Ian Fleming on Crime and Spy Fiction (and non-fiction!)


Welcome to a new regular series intended to share the journalism of Ian Fleming, with a special focus on Fleming’s book reviews of thrillers, spy novels, crime stories, and even non-fiction works on those topics. I plan on posting a review by Fleming approximately every week until I run out material (which will take a while!).
This post will serve as an index of links to each review for ease of access.

Review Listing:

The Tragic Spy (The Spy’s Bedside Book. An Anthology edited by Graham Greene and Hugh Greene)

The Secret of Edgar Hoover (The F.B.I. Story, by Don Whitehead)

Stay tuned for more!


The Tragic Spy
(Sunday Times, Nov. 17, 1957)

The Spy’s Bedside Book. An Anthology edited by Graham Greene and Hugh Greene. (Hart-Davis. 15s.)

I cannot understand why the great spy novel has never been written. The true spy is a fascinating figure—a lonely, nervous, romantic controlled by an organisation which is hobbled by Security, lack of funds and official skepticism. Tragedy—the tragedy of the futile—is inherent as much in his successes as in his failures. If, by some brilliant stroke of luck or craft, he discovers a vital truth, even if it is believed, by his Service, it will almost certainly be disbelieved by his Government, because it is a Secret Service report. For Secret Services are rarely trusted by War Ministries.

I remember the early reports of the V.1s reaching the Admiralty and subsequently being debated by the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Chiefs of Staff. These reports, from Vienna, where many of the components were being manufactured, from the environs of Peenemünde, and from workers in the Todt Organisation who were constructing the launching sites on the Channel coasts, were obtained by Secret Service agents at great risk. How many lonely men and women ran the gauntlet of how many dangers to get this vital intelligence through the maze of couriers and cut-outs to the secret wireless transmitter that, under the ears of the enemy D/F vans, transmitted it to London?

For weeks, even months, skepticism greeted these priceless messages. Finally the sheer weight of them demanded a check by the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. The results confirmed the Secret Service reports, and the bombing of the V.1 sites and factories began at the eleventh hour.

This is not to criticise Whitehall—we should have lost the war if we had sent out our bombers every time a secret agent reported a secret weapon—but to underline the tragedy of the spy. He gets a poor salary and little, if any, reward for his services. He has no social standing in the community and remains all his life “something in the War Office” while his wife, watching her friends’ husbands climb the ladder, remains just the wife of something in the War Office.” And, on top of it all, the fruits of his dangerous labours rarely give satisfaction outside the department of the Secret Service which controls him.

Here, it seems to me, is the stuff of a great novel which no one, has attempted and whose fringes have been only touched on by Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.

Seduced from the drab truth by the emotive lushness of espionage, most writers of spy fiction (or spy fact for the matter of that) choose the easier and more profitable thriller approach and, with the exception of the three I mention above, it is only the best of the others—Buchan. George Griffith, and O. Henry—who can reread except as a joke. They do date so terribly, these fairy stories of our teens—their language, their steam-age wars, their moustaches, their exclamation marks! Even their gimmicks lack the high seriousness with which the thriller writer should approach his subject. One shivered pleasurably at Khokhlov’s explosive cigarette lighter, but, surely, even in those days of other smoking habits William Le Queux’s explosive cigar which blew the Privy Councilor’s face off must have made our fathers chuckle rather than shiver.

In fact, it is these lowlights of spy literature which make The Spy’s Bedside Book required reading for anyone who likes thrillers or detective stories. It is all here: the hazards, the tricks, the delights of the profession, wrapped up in an attractive package which includes an authentic old-time advertisement by The Stereographic Camera Company, “For Accurate Copies of All Documents. A Necessity for Blackmailers, Spies, and Gentlemen of the Press.”

It is probably that note, the note that makes the book such fun, that inspired the rather incongruous reflections at the beginning of this review. They were the reactions of one of the fifty or so contributors to this anthology who is reminded that the art of thrilling ought to consist of rather more than shouting “Bang!” in an authoritative voice.


The Secret of Edgar Hoover: 33 Years at the F.B.I.
(Sunday Times, Dec. 15, 1957)

The F.B.I. Story. By Don Whitehead. (Muller. 30s)

By Ian Fleming

“I heard Jack say he had searched the town to find the kind of kit he wanted, and he had gift-wrapped it and placed it in his mother’s luggage as a surprise for her when she reached Alaska.” It was a dynamite bomb that Jack had gift-wrapped and it blew to kingdom-come Jack’s heavily insured mother and forty-three other people in United Airlines Flight No. 629, eleven minutes out of Denver. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation had pinned the crime on Jack Graham he said to his guard, “You can send my mail to Cannon City Prison until next, month. After that you can send it to Hell.”

The modern F.B.I. is Edgar Hoover. Hoover joined the Bureau at the age of twenty-two, shortly after the greatest sabotage act of all time, when Von Rintelen and Boy-Ed brought off the Black Tom explosion of two million pounds of dynamite stored on an island in New York Harbour. Hoover was put in charge of enemy alien registration until, at the end of the war, the entire personnel of the Bureau was swamped with the round-up of American deserters who, by June, 1918, had reached the staggering total of 308,489.

Wartime Meeting

Then came the scandals of the Harding administration, in which the head of the F.B.I.,
William Burns, and the grimy detective Gaston B. Means were deeply implicated. President Coolidge’s first step in house-cleaning was to appoint Harlan Stone as Attorney-General, and in 1924 Stone summoned twenty-nine-year-old J. Edgar Hoover to his office, scowled at him and appointed him head of the F.B.I., a position that Hoover has held to this day.

