In A Spy Is Born, Jeremy Duns follows the trail of a largely forgotten writer through memoirs, newspaper archives, declassified M.I.5 files and dog-eared paperbacks to reveal the surprising literary roots of James Bond.
His name? Dennis Wheatley. We asked Jeremy to share more of his intelligence.
001. You wrote about the links between Fleming and Wheatley some years ago, but why did you return to this subject for your new book?
It’s not so much a return as a continuation! A Spy Is Born is a significant expansion – over double the length – of my article ‘The Secret Origins of James Bond’, which was published on Spywise.net in January 2010. People can still read the PDF of that first version for free here (although it seems to work better if accessed via a mobile device than from a desktop, at least for me). That article was published a few months after The Devil Is A Gentleman, a years-in-the-making labour of love biography of Wheatley by Phil Baker, who I’d already consulted. I read the book for the original article, but there’s a vast amount in it, much of it in the footnotes, and over the years it’s sent me down a lot of new avenues. So I continued my research into Wheatley in between writing other books, and this is one of several topics I’ve done this with – another is Antony Terry, which eventually resulted in Agent of Influence.
After nearly a decade of on-off research, editing and writing, I was given the final kick to finish it by a recent discussion on the Facebook page of the Spybrary podcast – I realized I wanted to have a definitive version out there as an ebook and in print, rather than a PDF floating on the web in a somewhat hard-to-read format that might disappear through a server issue or similar.
So what’s new?
In A Spy Is Born, I’ve looked at several Wheatley novels I didn’t cover previously but also expanded the scope. It’s still close reading literary criticism of Fleming, but there’s also a lot more narrative in it, triangulating information from Baker’s book, John Pearson and Andrew Lycett’s excellent biographies of Fleming, newspaper archives, declassified MI5 files, and several other sources, like the script for a 1962 programme on Fleming by ITV that I don’t think has been discussed before.
I wanted to show more context for the British thriller before, during and after the war, as well as how British intelligence operations influenced it, but also rather than simply show what I think Fleming was doing get more into why he did, and what he achieved with it. I’m fascinated by the mechanics of story-telling, and this is about that.
002. Do you know why there were no Ian Fleming James Bond books in Wheatley’s 4000 plus collection of books?
That’s something Phil Baker told me in 2007: Fleming’s books aren’t listed in an extensive catalogue that Wheatley made of his 4,000-strong collection for insurance and tax purposes in 1964.
I mention that in the book, but I think it’s a bit of a red herring, in fact: Iwan Hedman-Morelius interviewed Wheatley at his home in Cadogan Square in May 1971, and wrote that he had ‘complete collections of Peter Cheyney, Ian Fleming’ and many others. He also asked Wheatley about Fleming’s work, and he gave a fairly detailed answer, singling out Casino Royale, so I think it’s clear he’d read him.
But my book is largely about Fleming reading Wheatley rather than the other way around. If Wheatley wasn’t all that familiar with Fleming’s work, it might explain a little more why he never remarked on the influence, but then I think both writers saw this in different terms than we do today.
003. What was Fleming and Wheatley’s working relationship during the war?
Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley knew each other during the war, and dined together, but as far as we know they didn’t have a direct working relationship.
However, Wheatley was in the London Controlling Section, which thought up deception operations and approved of others, so he’d likely have come across memos and suggestions from Fleming, and vice versa. Wheatley had a close working relationship and friendship with Ian’s brother Peter, who was working on deception operations in the Far East.
004. For Fleming fans wanting to read Wheatley, can you suggest where to start?
I would suggest Contraband, The Scarlet Impostor or Come Into My Parlour. These are probably the three Wheatley novels that feel most like proto-Bond stories.
During the Second World War, Dennis Wheatley worked in the upper echelons of Britain’s intelligence establishment, helping to plan ingenious operations against the Nazis. He was one of the most popular thriller-writers of the 20th century, but his literary reputation has faded in recent years, with critics lambasting his novels as xenophobic, sexist fantasies. And he created a suave but ruthless British secret agent who was orphaned at a young age, expelled from his public school, smoked exotic cigarettes, had a scar on his face, bedded beautiful women and repeatedly saved the world from the threats of megalomaniacal villains.