You Know My Name: Was James Bond Really A Spy?

James Bond will never have a reputation in the intelligence or spy writer community as being a great spy. He was a secret agent with a license to kill, should he need to use it. This is not to say that Bond does not do any intelligence gathering or was not skilled in counter-intelligence.

But Ian Fleming, of course, was an expert in spying techniques having worked at close hand with real spies in Naval Intelligence, working cross-functionally with other intelligence agencies. His job was to gather intelligence, report to his bosses and at times, send real secret agents out into the field. In truth, Fleming was unambiguous about Bond’s role from the outset in Casino Royale. ‘The business of espionage could be left to the white-collar boys. They could spy and catch the spies. He would go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.’

Yuri Modin the KGB controller for the “Cambridge Five” certainly did his best to shoot down Bond’s credentials as a spy, when he said ‘…the agent who thinks he’s James Bond has no place at all in a real intelligence service. There are those who try to ape Ian Fleming’s fictional spy, bristling with gadgets, sexually voracious, intrepid and constantly involved with battles of one kind or another. I’ve known a few like that, and none of them ever went very far.’

Some ‘spy’ writers with Intelligence backgrounds had mixed opinions on Fleming’s Bond. John Le Carre has always taken a more pejorative opinion of Fleming’s creation, as quoted in The Daily Telegraph, reflecting perhaps more of a difference in world view, than an objective take on Bond’s espionage abilities.

‘I’m not sure that Bond is a spy… I think it’s a great mistake if one’s talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill.’ […]

(Bond is the ideal defector because) ‘if the money was better, the booze freer and women easier over there in Moscow, he’d be off like a shot’. – John Le Carre

Richard Burton as Alec Leamas

Richard Burton as Alec Leamas

John Le Carre’s Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is the antithesis of Bond who brutally characterises them in the novel as ‘a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.’ Strong stuff.

Fleming and Le Carre approach their writing very differently and while money is no doubt a motivating factor, Fleming was far more overt about it. To write James Bond as close to a real spy as he would have produced a very different character and seen very little action. Fleming battled his own demons, especially drink, so it’s hardly surprising he would want to escape the real world in his fiction.

For Fleming, the grey moral ambiguities of Graham Greene’s spies or Eric Ambler’s protagonists, whom he much admired, were less appealing than a more black and white hero who could provide a window of escape for readers, and very possibly himself.

“There is something in the subject that leads to exaggeration, and the literary framework of ‘a beginning and a middle and an end’ doesn’t belong to good spy writing, which should be full of loose ends and drabness and ultimate despair. Perhaps only Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene and Eric Ambler have caught the squalor and greyness of the Secret Service.”  – Ian Fleming, The Diamond Smugglers

For real spying, is waiting and watching, nothing much happens and there’s no real action. Fleming understood that James Bond works because he’s what we want spies to be like. He knew all the types but decided he wanted his ‘spy’ a little different as he remarked.

Len Deighton & Ian Fleming

As Somerset Maugham, wrote in the “Preface” to his 1926 classic of spy fiction, Ashenden: ‘Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion.’

Len Deighton, on the other hand, saw Fleming as a mentor and although commercial rivals for a time, their creations could not be more different. Deighton saw no reason to denigrate Fleming’s creation as he knew the debt that his generation of thriller writers owed him.

While Bond may not have cut the mustard with Le Carre as a traditional spy, there is still ample evidence of tradecraft at work. Simply put, tradecraft is the methods developed by intelligence operatives to conduct their operations. The tools of the trade including Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and intelligence gathered from intercepted communications (COMINT).

Fleming was much more a human intelligence kind of man and there is a lot of good tradecraft in Fleming’s Bond novels: the honey trap in From Russia With Love; undercover legends employed such as Hilary Bray (OHMSS), David and Caroline Somerset (FRWL) and Mark Hazard (TMWTGG). To a lesser extent is the use of COMINT in the novels, a far cry from the films, such as the tracking device used in Goldfinger, which was remarkably ahead of its time.

Photo: Robert Gritten

Tatiana Romanova travelling under an alias as Caroline Somerset [Photo: Robert Gritten]

Regular contributor Revelator pointed out several more examples, such as “steganography” calling to mind Bond using his urine as invisible ink in OHMSS; a “front organization” recalls Universal Exports and Bond’s phone calls to M in the field; “cut outs” reminds one of Bond’s cover in CR and in OHMSS; “surveillance” includes Bond steaming open Scaramanga’s mail and eavesdropping on his meetings, and there are plenty of “black bag operations” in the books. And then there’s the use of code phrases (“May I borrow a match?”); sabotage (planting the bomb on Mr. Big’s yacht), the interrogation house Bond is taken to in TMWTGG and the use of reconnaissance in TB.’

