Article by David Craggs.
Much has been written about Ian Lancaster Fleming.
The enduring success of the world’s most famous secret agent has ensured that his creator continues to generate unprecedented scrutiny. We have had esteemed biographies. A book about his life in Jamaica. Two screen biopics – with another rumoured to be under development and sixty two years of running commentary from people who either knew him or his works. Barely a day goes by without a Fleming associated article being published somewhere in the world and, as a sexagenarian fanatic who discovered 007 at the tender age of ten I, together with many of his fans, can’t get enough.
Surely by now we know all there is to know about the creation of James Bond?
Or, is there a spy who remains out in the cold who preceded Bond and who was the key influence behind his creation? A well-kept secret that has been studiously ignored because his adventures were perhaps published in a foreign language? Something that would almost certainly have kept you off the radar back in the ‘60s. Being pre-channel tunnel and pre-internet would certainly have bought you some anonymity.
That said, since the publication of ‘Casino Royale’ there has been ongoing conjecture about who may have inspired Fleming to create Bond and the other key characters in his novels.
With regard to other authors who may have influenced the great man, a long list as diverse as John Buchan, Eric Ambler, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and even Mickey Spillane have been sighted as inspirations and although they worked in the espionage or broader thriller genre, none had a hero directly comparable to 007.
Furthermore, when it came to Fleming’s creation: that smooth, suave, sophisticated agent with a licence to kill – James Bond. No critic or reader ever regarded him as anything less than a true original. Indeed, it was Bond mania that was credited for provoking the tsunami of espionage fiction that flooded the shelves of our book stores and spinner racks during the 1960s. Throughout all of this Fleming was viewed as the originator not the imitator.
Not only had Fleming given us a hero for our times, he single handily engineered the biggest genre explosion in literary history and by the time 1966 came the UK audience had been introduced to a multiplicity of new espionage writers.
Many of them had a very different approach to Fleming and some went on to be significant literary names. That said, few would doubt that it was Fleming that created the launch pad and without him they probably would never have attempted the genre.
Beyond the worthy there were inevitably the lesser knowns and opportunists who were often billed as ‘the new Fleming’ or ‘the new Bond’. More often than not, they turned out to be the literary equivalent of the one hit single.
Whatever their merits, newcomers were always subjected to some sort of comparison with Fleming – favourable or unfavourable – and it was Fleming who was considered the action standard in espionage fiction.
All in all, the ‘60s spy boom was quite a phenomenon. Go into any book shop and you could find that a huge proportion of the selling space was devoted to espionage fiction. They really knew how to sell books back then. The windows were packed with displays of the new launch. Often stores had trailer posters advertising ‘Coming soon from PAN books ….’ It was noticeably as much a cold war between the publishers as it was between the authors. The battle for the espionage shilling was hard fought.
PAN books, the mega paperback publisher of the day definitely had the upper hand in the spy wars. They had both the Bond and the Modesty Blaise franchises and were even the first paperback publishers of Le Carre’s ‘Spy Who Came in from the Cold’. Other newcomers like Adam Diment also did well for them and for a while it seemed like PAN had the Midas touch.
CORGI, PAN’s biggest competitor, was clearly floundering and having difficulty fighting back albeit they too came up with some good stuff – notably the John Craig series by James Munro – but try as they might, they were in the doldrums and lacked a star franchise.
One can only imagine the board room politics -the pressure for the MD to find the new Bond must have been extreme and doubtless careers were made and lost depending on the sales figures emanating from their ‘Crime & Thriller’ category.
All of this was manna from heaven for a young teenage espionage fan who was serving out his time at a particularly unpleasant English boarding school. The period between Bond publications was used to devour all new comers and no trip to the local town was complete without buying the latest entrant. Purchases were normally made on the strength of the cover art and the associated blurb and it was on one such visit that I was introduced to a new secret agent.
CORGI books were promoting a French author called Jean Bruce who they were positioning as new. The covers were particularly salacious and the commentaries promised all manner of sex, violence and mayhem. With titles like ‘Deep Freeze’, ‘Flash Point’, ‘Shock Tactics’ and ‘Photo Finish’, how could I possibly go wrong.
