You know you are going up in the world when you score an interview with the talented Mr. (Mike) Ripley. His non-fiction reader’s history Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a survey of the boom in British thrillers 1953-1975 was published in May 2017 and we caught up with Mike in-between book signings to find out more.
001. How do today’s spy fiction writers stack up to the old guard?
Depends which ‘old guard’ you are referring to. Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands) revolutionised the spy story compared to what had gone before, then Edgar Wallace, John Buchan, Oppenheim, Beeding, Sapper & Co. put their stamp on the genre. Then came Bond and the multiple Bond imitators plus the ‘anti-Bonds’ such as Le Carré, Len Deighton, Ted Allbeury and Anthony Price, and they were followed by what I would call the ‘techno spies’ such as by Craig Thomas and, famously, Tom Clancy.
There has clearly been a return to more down-to-earth spy fiction from the likes of Charles Cumming and Mick Herron in this country and Olen Stenhauer in the US, which are well done but probably don’t have the ‘wow factor’ that Fleming, Deighton and Price did when they burst on the scene.
I’ve found some of the best spy stories of recent years to be ones which take a historical approach. Alan Furst, John Lawton, Philip Kerr, David Downing and Aly Monroe (one of the few females up there with the big boys) all combine intensive research with great plots and wonderful characters in brilliant books set in the 1940s and 1950s.
002. John Gardner wrote many Bond continuation novels in the 1980s but before then had a prolific career in spy and historical fiction. Can you educate our readers on the best of his previous work?
John Gardner made his name with, as he much later said, a series ‘of piss-takes’ of the Bond books, involving a cowardly hero called Boysie Oakes who was known as ‘The Liquidator’. Boysie was hired (mistakenly) as an official assassin for the British Government but whilst he loved the money, the girls and the lifestyle (it was the Sixties after all), he sub-contracted the actual killing to a seedy Soho gangster and he himself survived more by luck than judgement. The ‘Liquidator’ books began to appear shortly after the death of Ian Fleming and were greeted with enthusiasm by critics worried that spy fiction was beginning to take itself too seriously. In truth, the books have not aged well. Although tongue-in-cheek, an inherent 1960s sexism shines through them – though no more than much fiction of that period – but at the time they had many fans and gentlemen of a certain age remember them fondly.
John Gardner himself tired of his creation fairly quickly and moved into other fields, including crime novels under the name Derek Torry and thrillers which harked back to WWII such as To Run A Little Faster, The Werewolf Trace and The Dancing Dodo before embarking on his Bond ‘continuations’.
Remarkably, whilst he was in full franchise flow, he produced what many regarded as his best spy fiction, the ‘Secret’ trilogy comprising The Secret Generations, The Secret Houses and The Secret Families (published 1985-89) whilst continuing the ad- hoc adventures of his Anglo-German spy Herbie Kruger, who adventures were often compared to those of Len Deighton’s creation Bernie Samson.
After he had passed the Bond baton (to Raymond Benson) and returned from tax exile to England in the early part of this century, Gardner went back to his memories of WWII and produced a superb series of wartime mysteries starring a female detective sergeant Suzie Mountford, a character based on an old girlfriend. Shortly before his death in 2007, Gardner, aged 80, was reunited with the real ‘Suzie Mountford’ – whom, legend has it, discovered she was being written about whilst browsing the shelves of a Cambridge bookshop. The pair, determined to make up for lost years, became engaged, but Gardner’s health failed before the wedding could take place.
In a writing career spanning over forty years, Gardener wrote more than fifty novels but is today primarily remembered for his Bond books. He was said to have been most proud of The Man from Barbarossa in 1991.
003. Geoffrey Jenkins gets mentions in your book, who was good friends with Ian Fleming. What of his work do you recommend?
Ian Fleming gave South African journalist Geoffrey Jenkins’ debut novel A Twist of Sand a rave review in 1959 and it certainly deserved it. This is rip-roaring stuff, set on the wild Namib desert coast of South Africa, with Nazis, U-boats and everything a Boys Own reader could want. It still holds up as a gripping adventure thriller which competed with the bestsellers (of the day) of Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes.
Jenkins’ second novel, The Watering Place of Good Peace (1960), was more surreal, almost mystical, and less accessible. Ian Fleming is said to have expressed reservations about it and the paperback version (revised by Jenkins, who accepted Fleming’s reservations) was delayed until the 1970s, by which time the author was an established brand. It is, I think, an unjustly overlooked novel about a crippled marine scientist obsessed with killing sharks, but Jenkins quickly bounced back with A Grue of Ice set in the South Atlantic towards Antarctica and then River of Diamonds, both showing Jenkins’ skill of being able to incorporate natural phenomenon and freaks of nature into what are basically modern-day pirate stories.
His early work is highly recommended, but after the mid-60s, he adopted a distinctly conservative approach to politics which envisaged a ‘red menace’ threat to South Africa and his fear of world communism began to dominate his fiction.
