Surveying the Bond Competition: Part 2

Article by Mike Ripley.

If the release of the film Dr No in 1962 triggered an almost instant boom in British spy and thriller fiction and a positive tsunami of new authors, the same cannot be said of the publication of Casino Royale which gave birth to the Bond legend in 1953.

New Arrivals, 1953

Photo: ©Jon Gilbert

As a debut novelist, Ian Fleming had plenty of competition from established thriller writers (see Part I) as well as popular crime writers such as Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie and one should not forget how popular science fiction was at the time, indeed 1953 saw the publication of The Kraken Wakes and Fahrenheit 451, both of which were to imitate some of Casino Royale’s longevity, with new editions of John Wyndham’s and Ray Bradbury’s classics published as recently as 2008 and 2012.

The overwhelming influence on popular culture, though, was still the Second World War, and preferably, stories about how Britain won it. Books about the war at sea, in the air, in the Western Desert and in (or getting out of) Prisoner of War camps enjoyed staggering paperback sales and many were transferred to the cinema screens with equal success.

The film version of Nicholas Monsarrat’s 1951 novel The Cruel Sea was released in the UK in March 1953 and other popular war movies of the year were The Desert Rats, Albert RN, Appointment in London and The Malta Story. One other war film that year, The Red Beret (later retitled Paratrooper) holds a special place in Bondian history as it saw an early collaboration between Cubby Brocolli (producer), Terence Young (director) and Richard Maibaum (writer) who were to reconvene in 1962 as the team behind Dr No.

In truth, there were no serious competitors to Fleming in the thriller stakes among the other debutants of 1953 although there were at least three ‘new kids on the block’ worth a mention and one who was to become popular and highly regarded by the reviewers and critics, though all four are largely forgotten today.

Although born in London, Kevin FitzGerald (1902-1993) came of Irish land-owning and farming stock and after farming in Tipperary just before the Irish civil war, he returned to England to attended agricultural college in Devon, then embarked on a 35-year career in the agricultural department of ICI. During WWII, after a chance meeting with J.B. Priestley, he undertook a long-running series of unscripted morale-boosting talks on the BBC and in peacetime, in his mid-forties, took up mountaineering. 

In 1953 he published Quiet Under The Sun, which he described as ‘a story for a journey’ and in later life he was quite dismissive of the handful of thrillers he wrote in the 1950s.

Quiet Under The Sun was a ‘chase’ thriller – an ‘enthralling story of hue and cry’ (Manchester Evening News) – very much in the John Buchan tradition. So much so that the first chapter seemed to be following the blueprint of the opening of The 39 Steps. Our hero, Sir Henry Mallinson, the trusted head of a government department engaged in highly secret work, returns to his London flat to find his private secretary being murdered and his confidential papers rifled by two masked intruders.

To be fair, it is done with a sense of toughness (post-war cynicism?) which would probably have shocked a pre-First World War Buchan. Sir Henry is set up to be the fall-guy for the murder and then abducted by the killers and the hue and cry is on. Faced with either going to the police and risk being charged as both a murderer and traitor or going on the run from the police (as Sir Richard Hannay would have), Sir Henry takes the rather bizarre third option of fleeing England by private plane to Spain with his abductors. Once in Spain, the resourceful Sir Henry, though at almost 60 years old is hardly an action hero, escapes, is captured by brigands, escapes again, is captured again and beaten up several times before finally being rescued by the agent the British have sent to find him.

In all honesty, it is a fairly forgettable thriller. Possibly the only Fitzgerald novel to be remembered is the crime thriller Trouble in West Two (1956) which is noted for its descriptions of the contemporary London underworld. The author’s best-known work is probably the autobiographical With O’Leary in the Grave.

Even the best-read thriller fan should not feel guilty if the name Bryan Morgan has never appeared on his radar screen, or if it has it might be because that thriller-fan is also a railway buff! In the 1960s, Bryan Morgan (1923-?) was the author of popular guide books such as The Railway Lover’s Companion and The End of the Line and in 1975 he edited the anthology Crime on the Lines (right).