I smuggled the first to be translated from Bruce’s native French into school – I think it was ‘Deep Freeze’. I read it within a couple of days and remember it as being fast, furious and sexy and it was my first experience of Monsieur Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, agent OSS117.
In general, I remember the books as being exciting, with solid plots. Bruce was very topical and always based his story around a real life event. They were extremely violent and as you would expect from the French, the sex was taken to a whole different level. Bonisseur de La Bath was portrayed as an incredibly good looking, suave, sophisticated bon viveur who wore only the best clothes, seduced the most beautiful women, drank the finest wines and drove only the fastest cars.
Manna from heaven for a teenage boy who was looking for adventure between Fleming’s novels.
Although the books were good, the parallels between OSS117 and 007 were so obvious they started to grate. Although the stories were exciting, I couldn’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of a Frenchman who had so closely mirrored Fleming’s Bond. I really thought it beyond the pale and another example of those scurrilous French trying to steal a good British invention. Quel horreur!
The similarities were numerous:
Like Bond, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, had an unusual family background. Born to a wealthy French aristocratic lineage. His ancestors had fled France at the time of the revolution and taken up refuge in Louisiana, USA. This made him a modern world citizen who maintained the taste and cultural style associated with old Europe. Although his family connections could have allowed him to avoid active military service, World War 11 saw him, like Bond, volunteer for action. In his case with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) who assigned him the code number of 117. Fighting behind enemy lines, the dashing multilingual de La Bath proved himself to be an exceptional agent and his successful actions resulted in his promotion to Colonel.
After the war he returned to the US and instead of entering the family business, Bonisseur de La Bath, again like Bond, stayed in the secret world and when the OSS morphed into the CIA, he joined the new organisation and out of respect for his war time achievements, his new bosses allowed to keep his prefix OSS117.
The first head of the CIA, Mr. Smith (Bruce’s ‘M’), deployed OSS117 on the most difficult and dangerous international missions. The suave, sophisticated and incredibly good looking Bonisseur de La Bath proved more than a match for a multiplicity of cold war villains. He saved the west on a regular basis whilst demonstrating his penchant for the good things in life. He mostly worked alone, with the exception of assistance from an ex OOS colleague – Enrique Sagarra – who assisted Bonisseur de la Bath much in the same way that Felix Leiter worked with Bond.
The adventures certainly captured the zeitgeist of the times and the books seemed to sell quite well albeit UK success was destined to be short as Jean Bruce had died two years prior to his books being published by CORGI.
Fast forward forty three years and I find myself having dinner in a New York City restaurant with a French colleague. After we’d got business out of the way, our conversation turned to other things and somehow, the subject turned to my love of espionage fiction. My colleague’s eyes lit up. He shared my passion for the genre and he quickly told me that for him, it all started with his boyhood fascination with OSS117. A hero, who, he claimed, was the driving force behind the creation of 007.
It surprised him that I’d read some of the books and he became more than a little animated when I intimated that surely it was Jean Bruce who had ripped off Fleming’s Bond.
“Mais non, il n’est pas vrai” he forcefully declared. He informed me that Bruce wrote the first OOS117 novel in 1949, a good four years before Fleming’s ‘Casino Royale’. He went on to inform me that not only did Bruce’s books pre-date Bond, but so did the screen adaptations. The first having been released in 1956, a full six years prior to ‘Dr.No’. He told me that this was another case of La France not getting the recognition she deserved and this should be put right. It was a Frenchman that had been the biggest influence on Fleming and I should shut up and order another bottle of red!
I did as I was told but made a mental note to check his assertion and decided to look into the history of Monsieur Jean Bruce and OSS117. The facts proved to be more than a little interesting and posed a number of fascinating questions regarding the provenance of James Bond.
I discovered that Jean Bruce himself had a unique personal history that was every bit as fascinating as his creation. He was born in 1921, in Ailleres – Beauvoir, a town in the Loire region of France where his parents owned a restaurant. He was actually originally baptised as Jean Brochet and for reasons unknown to me (I could find no explanation) he came to change his name to Jean Bruce.
After completing his secondary studies, Bruce joined the ‘Ecole Nationale de Police’ were he was seconded to their special branch – a for runner of Interpol. He was also a very keen aviator and by the age of 19, he had gained a full pilot’s licence and when the Second World War broke out he was working in the civil aviation industry.
