Surveying the Bond Competition – Part 1

Article by Mike Ripley

When I began to write Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, my ‘reader’s history’ of the boom in British thrillers in the 1950s and 1960s, it was clear that my starting point had to be the game-changer that was Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953.

After the book came out, Len Deighton got in touch and said, with typical modesty, that if he had been aware of the extent of the competition he faced as a thriller writer (in the Sixties), he would have despaired! Now I don’t believe that for a moment, but it got me thinking about the competition Ian Fleming would have faced as a debut novelist and I am pretty sure, given his connections in publishing and the literary world, that he was very conscious of it.

This, therefore, is a lightning survey of the thriller market which Fleming entered in 1953. As in KK-BB, I have concentrated on the basic types of thriller (at the time) which were the ‘adventure thriller’ and the ‘spy story’ and excluded the ‘detective story’ or ‘crime novel’ and have remained exclusively and proudly British.

Crime novels and ‘whodunits’ were, of course, a very popular part of the reading diet even if the ‘Golden Age’ of the English detective story was waning fast. Of the great Queens of Crime of that Golden Age, both Agatha Christie (After the Funeral) and Ngaio Marsh (Spinsters in Jeopardy) had new novels out in 1953 and Margery Allingham’s masterpiece, and said to be J.K. Rowling’s favourite crime novel, The Tiger in the Smoke, had appeared in 1952.

The year of Casino Royale also saw the appearance of a very interesting second crime novel, Five Roundabouts to Heaven by ‘John Bingham’ who was later to become a noted spy-thriller writer and, in his day job in MI5, the boss and mentor of a certain John Le Carré. (Bingham was also said to be the model for George Smiley, or one of them!)

In addition, the more adventurous – some would say more discerning – readers of crime novels were beginning to appreciate the American hardboiled school of Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye) and the work of Ross MacDonald, Charles Williams, Jim Thompson, even Mickey Spillane.

In Part I of my survey, which does not claim to be comprehensive, I will concentrate on those thriller writers who were already well-established by 1953, leaving the ‘new kids on the block’ who also published debut novels that year for Part II. There is little doubt Ian Fleming was well-aware of these authors and we know from his letters that he was particularly interested in the sales figures of one of them.

But first, a word about an incredibly popular novelist who is rarely included in the ranks of crime or thriller writers: Nevil Shute. It is difficult to categorise Shute other than by saying he was a great storyteller (and had been a big seller since 1926) but many of his early books were clearly thrillers, although others displayed his interest in mysticism and ‘futurism’ – if that’s a word to describe something just short of science fiction. His 1953 novel, In The Wet, is not a straightforward thriller, being more a romantic, mystical adventure, almost a parable, which Shute used to explore his views on future technology, mysticism, socialism and politics as well as showing his love of Australia, his adopted country.

Whether In The Wet would have been regarded as a serious competitor to Casino Royale is debatable. The critics seem to have been rather sniffy about it, but die-hard Shute fans, and there are still a few around, would have loved it.

Although first published in 1950, Peter Cheney’s Dark Bahama must be mentioned not only because it was the last of the ‘Dark’ series, begun during the war, in which Cheyney had moved (reluctantly it sometimes seemed) from crime stories set in London’s gambling and gangland scene into spy stories, but because Fleming had almost certainly been a fan – as was his friend Raymond Chandler. There is also another connection in that there are clear parallels (the Caribbean setting, sharks, a local boatman very much in the Quarrel mould, an intervention by FBI agents) with Live and Let Die. Written with Cheyney’s usual enthusiasm for plenty of drinking and lots of smoking, Dark Bahama has no single hero, but an ensemble cast of tough nuts who had fought the good fight in the war as characters in the ‘Dark’ series.

There is no doubt that Ian Fleming knew of the adventures of Simon Templar, ‘The Saint’, through the novels, short stories, film and radio adaptations which had flowed from the prolific pen of Leslie Charteris. By the time Fleming was warming up his golden typewriter, Charteris had virtually abandoned the full-length novel and concentrated on long short stories, usually linked by a geographical or ‘travelogue’ theme, collected five or six per volume.

The Saint in Europe collection was published in the USA in 1953 (and in the UK in early 1954) and contains seven stories of crime-fighting from Paris to Rome by our at times not-so-saintly hero, who was surely the literary bridge between Buchan’s Richard Hannay and Fleming’s James Bond.  Charteris knew the appeal, as did Fleming, of an exotic foreign location, especially to a readership living a grey and austere Britain suffering the economic consequences of winning a world war. For all his overblown dialogue and over-dramatic descriptive prose, Charteris had created a character with longevity and adaptability. In 1962, the stories in The Saint in Europe formed the basis of the first television series of ‘The Saint’ to star future-Bond Roger Moore.