Back in 1953, probably whist working as a civil servant research scientist, he wrote what may have been his only novel, originally titled The Business at Blanche Capel but renamed Fever of Treason when it came out in paperback in 1956. Blanche Capel, the place where the ‘business’ happens, is a government biological research centre on the marshy Essex coast, manned by a selection of bored, underpaid civil servants, some with left-wing leanings and some war-damaged Europeans (and therefore suspect).

Ostensibly the work at Blanche Capel is into potato blight – and involves the slicing of lots of potatoes, but new recruit Dr John Hanwell realises the dangerous potential of another project: identifying a lethal strain of swine flu virus. Then one of the research scientists, and the virus, go missing… Although low on action – and suspense, given the horrifying prospect of a man-made pandemic, Fever of Treason is interesting with a nice sense of unease as Britain’s wartime scientist and security officers make the transition to a peace time Cold War. 

After a nuclear holocaust, biological warfare was the next popular threat to humanity, and thus a good hunting ground for the thriller writer, especially as Porton Down was thought to be a ‘world leader’ in the field (with apologies to the residents of Salisbury). John Blackburn was to make it a regular ingredient of his own dark brand of spy thriller and Alistair MacLean (writing as Ian Stuart) was to hit the bestseller lists with The Satan Bug in 1962.

{As an aside, if you Google ‘Blanche Capel’ you will find that she is a Professor of biology at Duke University in North Carolina rather than a village on the Essex coast.}

Like many thriller writers of that era, Christopher Landon (1911-1961) drew on his personal experiences in WWII for their fiction. After studying medicine at Cambridge, he served in Field Ambulance brigades in North Africa and Persia, the latter providing the background to his debut thriller A Flag in the City, an excellent (and disgracefully unknown) wartime spy thriller set ‘behind the lines’ as it were, but in a country and city, Tehran, about to host (in 1943) a very important meeting of the Allied war leaders. It has always bemused me why this novel has never been reprinted, as I consider it Landon’s best.

Perhaps it was because Landon’s 1957 war story Ice Cold in Alex, again based on the author’s experiences this time in the Western Desert, was such a huge success, especially when made into a classic British war film (with a script by the author) starring John Mills in 1958. It also has the distinction of being used, much later, in a television commercial for Carlsberg lager.

Landon was to try his hand at crime novels, scripts for television and a thriller, The Mirror Room, set in Berlin just before the Wall was built. That was to be his last novel as Landon died suddenly, aged 50, after, it is said, an accidental overdose of prescription medicines. One cannot help but feel that here was a career cut short.

Francis Clifford, a novelist held in the highest regard by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, was a genuine war hero, although few of his readers realised that until his wartime memoirs were published – as per his instructions – after his death. Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson (1917-1975) was born in Bristol but as a young man went to work in the rice trade in south-east Asia. On the outbreak of WWII, he joined the army in Burma and won the D.S.O. leading a fighting retreat from the invading Japanese in 1942. Returning to England, he served with S.O.E. and later in Intelligence in Europe.

His first novel, Honour The Shrine was a tense and compassionate war story about a commando raid to blow up a bridge in the Japanese-occupied Burmese jungle. (It actually pre-dated the English translation of the rather more famous Bridge on the River Kwai). It launched ‘Francis Clifford’ as a serious writer of suspenseful adventure thrillers and spy stories; 17 novels over the next 23 years, with settings ranging from South America to the Arizona desert, Africa to Cold War Germany, even though Bell/Clifford rarely left his Surrey home, claiming that the experiences which guided his writing had all been obtained during the war.

Clifford came to prominence in 1959-60 with his thriller Act of Mercy (filmed as Guns of Darkness) followed quickly by A Battle is Fought To Be Won, which took the author back to the war in Burma in a powerful novel of brutal combat and cowardice. It caused something of a sensation due to its uncompromising descriptions of violence and torture and probably had a cathartic effect on the author, who never returned in his fiction to the jungle war that had so strongly affected him.

During the thriller boom of the Sixties, Clifford’s output alternated between novels of suspense (usually an Englishman alone in an exotic foreign location innocently mixed up in a murder or a cover-up) and spy stories in the Ambler/Le Carré mould rather than the popular tendency to try and invent the next James Bond.