Throughout the war Jean Bruce fought for the French Resistance and at the liberation of Lyon he met William Leonard Langer, the famous OSS agent who actually carried the prefix OSS117. This meeting clearly had an impact on him and together with his own war experiences inspired him to start his writing career. Four years later he created Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath and assigned him the code number OSS117 in honour of his war time friend.
His first novel, ‘Tu parles d’une ingenue (ici OSS117)’, was published in 1949 and was an instant success. Bruce had a prodigious output and over the next fourteen years he went on to write no less than 89 OSS117 adventures and, by his death in 1963, he had sold 24 million books in 17 languages. His creation had become a huge success.
Of course language, particularly back then, still remained a barrier and although Jean Bruce enjoyed international success his major market remained France.
Indeed, French friends advise me that OSS117 was bigger in France than Bond was in the UK. Particularly prior to the launch of Dr.No the movie. In fact, there wasn’t a spinner rack in any French station that didn’t feature a solid selection of OSS117’s adventure during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
As mentioned, Bruce’s creation was first brought to the screen in 1956. There were a total of twelve movie adaptations across the years with OSS117 being portrayed by eight different actors. The most notable straight movie adaptation featured John Gavin as Bonisseur de La Bath. Ironically, it was Gavin who went on to be signed to play Bond in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ before Connery was lured back with an eye watering fee.
Oscar winner Jean Dujardin is the most recent actor to portray the agent in two successful parodies: OSS117 – Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS117 – Lost in Rio (2009). Both met with significant critical and commercial success but although they kept the spy in a period setting (1958) they recast the character as a bumbling secret agent – clearly not Bruce’s original intention!
In addition to the movies, Bruce’s work was also adapted for the theatre, television, radio and comic books. Turning agent OSS117 into a French household name way before 007 hit the scene.
Alongside his espionage novels, Bruce also wrote a multiplicity of other works under four separate pseudonyms. In addition to being a prolific writer he was also a keen artist and a fanatical amateur racing driver.
As an individual, he was also extremely handsome; he liked the good things in life. Those that new him described him as a bon viveur who dressed elegantly and cut a dash. There was clearly more than an element of Jean Bruce in Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath.
Bruce married twice. He divorced his first wife in 1947 to marry Josette. They lived in Chantilly but spent their winters in the Alps and their summers on la cote d’Azur. He had son, Francois, with his first wife and a daughter, Martine, with Josette.
Jean Bruce died tragically in 1963 when his Jaguar sports car spun out of control at 200 kph and hit a tree. He was 42 years old and died as he had lived, in the fast lane.
Critics of Bruce often decried his work as ‘romans de gere’ (railway station novels – simple reading) and cast aspersions on his prodigious output. His wife, Josette, often vociferously defended him declaring “My husband is not a factory. He is a writer”.
One things for sure, the cultural impact of OSS117 was huge in France. Gerard de Villiers, the author of the famous ‘SAS’ series, openly acknowledged Jean Bruce as his biggest influence and there is no doubt that it was Bruce not Fleming that introduced the first post war, suave, sophisticated and thoroughly international secret agent.
As a French speaker and a frequent visitor to France, Fleming must have been aware of the Bruce’s success and may even have met him. The number of similarities between OSS117 and 007 make it inconceivable that Fleming had not, as a minimum, read one of his books. As Goldfinger said “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s …
Of course there are also significant differences between their works. Fleming was a much better writer and worked on a completely different scale. His fabulous plots, glamorous locations and amazing set pieces mark him as a true creative and there is certainly no lack of originality in his work. That said, we all have our influences and it’s high time that secret agent OSS117, Monsieur Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, is brought in from the cold and that his creator, Jean Bruce, is given the recognition that he deserves as the key influence behind the creation of James Bond.
David Craggs is a former President of the world’s largest cosmetic company. He has lived and worked all over the world and describes reading espionage fiction as one of his great pleasures. David discovered literary Bond at the tender age of ten whilst he was incarcerated at a particularly unpleasant English boarding school and has long attributed his sanity to the escapism provided by one Ian Lancaster Fleming.
Today, he has retired back to his Surrey cottage where he spends his time working on various projects that he loves and reading copious amounts of fiction. He remains a huge Bond fan and is awaiting the publication of Trigger Mortis with bated breath