The one thriller writer Fleming was very well aware, and envious, of was Hammond Innes, who had been producing best-selling adventure thrillers since 1940 and was a leading light in the blossoming paperback market. In 1955, Fleming invited Innes’ publisher to dinner and quizzed him about the print-runs of his novels. He was disconcerted to find that initial hardback runs of an Innes novel were considerably higher than for his Bond books and that even Innes would be soon outdone by a newcomer called Alistair MacLean.

In June 1952, Hammond Innes had published Campbell’s Kingdom, one his best-loved books (especially among female readers) set in the Canadian Rockies. By 1953, the novel had appeared in cheaper book club editions and in paperback in the USA. In 1956 it was to become a lead title for Fontana paperbacks, the rising power in thriller imprints, in the UK and sales soared again in 1957 when a film tie-in edition was issued. The hero of Campbell’s Kingdom, Bruce Wetherall (Dirk Bogarde in the film), could not be less like James Bond when it came to heroes, but Innes was a skilled yarn-spinner as his apparently weak and sickly protagonist triumphs over the bad guys and a harsh and unforgiving physical terrain.

Another established thriller writer with an impressive print run was Victor Canning who, like Innes, had published his first fiction before the war and now, also like Innes, was making his name with thrillers set in exotic locations such as Algeria, the Swiss Alps, Florence, Venice, Holland and, for one of his best spy stories A Forest of Eyes, Yugoslavia, which appeared in paperback in 1953. That was also the year that Canning broke new ground by opting for a South American setting and tackling a popular theme with thriller writers of the time: diamond smuggling.

The Man from the Turkish Slave

The Man from the Turkish Slave illustration

The Man from the Turkish Slave also involves a perilous sea journey, a romantic sub-plot, a natural disaster (a tsunami) and a lone hero up against it all, putting it firmly in the Hammond Innes school of adventure thrillers.

In late 1953 the story was illustrated and serialised in Canada and in John Bull magazine in the UK . The full-length novel appeared in early 1954, with an initial UK print-run of 14,000 hardbacks and a simultaneous cheap book club edition. A comic book version under the title The Jewel Smugglers appeared in 1957 (the year after Diamonds Are Forever was published) and then a successful paperback edition of the novel.

By the 1950s one of the most successful writers in the macho world of spy thrillers was a woman; possibly the only woman. Helen MacInnes, a Scot who had married an American and moved across the Atlantic, began writing suspenseful thrillers, with immaculate timing, just as the war broke out. Her novels were long, character-driven, romantic, usually set in exotic locations and had an uncanny knack of tapping in to current political crises and threats, if short on macho action.

Her early work is highly regarded but her 1953 novel I and My True Love was something of a dip in form. Described by one critic as ‘a reworking of Anna Karenina’ (!) it was, ostensibly, a novel of communist penetration of contemporary Washington and whilst good on anti-communist paranoia, it is only a vague spy story and more a romance, flirting with the idea of justified adultery, though pulling its punches even on that. I and my True Love is possibly the weakest of MacInnes’ novels and certainly not a patch on her early work such as Above Suspicion and Assignment in Brittany.

In 1953, the man who enjoyed the title ‘The Prince of Thriller Writers’ – it is even engraved on his gravestone – was a wartime colleague or at least associate of Ian Fleming. With his first thriller, The Forbidden Territory, published in 1932 (and the film rights optioned, though not made, by Alfred Hitchcock) Dennis Wheatley was an instant success, but his fifth novel The Devil Rides Out made him a legend.

During WWII he was involved in military deception strategies and in the planning of D-Day though his greatest contribution was probably his series of morale-boosting novels which had secret agent Gregory Sallust taking on the Nazis seemingly single-handed at times and the ruthless and ‘saturnine’ Sallust was often cited as an inspiration for James Bond. The bulk of Wheatley’s output were firmly in the adventure-thriller category, often containing large chunks of historical ‘filler’ material, but he also flirted with science fiction and, of course, the occult, for which he is probably best known today. His own monarchist, imperialist, anti-communist views permeated his fiction and in 1953 he produced his 36th and 37th thrillers which reflected his interest in black magic and his firm anti-socialist views. In January, he published To the Devil A Daughter and in October, the slightly preachy spy thriller Curtain of Fear.

Dennis Wheatley may have been acclaimed as a Prince when it came to thriller-writing, but the acknowledged Master was surely Eric Ambler who had made his name in the immediate pre-war period with a handful of spy thrillers set in a  Europe thretaened by facsism. Many  of them were filmed (mostly badly) during the war, but those early novels are rightly regarded as classics of the genre. The war had interrupted Ambler’s career as a novelist but his talent had been noticed and he was tempted away to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter – with considerable success.