His most famous espionage title was The Naked Runner in 1966, which was quickly filmed, starring Frank Sinatra, by Sidney J. Furie, who had directed The Ipcress File. It was his next book, the following year, which secured Clifford’s reputation as a superb exponent of the Cold War thriller.

All Men Are Lonely Now taps into the prevailing British paranoia with traitors, defectors and ‘moles’ (as they would become labelled) and serves up a cold-blooded ending as chilling as when Le Carré’s spy finally came in from the cold.

In the mid-Sixties, Francis Clifford was pronounced ‘A thinking man’s Ian Fleming’ by the Daily Telegraph. His novels won two Silver Daggers from the Crime Writers Association, having been short-listed six times in the years 1966-1974 as well as short-listed for Edgar Awards in America in 1974 and 1975.

Despite universal praise from reviewers and fellow writers and popularity among readers (all his books going through numerous paperback and Book Club editions), Francis Clifford and his excellent, thoughtful thrillers fell from memory astonishingly quickly after the author’s death and most have remained disgracefully out-of-print for more than thirty years.

Commercial Break

If I may be allowed the opportunity for some shameless self-promotion, may I point out that the Top Notch Thrillers imprint (which I just happen to edit) has the distinction of at least trying to get the work of Francis Clifford in front of a new readership by reissuing two of his thrillers:

I have often recommended, sadly to little effect, that many modern-day thriller writers could learn valuable lessons in how to build tension and sustain pace in a narrative by reading The Grosvenor Square Goodbye.

Read Surveying the Bond Competition Part 1

Incidental Intelligence

MIKE RIPLEY is the author of 23 novels, including the award-winning ‘Angel’ series of comedy thrillers and ‘continuation’ novels featuring Margery Allingham’s famous sleuth Albert Campion.

His ‘reader’s history’ of the boom in British thrillers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was published in May 2017 and a revised second edition will appear in paperback in 2019.

Len Deighton with Mike Ripley

4 thoughts on “Surveying the Bond Competition: Part 2

  1. An interesting look at 1953 but wasn’t the reality, at that point in history, that Fleming’s real competition was coming from the US ?
    I’m thinking of the likes of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler.
    I often think that one of Fleming’s objectives when starting Bond was give the British thriller the elan Of American noir.
    I also remain completely convinced that he was hugely influenced by Jean Bruce’s OSS117 thrillers. The first of which proceeded Casino Royale by a full 7 years.
    Again, Bruce’s work turned its back on the cosy world of the pre-war French thriller for the pace and modernity of the Americans.
    That said, Mike portrays the British end of things in my birth year brilliantly.

  2. David is absolutely right in saying that American crime novels were serious “contenders” in the 1950s, not just Chandler (whose career was drawing to a close) and Spillane, but also Ross MacDonald, John D. Macdonald, Rex Stout. Ed McBain and Charles Williams with the noir niche market well catered for by David Goodis, Jim Thompson and others who were influential if not huge sellers. In my defence I did not mention them as I regarded them as (a) not British and (b) crime rather than thrillers.
    Jean Bruce, of course, wasn’t British either and I am not sure when he appeared in English translation. I discovered – and enjoyed – his OSS 117 stories when they appeared in paperback in the 1960s and at Crimefest 2018 in the ‘Cluedo’ quiz I showed a Jean Bruce paperback cover with the title and author removed. None of the contestants (all crime writers and most over 60 – especially Lee Child) had a clue who it was and neither had anyone in the audience!

  3. In a way, could one argue that Fleming is a figure that helps reshape the adventure story into the postwar spy story, before Deighton, leCarre and Hall / Trevor et al really re-launch the genre in the 60s?

    • Ciao, Sergio. I would say that Fleming certainly reshaped the spy thriller, but Hammond Innes, Victor Canning and then Alistair MacLean reshaped the post-war adventure story. Fleming’s take was ‘spy-fantasy’ and that boomed in the 60s. The spy stories of Deighton, Le Carre and James Munro /Mitchell (with ‘Callan’) were a reaction rather than a re-launch, if that makes sense.

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