How has Hoover, in defiance of all history, remained head of a national secret police force for thirty-three years, surviving almost unchallenged five Presidents and eleven Attorneys-General?

I met Edgar Hoover in 1940. I was in Washington with my chief, Admiral Godfrey, who was on a mission to co-ordinate the Naval Intelligence effort before America came into the war. In the confusion of fledgling Intelligence organisations, there were two solid men in America—the brilliant Canadian, “Bill” Stephenson, who represented British Intelligence, and Edgar Hoover. Hoover, a chunky, enigmatic man with slow eyes and a trap of a mouth, received us graciously, listened with close attention (and a witness) to our exposé of certain security problems and expressed himself firmly but politely as being uninterested in our mission.

Hoover had his channels with Bill Stephenson, and his commonsense, legalistic mind told him it would be unwise to open separate channels with us. He was, of course, quite right. Our constitutional link with American Intelligence could only lie with the Office of Naval Intelligence of the Navy Department.

Hoover’s negative response was soft as a cat’s paw. With the air of doing us an exceptional favour he had us piloted, through the F.B.I. Laboratory and Record Departments and down to the basement shooting range where, at that time, his men had their training in the three basic F.B.I. weapons—pistol, automatic shot gun, and sub-machine gun. Even now I can hear the shattering roar of the Thompsons as, in the big dark cellar, the instructor demonstrated on the trick targets. Then, with a firm, dry handclasp, we were shown the door.

My impression of the F.B.I then, and my impression of the occasional agents I have since met, is that discipline and thoroughness, rather than intuitive brilliance, is the backbone of the Bureau. These virtues, together with incorruptibly and absolute loyalty to his superiors, are the reasons for Hoover’s long survival. Add to these absence or greed to political power and, despite his bachelorhood, a life totally untouched by scandal, and you have a Civil Servant whom any government would welcome as guardian of its secrets (not quite all its secrets: Hoover knew nothing of the atomic bomb project until his own undercover agents in Communist cells on the West Coast began picking up gossip about the Manhattan Project!).

Resisted McCarthy

In England, we are inclined to think the F.B.I. played a dubious role at the time of the McCarthy purges. It would be wrong to tar Hoover with that brush. The F.B.I. had to obtain and give evidence, but Hoover refused to open his files to the McCarthy investigators. Hoover’s point of View was that a raw file, containing unconfirmed suspicions, is a weapon which should never be used against an individual except to build up a case that will subsequently stand in law. He successfully resisted all McCarthy’s attempts to gain access to his records on any man, while accepting his duty to provide the Senate Inquiry with normal security checks.

No doubt the F.B.I. has its grimy secrets and certainly, as all police forces, it has made mistakes, but the impression I have, now strongly reinforced by reading The F.B.I. Story, is that the Bureau is probably the best-run Department of the American Government. In a country where a serious crime is committed every 13.9 seconds it would be bad news if it wasn’t!

Mr. Whitehead has written in admirable prose a first-class documentary which can be read with real excitement by the crime addict, but which will also serve as good contemporary history.

Commentary: Ian Fleming would have been astonished to know J. Edgar Hoover continued serving as director of the F.B.I. until his death in 1972. The reason for Hoover’s long survival was that multiple Presidents feared his retaliation. As Lyndon Johnson legendarily said, “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” Richard Nixon chose not to remove Hoover because he feared Hoover would “bring down the temple” by releasing damaging information about him. In a wonderful irony, Hoover’s death brought down the temple instead, since the man Nixon passed over to succeed Hoover became Deep Throat!

The F.B.I.'s “grimy secrets” were also grimier than Fleming knew: illegal wiretapping, COINTELPRO, the persecution of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King ( to whom an anonymous blackmail letter was sent, urging him to commit suicide), and much more.

Fleming also doesn’t mention that he was among those “in England” who were “inclined to think the F.B.I. played a dubious role at the time of the McCarthy purges.” Evidence is in the following excerpt from an earlier article, where Fleming compared Hoover to Napoleon’s secret police chief.

from Eldollarado: A Transient’s Scrapbook from New York
(Sunday Times, June 28, 1953)

These Names Make Bad News

For a time the Coronation (“It’s going to mean a great religious revival round the world” is a comment I have heard several times) ousted McCarthy as topic “A” in New York and I believe throughout America, but now he is top-billing again, and you simply can’t stop talking about him or reading about him.

There are various reasons for this: he has a really expert publicity machine, he is always springing or cooking-up a new surprise, people are terrified and fascinated by him, and “he may be a sonofabitch but, darn it, he’s always right.” Homosexuals in the State Department, British ships trading with China, un-American books in American embassies abroad.

Each scandalous broadside has missed with ninety-nine calumnies and hit with one. And that one is enough in a country where every man is born with a chance to be President and where, in consequence, every man aches to prove the Administration wrong. McCarthy is just pressing the trigger of a gun which is loaded and aimed by a huge cross-section of the public.

Walter Winchell has been doing much the same thing for thirty years, and he goes on doing it on radio and TV to a guaranteed public of around ten million every week. Is there a connection between them?

And what role does Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. play in all this, the Washington Fouché who has controlled the American secret police for the amazing span of twenty-seven years? These three men are the recipients of all the private grudges of America. They are the overt and covert crusaders against un-Americanism. The sun would indeed be darkened if history were to bring them together, or any closer together, before this giant country has found itself.


Many thanks for sharing these pieces, @Revelator. Especially interesting in light of what we know today - and what Fleming already knew/suspected back then.