In 1953 he returned to the thriller with The Schirmer Inheritance, a quest across post-war Europe by a young American lawyer in search of the missing German heir to an inheritance tied up in the American legal system and it turns out to be an heir who doesn’t necessarily want to be found. The lawyer and the enigmatic translator assigned to him travel from Paris, across Germany, Yugoslavia to Greece,  where the Schirmer heir is found and his backstory revealed. There is little overt violence or action in the story, but plenty of suspense, reflections on the war and Ambler’s natural gift for describing exotic Balkan and mittel-Europe locations. In many ways, the journey which is central to The Schirmer Inheritance is the reverse of the journey in Ambler’s 1939 classic The Mask of Dimitrios, which begins in the Balkans and ends in Paris and is also a story of seeking a character who does not want to be found. It may not be Ambler at his best, but Eric Ambler on an off day is still pretty good.

Among British thrillers published in 1953, there was really only one fictional hero who could hold his own with James Bond: the half-Irish, half-Spanish secret agent Johnny Fedora, and he had been ‘licensed to kill’ by British Intelligence a full two years before Bond was born. 

Desmond Cory’s Dead Man Falling (published in the US as The Hitler Diamonds) was the third Fedora adventure and appeared two months after Ian Fleming’s hero James Bond took his first bow. A second edition appeared within three months, it was to be named ‘Best Crime Novel’ of 1953 by The Sunday Times – the newspaper Fleming worked for – and the reviews seem to have been uniformly good and Dennis Wheatley had already praised Fedora’s 1951 debut Secret Ministry as ‘a grand thriller’. The plot of Dead Man Falling, as with most of the early Fedora stories, involved tracking down ex-Nazis or their loot, though in this case goes slightly off the rails by having a surviving Eva Braun and Hitler’s teenage son hiding out in a remote Austrian village. There is some good casual violence and, naturally, a beautiful woman to assist our hero, plus a mountain-top climax which would not be too out of place in a Bond book.

Fedora was far more refined than Bond; often too refined, prone to relaxing by playing the piano and by using ten words of pompous dialogue where three would do. Nonetheless, Johnny Fedora was a popular hero and his adventures continued (taking on the KGB) up to 1971, when author Cory retired him, realising that the thriller world had moved on and up several gears. In his later years, Cory admitted in an interview that his creation of Johnny Fedora (when he was an Oxford undergraduate) had been strongly influenced by Peter Cheney’s ‘Dark’ series. What Ian Fleming thought of Fedora is not known, but the distinguished American critic Anthony Boucher is said to have called him ‘the thinking man’s James Bond’, which may have irritated him, but probably not for long.

The inexcapable fact was that there was nothing quite like Fleming’s Casino Royale in the British thriller market in 1953 and although other titles and authors were far more successful in the short term (Hammond Innes was to have his greatest success with Wreck of the Mary Deare in 1956 which was filmed with a screenplay by Eric Ambler), Fleming’s debut – and its iconic  hero – has outlasted them all.

{Part II of this feature will cover the other ‘new kids on the block’; British thriller writers who, like Ian Fleming, made their debuts in 1953.}

Incidental Intelligence

Mike Ripley

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..

Interview with Mike Ripley, author of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

How James Bond came to Paint my Portrait by Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

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3 thoughts on “Surveying the Bond Competition – Part 1

  1. Very interesting piece Mike. Glad you feel able to endorse my suggestion in my piece “James Bond – Last of the Clubland Heros”, that Simon Templar was the great bridge between The Clubland Heros and Bond, having a foot in each camp. I know what you mean about Charteris’s overblown dialogue but, personally, I enjoy his writing which I feel is as clever as that of P G Wodehouse.

    I used (a long time ago), to enjoy Peter Cheyney. Must get hold of Dark Bahama to see his influence on Fleming. A critic once referred to Fleming as “the Peter Cheyney of the carriage trade”.

    David.

  2. What a fabulous article and a great adjunct to ‘KKBB’
    I love reading this stuff not least of all because I’ve read most of the subject matter and have such fond memories of it all.
    Mike sums it all up so beautifully and I invariably find myself agreeing with his assessment of most of the works he references.
    That said, I’ve often puzzled over who were Fleming’s principle influences ?
    Doubtless, like all of us, it would be a myriad of things but, when it comes to the creation of Bond, I remain firmly of the opinion that it was Cory’s Fontana and Jean Bruce’s OOS117 who were the principle influences.
    I say this not to undermine Fleming. For me he was and remains the master but to think that he created the luxury spy , licenced to kill, is the equivalent of thinking that Talisker created whisky.
    I look forward to part 2.

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