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


#61

You’re both very welcome, and I’m delighted to hear you’re archiving the posts. Part of my reason for sharing these articles was to make them accessible as texts that can be copied and pasted and easily shared. That wouldn’t have happened if Talk of the Devil had been made available to anyone besides millionaires. Anyway, I’ll be posting Fleming’s last interpol article at the end of the week.


#62

Gangs Cock a Snook at Interpol (Sunday Times, June 10, 1956)

By IAN FLEMING, The Sunday Times Special Representative

VIENNA, Saturday.

Allegorical figures representing industry, thrift, invention and wisdom look down on the police chiefs of 55 countries gathered in the Academy of Sciences here for the 25th assembly of the International Police Commission. The dark goddesses of sex, greed and narcotics would have been more appropriate witnesses.

The international drug traffic, gold smuggling, counterfeiting and prostitution are on the agenda, but much (too much) of this meeting will be occupied with a revision of Interpol’s statutes and with the election of a new president. Sir Ronald Howe, deputy commissioner of Scotland Yard, would have taken the place of the veteran M. Louwage of Belgium, but Sir Ronald is retiring to join a firm of merchant bankers, and M. Erie Ros, Stockholm’s chief of police, is likely to be elected.

Austrian Teddy-boys

Just as last year the criminal elements of Istanbul cocked a snook at Interpol by smashing up the city around the delegates, so, this year, have Austrian Teddy-boys shown their disdain by raiding the police museum at Graz and taking the pick of the modern revolver exhibits. These teen-age gangsters are known here as “halb-starke”—the half-strength ones—and their uniform is shiny leather jackets, shoes with two-inch soles and long greasy hair. The public is terrified.

A more attractive criminal element is the band of desperadoes who act as guides through the Iron Curtain. Their expert knowledge of safe routes through the minefields has so exasperated the Russians that they are moving the Hungarian curtain fringe a mile back. A conducted tour through the Hungarian Iron Curtain is cheap. I have been offered, and reluctantly rejected, a one-way passage for £2.

Greatest Safe-breaker

Vienna has a peculiar affinity with the mythos of crime. Over 100 years ago, a Viennese; Hans Gross, the first scientific criminologist, wrote his “Criminal Investigation,” and it remains the bible of the modern detective. Interpol itself was founded here in 1933, and today Vienna is the home of the greatest safe-breaker in the world—Joseph Bieraaus, who plies his trade as a locksmith.

His is a name to conjure with in the strongbox world, and he earns rich fees from the great safe-making firms. When the invasion of Britain was being planned he was asked if he could open the safes of the Bank of England and the Mint. On promising that he could, he was promoted sergeant and remained peacefully “on call.”

Then, of course, we have Nicholas Borrisov, alias Benno Blum, the original model for the Third Man, Harry Lime, who has opened his own cafe. Vienna is just the place for Interpol to meet.

Interpol, with its 250,000 card archives, seems to be increasing its cunning. Since its last meeting it has helped to come down on diamond smuggling from Africa, it has developed a new electronic method for detecting cheque forgeries and it has had some amazing successes against the drug traffic.

Drug “Shuttle-service”

One of the drug cases is interesting, because the gang used doctored cars—two Jaguars, two Buicks and a Fiat. Their own car body builder welded dummy crossbars to the chassis, capable of hiding away on each car up to 441 lb. of opium—a fortune’s worth. For two years these cars ran a regular shuttle-service between the Middle East and Marseilles. Then the police seized them all except the leader, a Lebanese “K,” who escaped.

Perhaps this summer, as you take your tryptique into some frontier office, that travel-stained Jaguar with the swarthy man and pretty girl which edged in just in front will be the redoubtable “K” with his latest girl, and perhaps if you follow their car to the next petrol station your keen eyes will notice that their tank takes only half as much petrol as your Jaguar does. Interpol in Vienna puts ideas into your head.


Fleming later wrote that his first Interpol conference, in Istanbul, “was great fun” and "by scraping together fragments from official papers and speeches and tying them up with informed gossip, I was able to write two long dispatches on ‘The Secrets of Interpol’ whose success was assisted by the Istanbul riots which took place conveniently over that week-end and on which I was able to give a scoop to my paper.

"The next year I went again to the conference, this time at Vienna, but my ‘revelations’ of the year before had put the police chiefs on their guard and, on this occasion, I was only able to produce a pretty thin three-quarters of a column. The learned papers read by the police chiefs had been more rigorously censored than before and were more carefully guarded, and the gossip dried up in my presence.

