“My contribution to the art of thriller-writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds.”
–Ian Fleming, 1962
During the winter of 1952, the pregnant Anne Rothermere puttered about her garden on the north shore of Jamaica, but it was her soon-to-be-husband, Ian Fleming, who was about to give birth. The third week of that January, Fleming had begun to bring back to life the type of hero he’d enjoyed reading as a boy and young man. He succeeded on a scale that would exceed even his own grand expectations.
But who were the literary forefathers of James Bond, and how did Fleming come to put a personal stamp on the British thriller so distinctive that almost all modern spy authors still follow in his footsteps?
Fleming Before And Before Fleming
There exists much conjecture about why Fleming decided to write Casino Royale, and his various, and often-contradictory explanations, have done little to clarify matters. Did he write to keep his mind off of the “shock” of his impending marriage, or was it just a calculated economic hand to help pay for his finance’s expensive tastes and his unborn son, was it wish fulfilment, living vicariously the adventures he’d been denied during his desk duty in the Second World War, or was it the need to establish his own unique legacy separate from his famous family’s? Ian Fleming’s responses to these questions usually depended upon who was asking, and what stage of life he was in.
“Ian Fleming is probably the most forceful and driving writer of what I suppose still must be called thrillers in England.”
–Raymond Chandler, 1955
Aside from historical non-fiction, and the classics, both of which young Ian was well versed in; there seem to be two main literary influences in the creation of “the spy story to end all spy stories.”
The first was the long-standing tradition of English “thriller” writing. There are too many deserving authors to be named, so this writer will attempt to stay with some obvious examples that well illustrate the style of the “gentlemen heroes’ that would have captivated the young Fleming in his youth, and between the First and Second World Wars.
The first, and most obvious, example would be H. C. MacNeile’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond. Sapper was one of the novels read to young Fleming and his classmates at Durnford by the headmaster’s wife. MacNeile’s novels helped define the British thriller for a generation of schoolboys during the 1920’s, and through Drummond, its quintessential hero. Bulldog Drummond was a WWI veteran who found civilian life too boring, so he privately assisted people in need. Oh, yes, by the way, he drove a Bentley.
The first great modern secret agent was certainly John Buchan’s Richard Hannay. Tall, dark, and handsome, he too was bored with civilian life and while working for a grumpy, old admiral in the service of England, he foiled outlandish international conspiracies. Oh, yes, by the way, Richard Hannay was Scottish.
Then there was Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar, also know as The Saint. Another handsome devil, Templar was a modern day Robin Hood who lived a four-star lifestyle out of an ever-changing array of the best hotels, in the most exotic of locations, eating in the finest restaurants, and enjoying the company of the most beautiful women, and all of this, while defeating a gallery of rich, megalomaniac villains. Oh, yes, by the way, Charteris’ character spawned a hugely successful movie franchise, not to mention magazines, comic books, daily serials, and television and radio shows.
To those readers who will surely be upset at the lack of mention of some early thriller writers one cannot deny the obvious influences of Edwy Searles Brooks (Berkeley Gray), Arthur Henry Ward (Sax Rohmer), Eric Ambler, Georges Simenon (a Frenchman, but writing in the classic English thriller style all the same), Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and scores of others.
The second literary element that influenced Fleming’s creation of Casino Royale was his unabashed, and unembarrassed, appreciation of American pulp fiction. Where the British thriller may have given Fleming much of inspiration for the character of Bond, the more flashy aspects of his prose owed much to the new school of writing that had sprung up in the United States between the World Wars.
These stories were mostly published in inexpensive magazines on low-grade paper (hence the word “pulp”) and featured eye-catching, and often lurid, covers. The writing was hectically paced with action sequences segueing directly into one another. For the most part, the literary quality matched that of the paper they were published on, but from this muck emerged some original artistic voices that were strong influences on Fleming, helping him to hone the colourful and descriptive language that would become known as the Fleming sweep.
In addition, some of the less literary aspects of the pulps came to be cornerstones of the James Bond formula. These included Fleming’s penchant for outrageous names (Pussy Galore, anyone?), the diabolical torture/death from which there is no escape, and the gadgets and innovative weapons of the fictional spy trade.
The magazine often best representing the genre was Black Mask which gave birth to the Holy Trinity of pulp fiction; Earl Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, the latter of which was a great influence on Fleming’s writing, and later in life, a good friend and ambassador of the Bond novels to the American public. All three men specialised in the jaded hero.
The jaded hero is pessimistic in nature, expecting the worst from people, and rarely being disappointed. They approach action in a disinterested manner, even to the point of ignoring personal injuries, and are seldom surprised by even the most gruesome of crimes. In short, tough guys, whose concerns and allegiances were tied to a personal moral code as opposed to that of a society.