004. How long did you work on this book and did you include everyone you wanted to?
The basic idea for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came about when I was teaching a course in Creative Crime Writing for Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education in 2011. One of my twelve lectures was devoted to ‘the thriller’ and I realised that was the one which interested me most – never mind what my students thought! And so I started to develop my themes, re-read the books I had been brought up on and research authors I had missed ‘first time round’. It soon became clear to me that there had been a purple patch of British thrillers in the period 1953-75. In fact, as consultant editor for Ostara Publishing’s Top Notch Thriller imprint, I had already got several thrillers from the period back in print. To date, the number exceeds 60 and in the course of things I had met many a ‘forgotten’ author, editor and agent from the period.
There are at least two more authors I should, with hindsight, have included and hopefully they can be included in the paperback edition next year.
005. The book is dedicated to Len Deighton, so could you tell us about your relationship with Len?
I met Len Deighton in 2010, though had been a fan of his books for several decades and I think The Ipcress File is the thriller I have read more times than any other. (To my certain knowledge I’ve gone through six copies.)
Curiously – as I was not a member – I was asked by the Crime Writers Association if I could ‘sound out’ Len about his willingness to accept their Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. Now I think no-one was more deserving and other crime writers of my generation (such as Ian Rankin) were amazed to discover he hadn’t already got the award! However, older, wiser heads – namely Harry Keating and Reginald Hill – assured me that Len was no fan of awards and had politely refused the Diamond Dagger at least once, if not twice, in the past. Still, I had promised to try and so made contact and sure enough, Len stuck to his maxim that the writer’s worst enemies were “praise and alcohol” and once again politely refused the Dagger.
However, from that tentative approach sprang, I like to think, a solid friendship and we soon fell in to monthly correspondence and lunches whenever Len was in London (he’s very generous when it comes to lunch). He has a fund of great stories about writing and researching his books and the people he met along the way, including Ian Fleming. He told me fascinating stuff about the genesis of the Bond films and the roles of Kevin McClory and Harry Saltzman and I like to think that one particular session of our ‘table talk’ prompted him into writing James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father as a Kindle original in 2012.
It was only natural that I would pick Len’s brains for his memories and insights into the thriller business when I began work on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and he has, for almost three years, answered my questions with great patience, humour and an annoying amount of modesty. In April 2017, I was able to buy him lunch (for once!) and show him the artwork for the jacket of my book. I was both delighted and relieved when he said he approved.
006. Who do you think deserves more recognition past or present, in the spy fiction genre?
The most disgracefully overlooked spy fiction writer, in my not-so-humble-opinion is Anthony Price. After a distinguished career as a reviewer of crime and thriller fiction, he took to the spy story in 1970 and wrote, roughly, a book a year until he retired around 1990 and despite appeals from fans, critics and publishers has steadfastly remained in retirement. A modest man, he described his spy fiction to me as ‘so long ago now it counts as archaeology’.
His novels were basically long and quite delightful shaggy dog stories, teasing and distracting the reader with fascinating background on a piece of military history which may or may not be relevant to the contemporary espionage plot. (He also did at least two ‘background’ novels set in WWII). The action, when it came, usually late on, was fast and furious, his situations and his characters entirely credible, though they always relied on their intelligence rather than guns and fists.
Price’s books were clever – perhaps too clever – but if the reader ‘got it’, they were hooked.
007. You lived in Wivenhoe for a time, the home of the late, great Richard Chopping. Did you ever meet him and do you have a favourite dust jacket of his?
I lived in Wivenhoe, Essex from 1975 to 1981 and was introduced to Dickie Chopping by my neighbour Francis Bacon, though I cannot pretend to have known him well and it was his partner, Denis Wirth-Miller, who was more of a ‘regular’ down at the local pub, The Black Buoy. I did once become involved in a fund-raising project for village charities and somehow we persuaded Dickie Chopping – without much difficulty – to donate two small paintings. They were of a box of chocolates as I remember. These were sold for £25 each which I thought ridiculously expensive at the time (c.1976), which just proves I know nothing about art!
My favourite Chopping Bond jacket is probably From Russia With Love, though I have a soft spot for You Only Live Twice as Denis Wirth-Miller, who could be a dreadful tease, used to tell a good story about Dickie’s problems keeping the frog still while he painted it!
Mike Ripley is the author of the award-winning ‘Angel’ series of comedy thrillers which have twice won the CWA Last Laugh Award. Described as ‘England’s funniest crime writer’ (The Times), he is also a respected critic of crime fiction, writing for the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times and the Birmingham Post among others.He currently writes the “Getting Away With Murder” gossip column on www.shotsmag.co.uk. He is also an archaeologist.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a survey of the boom in British thrillers 1953-1975 is available from all good booksellers and on Amazon including a foreword by Lee Child..