“I skipped the next year’s meeting in Lisbon, and that was the end of my acquaintanceship with Interpol.”


#63

It’s astonishing Fleming even got as far as he did. The only explanation is that most of the police chiefs were ignorant in whose presence they talked; you can hardly expect a journalist and thriller writer to keep mum about everything he heard during that conference.


#64

It probably helped that Fleming had not yet become a best-seller. Plus his friendship with Ronald Howe must have helped ingratiate himself with the other policemen.

Incidentally, I found the idea of “Austrian Teddy Boys” very funny. I’m sure in real life they were awful, but in my mind I picture them wearing frock coats and periwigs, joyriding around town on Lipizzaners and smashing windows to grab Linzer tortes.


#65

Mudscape with Figures (The Spectator, August 5, 1955)

By Ian Fleming

Some people are frightened by silence and some by noise. To some people the anonymous bulge at the hip is more frightening than the gun in the hand, and all one can say is that different people thrill to different stimuli, and that those who like The Turn of the Screw may not be worried by, for instance, The Cat and the Canary.

Only the greatest authors make the pulses of all of us beat faster, and they do this by marrying the atmosphere of suspense into horrible acts. Poe, Stevenson and M.R. James used to frighten me most, and now Maugham, Ambler, Simenon, Chandler, and Graham Greene can still raise the fur on my back when they want to. Their heroes are credible and their villains terrify with a real “blackness.” Their situations are fraught with doom, and the threat of doom, and, above all, they have pace. When one chapter is done, we reach out for the next. Each chapter is a wave to be jumped as we race with exhilaration behind the hero like a water-skier behind a fast motor-boat.

Too many writers in this genre (and I think Erskine Childers, on whose The Riddle of the Sands these remarks are hinged, was one of them) forget that, although this may sound a contradiction in terms, speed is essential to a novel of suspense, and while detail is important to create an atmosphere of reality, it can be laid on so thick as to become a Sargasso Sea on which the motor-boat bogs down and the skier founders.

The reader is quite happy to share the pillow-fantasies of the author as long as he is provided with sufficient landmarks to help him relate the author’s world more or less to his own, and a straining after verisimilitude with maps and diagrams should be avoided except in detective stories aimed at the off-beta mind.

Even more wearying are “recaps,” and those leaden passages where the hero reviews what he has achieved or ploddingly surveys what remains to be done. These exasperate the reader who, if there is to be any rumination, is quite happy to do it himself. When the author drags his feet with this space-filling device he is sacrificing momentum which it will take him much brisk writing to recapture.

These reflections, stale news through they may be to the mainliner in thrillers, come to me after rereading The Riddle of the Sands after an absence of very many years, and they force me to the conclusion that doom-laden silence and long-drawn-out suspense are not enough to confirm the tradition that Erskine Childers, romantic and remarkable man that he must have been, is also one of the father-figures of the thriller.

The opening of the story–the factual documentation in the preface and the splendid Lady Windermere’s Fan atmosphere of the first chapters–is superb.

At once you are ensconced in bachelor chambers off St. James’s at the beginning of the century. All the trappings of the Age of Certainty gather around you as you read. Although the author does not say so, a coal fire seems to roar in the brass grate; there is a glass of whisky beside your chair and, remembering Mr. Cecil Beaton’s Edwardian décors, you notice that the soda-water syphon beside it is of blue glass. The smoke from your cheroot curls up towards the ceiling and your button-boots are carefully crossed at the ankles on the red-­leather-topped fender so as not to disturb the crease of those spongebag trousers. On a mahogany bookrest above your lap The Riddle of the Sands is held open by at well-manicured finger.

Shall you go with Carruthers to Cowes or accompany him to the grouse-moor? It is the fag-end of the London season of 1903. You are bored, and it is all Mayfair to a hock-and-seltzer that the fates have got you in their sights and that you are going to start to pay for your fat sins just over the page.

Thus, in the dressing-room, so to speak, you and Carruthers are all ready to start the hurdle race. You are still ready when you get into the small boat in a God-forsaken corner of the East German coast, and you are even more hungry for the starter’s gun when you set sail to meet the villains. Then, to my, mind, for the next 95,000 words there is anticlimax.

This is a book of great renown; and it is not from a desire to destroy idols or a tendency to denigration that this review–now that, after the statutory fifty years, The Riddle of the Sands has entered the public domain–is becoming almost too much of an autopsy. But those villains! With the best will in the world I could not feel that the lives of the heroes (and therefore of my own) were in the least way endangered by them.