Fleming remarked to Playboy in 1964, ‘A glaring inaccuracy, or a stretching of plausibility, would bother me more than it would any reader. I try to make everything credible, as related to what I know about the rather improbable world of espionage and the parts of the world I’ve visited.’

Arguably, the early Bond novels read more like Secret Service novels, before the plots became ever more bombastic and thrill-seeking as Jeremy Duns explained in his article ‘Cold Male’ from 2016.

But it [Casino Roayle] is a spy novel—Fleming marks it out as such in the first chapter, ‘The Secret Agent’, in which James Bond practises some fairly nifty pieces of tradecraft. He doesn’t take the lift up to his hotel room, because it would warn anyone on that floor someone was coming. And, once he has established that no one is in the room, he checks that his traps have not been disturbed: a strand of hair wedged into a drawer in the writing desk, a trace of talcum powder on the handle of the wardrobe, and the level of water in the lavatory cistern. – Jeremy Duns

Charles Fraser Smith

Charles Fraser Smith

Many of Fleming’s wartime colleagues in Naval Intelligence and from other agencies such as the SOE provided all sorts of material to plunder. One such was Charles Fraser Smith, working quietly out of the Ministry of Supply. Initially, Fraser-Smith supplied clothing and standard props (from second-hand sources) for SOE agents working behind enemy lines, but SOE directives and his taste for gadgetry led him to develop a wide range of spy and escape devices, including miniature cameras inside cigarette lighters, shaving brushes containing film, hairbrushes containing a map and saw, pens containing hidden compasses, steel shoelaces that doubled as garrottes or gigli saws, an asbestos-lined pipe for carrying secret documents, and much more. He was also involved in the intelligence operation codenamed Operation Mincemeat

For Bond fans, his most notable influence was for stashed compasses inside golf balls to help prisoners of war find their way home through enemy-occupied territory. A trick that Fleming adapted in Diamonds Are Forever to smuggle diamonds.

Diamonds Are Forever - Artwork by Gerald Wadsworth

Artwork by Gerald Wadsworth

Other tools of the trade Fleming employed was Bond’s briefcase in From Russia With Love. The briefcase contained a folding AR-7 sniper rifle, 40 rounds of ammunition, a throwing knife that popped out of the side, a bottle of tear gas disguised as a bottle of talcum powder and 50 gold sovereigns.

The SOE did, in fact, use ‘incendiary suitcases’, which were intended to provide security for secret documents and act as a booby trap for any snooping enemy soldier or secret policeman. To open the case safely, the SOE agent had to make sure that the right-hand lock was pressed down and held to the right. If this wasn’t done, the left-hand lock would fire the charges when anyone attempted to click it open.

Briefcase from Swaine Adeney

Replica of Bond’s Briefcase in From Russia With Love  [Photo: Donald Grant]

There was enough verisimilitude in the novels to even attract the praise of real-life spymasters, including Allen Dulles. Declassified letters between Dulles and Fleming revealed the former CIA boss’s strong affection for the Bond novels was such, that he persuaded the author not to pension off 007 in 1963.

Allen Dulles

Allen Dulles

Dr Christopher Moran from the University of Warwick has trawled through declassified letters and media reports from the 1950 and 60s for his study, Ian Fleming and the Public Profile of the CIA, and said ‘there was a surprising two-way influence between the CIA and the James Bond novels during the Cold War, stemming from the mutual admiration between Allen Dulles and Ian Fleming. This ranged from the copying of devices, such as Rosa Klebb’s poison-tipped dagger shoe in From Russia With Love, to the agency using the 007 novels to improve its public profile.’

And in a rediscovered 1964 edition of Life Magazine, Dulles describes his meeting with the ‘brilliant and witty’ Fleming in London in 1959 where the author told him that the CIA was not doing enough in the area of ‘special devices’. On his return to the US, Dulles urged CIA technical staff to replicate as many of Bond’s devices as they could.

The term ‘spy’ is a misleading and misunderstood term, particularly in relation to literary James Bond. While he could have toned down how often he announces himself to the world, especially bar staff, he still exhibits many traits that an intelligence officer needs.

