Deputy Chief of Police in Berlin until in 1933, gazing into the flames of the Reichstag fire, he suddenly remembers his true identity and resolves to get back in touch with London and defeat the Nazis:
‘“I am Hambledon, an agent of British Intelligence. Bill, where is Bill?”

There was a crash and a roar of flame as one of the floors fell in, and Hambledon looked up. That was the Reichstag burning. “Good God,” he thought, “and now I am a member of the Reichstag. It’s enough to make anybody feel faint, it is indeed.”’ (9)
Despite its quaintness and implausibility, Pray Silence is a beautifully constructed, witty and thoughtful spy thriller, and a real masterpiece of the genre. It led to twenty-four sequels. Tommy Hambledon doesn’t have a sex life to speak of, so we’re not told of the effect of his amnesia on it, but it seems clear that Fleming also read this novel, and combined the details of both it and Faked Passports to come up with a new twist on the idea. Amnesia is a staple plot device of thrillers, and it has taken many forms: doctors with amnesia, murderers with amnesia, and so on. But You Only Live Twice has four correspondences with Faked Passports: in both novels, a British secret agent is struck on the head, recovers to find he has amnesia, with the unusual side-effect that he has forgotten how to have sex. And it has six precise correspondences with Pray Silence: in both, a British secret agent on a mission under cover as a foreigner plunges into the sea, survives to discover he has amnesia, then believes he is the nationality of his cover identity, and is meanwhile presumed dead by his colleagues back home. Taken together, there are eight correspondences between You Only Live Twice and these two novels:

A British secret agent;
under cover as a foreigner;
is struck on the head; 
plunges into the sea;
recovers but finds he has amnesia;
which has the side-effect that he also forgets how to have sex;
He believes he is the nationality of his cover identity;
and is presumed dead by his colleagues.

This many correspondences seem unlikely to be coincidence, especially as Ian Fleming was both a keen thriller-reader and, as a journalist and former intelligence officer, something of a magpie. In his book on Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre quotes a document written in September 1939 that, although signed by the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey, bore the hallmarks of having been written by Fleming, who was his personal assistant. The ‘Trout Memo’ was circulated to other wartime intelligence chiefs, and was a list of ideas for deceiving the Germans. Number 28 on the list was headed ‘A Suggestion (not a very nice one)’:
‘The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.’
The idea stemmed from Thomson’s 1937 novel The Milliners’ Hat Mystery (10). Fleming was also interested in the fictional potential of amnesia: it featured in two of his other novels. The villain of Casino Royale was a displaced person at the end of the Second World War who feigned amnesia until being transferred to Strasbourg and adopting the name ‘Le Chiffre’. And in Moonraker, renowned British industrialist Hugo Drax is revealed to be the villainous Graf Hugo von der Drache, a former Nazi commando who in the latter stages of the war is captured while wearing a British uniform. Like Le Chiffre, he also pretends to have amnesia; he is nursed back to health as a missing British soldier by the name of Hugo Drax. This is somewhat similar to Pray Silence: Hambledon is the hero and genuinely has amnesia, but he is also nursed back to health by his enemies after being mistaken for one of them, and rebuilds his new life under a false identity he has adopted.

Pray Silence and Faked Passports were published just six months apart, and even in the fast-moving publishing schedule of the war it seems unlikely that they influenced each other. It is more likely that some earlier source triggered the thought in the minds of Dennis Wheatley and ‘Manning Coles’ that led to both their novels featuring British secret agents losing their memory: perhaps an earlier novel (although I haven’t found any), or a news item about a soldier returning from war with amnesia, or something similar. In Pray Silence, the idea has a pleasing neatness to it: what if a secret agent were under cover on a mission, somehow lost their memory, and ended up believing that they were their cover identity? In Faked Passports, the idea is a strangely ineffective digression that misses the idea’s potential: Gregory Sallust is not under cover and so does not believe he is anyone else.

We may never know where the idea originally sprung from, but the ripples of it can be traced from 1940 onwards. It seems likely that Ian Fleming read both these novels and refashioned the concept into a new mixture to his own taste, featuring James Bond in Japan. Some sixteen years later, the chain continued with Robert Ludlum presenting a fresh twist on the idea. It has taken on several more forms since, from the film The Long Kiss Goodnight to the graphic novel series XIII.

Ludlum has had his own followers, and the recent Bond films have certainly taken inspiration from the Bourne films, bringing the story full circle. The influence of Ian Fleming’s novels, and the vintage British thrillers that influenced them, continue to live on in surprising ways.

1. Quantum of Solace: Bourne-Again Bond by Richard Corliss, Time , November 13, 2008.
2. p61, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, Granada, 1980.
3. pp181-182, You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming, Pan, 1966.
4. James at 30 by Robert Ludlum, in Entertainment Weekly, Issue #123 June 19, 1992.
5. p21, The Man With The Golden Gun by Ian Fleming, Pan, 1967.
6. pp249-250, Faked Passports by Dennis Wheatley, Arrow, 1966.
7.p404, Faked Passports.
8. For more on this, see The Secret Origins of James Bond.
9. p40, Pray Silence by Manning Coles, Hodder & Stoughton, 1953.
10. pp6-7, Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre, Bloomsbury, 2010.