What Fleming took from Chandler was the man’s ability to write descriptive and easy flowing passages. Both men could take an ordinary setting from everyday life and present it as something beautiful and unique just by using original perspective and prose.
“It is surely more stimulating to the reader’s senses if, instead of writing ‘He made a hurried meal off the Plat du Jour – excellent cottage pie and vegetables, followed by home-made trifle’, you write ‘Being instinctively mistrustful of all Plats du Jour, he ordered four fried eggs cooked on both sides, hot buttered toast and a large cup of black coffee.’ The following points should be noted: first, we all prefer breakfast foods to the sort of food one usually gets at luncheon and dinner; secondly, this is an independent character who knows what he wants and gets it; thirdly, four fried eggs has the sound of a real man’s meal and, in our imagination, a large cup of black coffee sits well on our taste buds after the rich, buttery sound of the fried eggs and the hot buttered toast.”
–Ian Fleming, 1962
There were also less beautiful things in the later American pulps that inspired Fleming. No one ever confused the writing of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. Where Chandler’s prose was surrealistically beautiful, Spillane’s was gritty and laced with realistic violence, and graphic descriptions of sex and brutality. After reading a Spillane novel, one feels a sense of exhilaration, but also the unwavering desire to take a James Bond shower; scalding hot to remove the dirt and grime left in the reader’s mind, and then freezing cold to remove the feelings left in other parts of the body. Mike Hammer, and other Spillane heroes, were capable of doing and saying things, that the gentlemanly detectives of the British thrillers would view as abhorrent and slovenly.
These two distinctive, but similar, genres were the parents that Ian Fleming introduced that winter at Goldeneye.
“If you look at British fiction in the 50s, most of it has aged really badly. Anthony Powell, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Angus Wilson – nobody really cares about them any more. It’s rather the writers of unconventional fiction, such as Fleming and Tolkien, who have held up well. Their works have a real resonance now, whereas Colin Wilson, CP Snow and Cyril Connolly do not. Tolkien and Fleming created new genres: the fighting-fantasy genre and the super spy genre that now have large sections in our bookshops. In Fleming’s case, he has the advantage of writing well.”
–Simon Wender, editor for Penguin Books, 2003
Bond’s good looks could be attributed to any of the classic British thriller heroes (with the exception of Bulldog Drummond whose appearance was so ugly that he would have had more in common cosmetically with one of Bond’s villains), and yet the language used to describe these looks was pure Chandler. His taste for the high life rang of Leslie Charteris, but his finicky eating habits would have made Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe proud. His sullen attitude and undying pessimism was that of the jaded hero, and yet his driving force was a selfless patriotism that left him willing to lay down his own life for his country at a moment’s notice. He was an errant knight who rescued the damsels in distress, but then he bedded them with little aplomb and much eroticism.
But much of this character complexity came later. When Fleming began to write Casino Royale his objectives were a little different. He wanted the plots to stand out and define the books, rather than the hero. It was his initial intention that James Bond be bland. He even chose the name for its plainness. He wanted people to be able to identify with his protagonist by substituting his face with their own, and he hoped to achieve this by making him as featureless as possible. He knew at the time his story was going to be wish fulfilment for a post war Britain, where the extravagant surroundings of the casino, and the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle, would fulfil a longing in a general public distraught from years of rationing on even the most basic of goods.
Like his friend, Rex Stout, Fleming wrote easily and quickly, and his prose benefited from it, flowing from scene to scene, and making Casino Royale a natural page-turner. But unlike Stout, Fleming poured over his finished manuscript making numerous and detailed corrections.
Fleming often rebuffed his own work’s literary merit. His assessment of his first draft of Casino Royale (a “horrible story”) was as follows:
“The dialogue, a lot of the description and the main characters are dreadfully banal and three-quarters of the writing is informed with what I can only describe as vulgarity. Such good action moments as there are in the story have been more or less thrown away and so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent.”
And then there is the classic Fleming quote from later in his life, where he states that true classic literature is aimed at the head or the heart, while his aim “…lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh.”
Was Fleming really so dismissive of his own work? The physical evidence would appear to say otherwise. Although most of Casino Royale’s plot came from real experiences that had either occurred to the author, or that he had been directly party to in the war, the later novels were intensely researched to provide the kind of background accuracy that was necessary to maintain the previously mentioned sense of hyper-reality. Why would he spend so much time researching to get the details right if he held his work in such low esteem?