Dollmann, villain No. 1, is a “traitor” from the Royal Navy, whose presence among the clucking channels and glistening mudbanks of the Frisian Islands is never satisfactorily explained. His job was “spying at Chatham, the blackguard,” and the German High Command, even in 1903 when the book was first published, was crazy to employ him on what amounts to operational research. He never does anything villainous. Before the story opens, he foxes hero No. 1 into running himself on a mudbank, but at the end, when any good villain with his back to the wall would show his teeth, he collapses like a pricked balloon and finally disappears lamely overboard just after “we came to the bar of the Schild and had to turn south off that twisty bit of beating between Rottum and Bosch Fat.” His harshest words are “You pig­headed young marplots!” and his “blackness” is further betrayed by the beauty and purity of his daughter, with whom hero No. 1 falls in love (it is always a bad idea for the hero to fall in love with the villain’s daughter. We are left wondering what sort of children they will have.)

Von Bruning, villain No. 2, is frankly a hero to the author, and is presented as such; and No.3, Boehme, though at first he exudes a delicious scent of Peter Lorre, forfeits respect by running away across the mud and leaving one of his gumboots in the hands of hero No. 2.

The plot is that the heroes want to discover what the villains are up to, and, in a small, flat-bottomed boat, they wander amongst the Frisian Islands (and two maps, two charts and a set of tide-tables won’t convince me that they don’t wander aimlessly) trying to find out.

This kind of plot makes an excellent framework for that classic “hurdle race” thriller formula, in which the hero (despite his Fleet-Foot Shoes with Tru-Temper Spikes and Kumfi­-Krutch Athletic Supporter) comes a series of ghastly croppers before he breasts the tape.

Unfortunately, in The Riddle of the Sands there are no hurdles and only two homely mishaps (both of the heroes’ own devising)–a second grounding on a mudbank, from which the heroes refloat on the rising tide, and the loss of the anchor chain, which they salvage without difficulty.

The end of the 100,000 word quest through the low-lying October mists is a hasty, rather muddled scramble which leaves two villains, two heroes and the heroine more or less in the air, and the small boat sailing off to England with the answer to the riddle. Before 1914 this prize must have provided a satisfactory fall of the curtain, but since then two German wars have clanged about our heads and today our applause is rather patronising.

The reason why The Riddle of the Sands will always be read is due alone to its beautifully sustained atmosphere. This adds poetry, and the real mystery of wide, fog-girt silence and the lost-child crying of seagulls, to a finely written log-book of a small-boat holiday upon which the author has grafted a handful of “extras” and two “messages”–the threat of Germany and the need for England to “be prepared.”

To my mind it is now republished exactly where it belongs–in the Mariner’s Library. Here, a thriller by atmosphere alone, it stands alongside twenty-eight thrillers of the other school–thrillers where the action on the stage thrills, and the threatening sea-noises are left to the orchestra pit.


Notes:

Readers with long memories might remember that I posted this article a few years ago, but no collection of Fleming’s literary journalism is complete without it, since “Mudscape” is one of his best and most sustained critical essays.

We already knew Ambler, Simenon, Chandler, and Greene, were influences on Fleming, but it’s good to hear we was also influenced by Poe, Stevenson and M R. James. What Fleming praises in these authors are his own qualities as a thriller-writer. “Above all” he values pace and in a thrilling metaphor says “each chapter is a wave to be jumped as we race with exhilaration behind the hero like a water-skier.” Pace is of great value in the Bond books, since it’s used to hustle the reader past implausibilities and plot defects.

Fleming’s counsel against getting bogged down in detail might sound hypocritical, but Fleming had to convince his readers of far wilder events and characters than the comparatively realistic Childers. And Fleming certainly took his own advice in avoiding “leaden” recaps. He kept his books short.

Predictably, Fleming is most entranced (and seeks to entrance the reader) by details of clothing and furnishings (“you notice that the soda-water syphon beside it is of blue glass”), down to the hero’s spongebag trousers of the hero. As many have stated, he was sometimes more interested in things than people, but his interest was deep and sensual.

Fleming’s biggest complaint against Childers involves his villains. Fleming’s own, full of “blackness,” are among his greatest strengths, and it is no coincidence that the weakest Bond books are those with the least substantial villains. We also have an amusing namecheck of the “delicious” Peter Lorre, who had already played LeChiffre by the time Fleming penned this article.

“It is always a bad idea for the hero to fall in love with the villain’s daughter. We are left wondering what sort of children they will have.” Is this why Draco was made so loveable ally? And why Tracy was killed so soon after the wedding? I jest.