  1. Hey! The 'hero gets amnesia and forgets the important things he is supposed to be doing, including 'the act of love'' plot concept goes back to the 1st century BCE.

    C.f. the plot of Shakuntalaa:ñānaśākuntalam#Synopsis

  2. Hi John, thanks for the comment, but as I say in the piece I think this is about more than the hero losing his memory (or forgetting how to make love), which has been done hundreds of times, but a much more specific plot idea that is made up of several components. The plot concept in question here is not a hero having a spell cast on them to lose their memory, or a detective losing his memory, or a secret agent losing their memory while on vacation, or a secret agent losing thieir memory falling off a horse, all of which would be valid plots. It's a secret agent on a foreign mission being hit on the head, falling into the sea, scrambling ashore, finding he has amnesia, and then having to figure out who he is, while he is presumed dead by his colleagues. Do you really think the similarities between what happens to JAson BOurne in The Bourne Identity and JAmes BOnd in You Only Live Twice are just coincidence?

    Well, if you can't see it from the article, I'm not sure there's much I could say that would convince you!

  3. Fantastic article Jeremy. I have some Manning Coles in the endless stack of books in the 'to read' pile. I may now have to move them to the top of the pile.

    I don't have any Wheatley, which I think is about time I rectified.

  4. It's obviously not a coincidence, but there has to be some sort of modern originator of that plot occurrence; presumably, either in the late 19th or early 20th century...

    By the way, Jeremy, have you ever heard of the Taman Shud Case? If not, should interest you:

  5. Thanks, David. I highly recommend both Drink to Yesterday and Pray Silence. The first is rather darker, and seems to have been based on real events, while Pray Silence is more of a cat-and-mouse romp, but both are beautifully done.

    Matthew, I've never heard of that case - absolutely fascinating stuff! I obviously see things in a certain light, because as soon as I saw the photo I thought he was a Russian, and as soon as I saw that he had no labels on his clothing presumed he was a Soviet agent. Also that the Rubaiyat was a one-time pad. Beyond that... who knows! Very interesting.

    As to there being a modern originator of 'that plot occurrence', yes, I suspect there must be one for both Coles and Wheatley to have published thrillers within a few months of each other featuring a secret agent with amnesia. Working back, I think there are just too many similarities between The Bourne Identity set-up and You Only Live Twice for that to be coincidence: JAson BOurne, his statement on discovering his identity echoing the famous film line, Ludlum being a Fleming fan, his being rescued from the sea. So I doubt Ludlum was working from something earlier. Fleming might have been working from something from the 19th century with the You Only Live Twice scene, but I don't think so. If it were just 'hero gets amnesia', yes, but there are eight very specific correspondences between what happens in You Only Live Twice and Faked Passports and Pray Silence. On top of that, both of those were major best-sellers by British thriller-writers. Pray Silence was one of the most famous novels of the war, and Faked Passports part of a hugely successful series that influence Fleming in lots of very specific ways. Fleming also knew Dennis Wheatley. So I'm pretty sure they must have been Fleming's source.

    But yes, what was their source? The fact that they both published in 1940 suggests to me the trigger for them both must have been in 1938 or 1939. Either another story, or perhaps a mysterious news item like the Taman Shud Case. Just a line in an article in The Times might have done it: 'There is speculation that the man may have been working for an intelligence agency, but he has total amnesia...' I've looked at both these possibilities. If anyone can find a news story, book, play or film predating 1940 that features a secret agent losing their memory while on a mission (especially if they plunge into the sea and are presumed dead by their colleagues!) I'd love to hear of it, of course. I couldn't find anything that seemed likely to have triggered the similarity in Pray Silence and Faked Passports, but I think something must have inspired both for them to have appeared so close together in time.

  6. Thought you'd like the Taman Shud Case; you could almost incorporate aspects of it into a certain thriller you're stuck on... ;-)

  7. :P I'm not stuck! Nearly there. But yes, it is fascinating.

  8. As an addendum, have you read the Rubaiyat beforehand, Jeremy? A verse or two from it might make a nice epigram for one of your books...

  9. I have read it, Matthew, albeit a long time ago. Interesting idea. I love it as a one-time pad, as well.

  10. A book of Verses underneath the Bough,
    A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
    Beside Me singing in the Wilderness--
    Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

  11. Intresting how these things can be under your nose but you never make the connection. I am a fan of Fleming and Ludlum and just never gave it a thought. Paul Dark's debut was a healthy mix of Bond and Bourne.

  12. Thanks, Nicholas! Yes, this has been nagging away at me for a while. I was surprised to also find two thrillers prior to You Only Live Twice featuring secret agents losing their memory, especially as Fleming knew one of the writers.

  13. Yes, stands to reason that they were well read in their chosen field I guess. The amount of research that I imagine goes into spy fiction, well a writer has no choice but to check each others books out. They seemed to be quite free to share each others ideas around and let each other expand on it. I am thinking about Wheatley and Fleming also which I learned from your article

  14. Yes, it's something I struggle with writing my own stuff. On the one hand, I don't want to be influenced by anyone else's stories too closely so I'd rather not read them. But then, so much has been done that if you're not familiar with the rest of the genre readers who are will just roll their eyes and say 'Oh, how dull - that old plot device again!' So you need to have a healthy awareness of what has gone before, I think, but also not hold it too closely and be willing to break out of the mould.