In addition, before Fleming shipped off the manuscript of Casino Royale to his friend, William Plomer, for a professional reading, he had already made meticulous corrections to the first draft, covering every page with handwritten notes, and doing entire revisions on some sections. With the exception of From Russia with Love, it would be his most corrected first draft. Why extend so much effort into something that was of such low quality?
There may be a reason for the feigned humility in the following excerpt from a letter that Fleming wrote to Raymond Chandler:
“Probably the fault with my books is that I don’t take them seriously enough and meekly accept having my head ragged off about them in the family circle. You (Chandler) after all write ‘novels of suspense’—if not sociological studies—whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.”
Anne Fleming partied in very high circles, and both she and Ian came from blue-blooded families. The fact that Ian wrote his “pillow fantasies” was always something of an embarrassment to Anne, or at least she made such pretences in front of her friends and family. She also made no qualms about her dislike of the character of Bond. In treating his creations as something of a lark, Fleming allowed himself, and his wife to some degree, to deflect the brunt of these social criticisms.
“His (Fleming’s) observation is extraordinary and his talent for description vivid. I wish he would try a non-thriller for a change; I would so love him to triumph over the sneers of Annie’s intellectual friends.”
But there is further evidence Fleming took Casino Royale very seriously, and had already envisioned the future of Bond as he packed up his manuscript to take back to England.
Fleming After And After Fleming
Did Fleming know he was creating a series from the start? Before the manuscript to Casino Royale had even been handed over to Plomer for its first reading, Fleming had special ordered a golden typewriter from the Royal Typewriter Company to bang out his submittal draft of the manuscript. It cost $174.00 and was not the type of item one would buy without extensive further use in mind.
Fleming had long envisioned his entry into the literary world. The quote cited earlier regarding his desire to write “the spy story to end all spy stories” came from his war years, long before he’d purchased Goldeneye, or re-entered the field of journalism.
Even pre-dating World War II, he had always been drawn to friendships with literary figures such as William Plomer, Noël Coward, and even his future publisher, Jonathan Cape. When the time came to pitch his own novel, he utilized these friendships to their fullest. Plomer, a house reader for Cape, was the first to be presented with Royale. Using his previously established relationship with Cape (who was already his brother, Peter’s, publisher) as a crowbar, Fleming worked out a lucrative deal for a first time author without a literary agent.
Fleming had sold the rights to the novel to his recently purchased company, Glidrose Productions, and it was with this company that Cape entered Fleming’s first publication contract. It was obvious with his new company, that Fleming was creating a base for a literary franchise.
According to Andrew Lycett’s biography of Fleming, he also used his old journalistic friendships to help sell the novel to Hollywood, as well as to the American market. Fleming had even secured the support of W.H. Smith’s chain of bookstores, the owners of which were also family friends.
If there were any doubts about Ian’s intentions of continuing on in the literary world, his written comments in accepting Cape’s amendments to his contract left little doubt. “At least in the case of the second book, you will temper the wind to the shorn author.”
Looking forward again, Fleming had his eyes on the movies even before publication. In addition to having his friend, Paul Gallico, pitch Casino Royale to his Hollywood agent, he also enquired to his current employer’s (Kemsley Papers) correspondent in Hollywood, “What sort of sums do the big studios pay for a novel by a writer who is not yet established?”
There is a tendency in some modern Bond fans to dismiss Fleming and his work as dated, and not as representative of the James Bond persona and phenomenon as the movies, but what these fans fail to recognize is that Fleming developed both, and in that lies some of his genius. His vision for the series was established from the beginning, and his marketing for the vision was nothing less than masterful.
By 1958, the Bond books had still not solidly established themselves in America, and yet they were selling well over a million copies of each new volume. By the time of his death in 1964, there were more than 30 million Bond novels in print, and the films were well on their way to unbridled success.
When I was first approached with the idea of writing an article about the literary impact of Casino Royale, I was first struck with the idea of naming off a long list of the modern authors that have benefited directly from Fleming’s style and success. All too soon, I realised that to do so adequately, one would have to walk into their local bookstore, seek out the Thriller/Adventure section, and beginning with the “A’s” read the names.
The author would like to thank the following people and institutions whose work contributed greatly to this article:
The BBC, Hardyboy and Willie Garvin at ABJ007, the UK Guardian, Andrew Lycett (Ian Fleming: The Man behind James Bond), Donald McCormick (17F: The Life of Ian Fleming), Raymond Benson (The James Bond Bedside Companion), John Pearson (Alias James Bond – The Life of Ian Fleming), Kingsley Amis (The James Bond Dossier), John Cork of the IFF, Ian Fleming Publications (formerly Glidrose), and David Morefield at MKKBB.
Thomas Clink posts in the CommanderBond.net forums under the screen-name of clinkeroo.