There are occasions when Bond is working counterintelligence, defined thwarting the efforts of foreign intelligence agencies, including, but is not limited, to spy-catching. Bond’s efforts to thwart Hugo Drax in Moonraker surely qualifies. Or in “The Property of a Lady”, where Bond attempts to ensnare a KGB asset embedded in MI6. At a stretch, the postcard Bond buys for his secretary in “Risico” could be classed as an ‘innocent postcard’, defined as a postcard with an innocuous message sent to verify the continued security of an undercover operative.

From Russia With Love is by far, Fleming’s best use of espionage with detailed descriptions of the real-life spy organisation SMERSH and ky to the plot is the famed honey trap set by the Russian. Romanova set up as the ‘Swallow’ (a female agent employed to seduce people for intelligence purposes) but as Bond catches on, he becomes the ‘Raven’ (a male agent employed to seduce people for intelligence purposes.)

Such as they are, the Bond of the films has earned a reputation as a ‘bad spy’, lampooned by Austin Powers and Johnny English. In the novels, such a reputation is rather less deserving. Kingsley Amis wrote in ‘The James Bond Dossier’ (1965), that ‘It’s inaccurate, of course, to describe James Bond as a spy, in the strict sense of one who steals or buys or smuggles the secrets of foreign powers . . . Bond’s claims to be considered a counter-spy, one who operates against the agents of unfriendly powers, are rather more substantial’.

Incidental Intelligence

Interview with Frederick Hitz; former Inspector General of the CIA

The Language of Espionage (International Spy Museum)

“For Special Services” – on James Bond’s creator, his closeness to the CIA, and the real spy gadgets he inspired

7 thoughts on “You Know My Name: Was James Bond Really A Spy?

  1. Nice call @kpspong.

    Le Carre’s remarks are inaccurate to the point of either ignorance (doubtful) or blatant self promotion.

    • It’s bit of both. Le Carre can be very dense about other matters (see his spectacularly wrong headed response to the Rushdie Affair). You can also add to them a little bitterness. He knows he will be outlived by a man who died decades ago.

  2. Le Carre also forgets that Bond is a genuine patriot (more patriotic than many of Le Carre’s heroes) who goes through hell on almost every mission because he believes in the UK.
    Fleming also makes the point that the Soviets treated their spies better than the British. In From Russia With Love General Vozdvishensky reports that “[Britain’s] agents are good. They pay them little money–only a thousand or two thousand roubles a month–but they serve with devotion. Yet these agents have no special privileges in England, no relief from taxation and no special shops such as we have, from which they can buy cheap goods. Their social standing abroad is not high…They are rarely awarded a decoration until they retire. And yet these men and women continue to do this dangerous work.”
    Bond clearly doesn’t serve his country just for material benefits.

  3. Surely the key point is that IF wrote excellent spy fantasy novels whereas Le Carre writes novels about betrayal mostly but not exclusively set in a sort of dour, realism. They are quite different. Le Carre’s style is cerebral and has become fashionable amongst the literati because they like to think he is intellectually superior. Effectively just literary snobbery. Fleming was a fine writer who knew perfectly well that he was writing escapist fiction but it was beautifully written escapist fiction of the highest order.

    • Absolutely spot on, David. All any fan of great writing need do is read the short stories in the Octopussy book. Fleming has turns of phrase, descriptive passages, bon mots and more that trounce Hemingway and Le Carre. All three are great, but ILF in the sparsest and shortest of stories can evoke a setting, city, cultural experience that is unrivaled to this day. Most snobbists get fixated on Bond’s “anti-social” behavior – as if #MeToo was around in the 50’s and 60’s…they can’t see the writing as a product of the times…one can’t use our fixation of political correctness as a meter by which to judge Fleming and Bond. ILF wrote escapist fiction at the finest level.

  4. I have long thought that calling 007 a spy is off the mark. He is a licensed killerr, part of a special department to kill when necessary threats to the UK (and sometimes its allies). In this he is similar to Callan (although the Callan novels and TV show/film came later of course). When Bond does anything remotely akin to spying/intelligence gathering it is in the course of his work to bring down the bad guy(s) and foil their plans, usually involving infiltrating the villain’s inner circle (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, OHMSS spring to mind). That said I think only The Man with the Golden Gun is a clear extermination mission to kill Scaramanga, although in You Only Live Twice, the mission to kill Dr Shatterhand (Blofeld) is a side mission as a favour to Japanese Intelligence. In the majority of the novels the assigned mission is to investigate a suspect and where necessary eliminate them. In fact I recall he actively avoids knowledge of secret codes and signals in case he is ever captured and tortured.

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