Ian Fleming’s Literature Lost at the Movies

Ian Fleming lived the secret agent role he gave to James Bond.
Ian Fleming lived the secret agent role he gave to James Bond.

“…life had gone out of the body so quickly, so utterly, that [he] had almost seen it come out of his mouth as it does, in the shape of a bird, in Haitian primitives. What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no more. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving licence. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for the dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico.”

Hemingway? Crichton? Grisham? Clancy? Chandler? Le Carre? Roald Dahl? Conan Doyle? None of the above. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write as well. Perhaps you will be as surprised as I to learn that the author of this engaging prose is none other than Ian Fleming. It was easy for me to get caught up in the cheesy movies and forget what an excellent writer he was. It had been quite a few years since I’d actually read any of his work. The movies may have as much corn as Kellogg’s has flakes, but the writing does not.

Interest was re-kindled in Fleming’s work when I reviewed The Irregulars by Jennet Conant. She includes Fleming’s story as a character in a mission ordered by Churchill himself to counter the isolationist movement in the United States and influence American policy towards Britain and to do whatever possible to assure involvement of the U.S.A. in the war. As a member of the British Naval Intelligence Office, Fleming lived the life he later wrote about under the guise of James Bond.

William “Wild Bill” Stephenson, code named “INTREPID” became Fleming’s close friend and mentor. In Fleming, Stephenson found a willing, talented, and highly imaginative protege’ who could think and speak on his feet under pressure. The two men shared a fascination with gadgets (think “Q”) and far-fetched espionage schemes. Fleming could also write. He is credited with drafting what has been described as the “original charter of the OSS” as well as a later piece he self-described as “my memorandum to Bill [Stephenson] on how to create an American Secret Service.”

The opening sample of Fleming’s writing is from Goldfinger, the seventh in the James Bond series. It was first published in 1959. Fleming was also known as a travel writer. Indeed, his fictional hero, James Bond was a globe trotter. Additionally, Fleming wrote several articles and at least one non-fiction book about travel — Thrilling Cities.

Ian Fleming went on to write fourteen novels in the James Bond series drawing upon many of his own war-time experiences for plot ideas. He brings out that certain charm in the English language as the great poets intended. As with any series, we learn more and more about James Bond with each book. He becomes a person with whom we find many admirable characteristics and share his personal battles with the often unsavory tasks he must perform “for God and Queen.” For me, he ranks right up there with Sherlock Holmes on my list of fictitious people I’d like to meet in real life. While much of the novels are dated (all were written before 1967) the themes and lessons learned are classic — just like the writing.

TheTouristKiller6

Please click the book cover image to read more about FCEtier and his novels.

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  • I loved the novels. I can’t stand the movies – some sub-group of humans entranced with explosions and ‘action’ have destroyed the quality, the story, the character of the man James Bond with a series of sequential caricatures.

    I know the Fleming books are considered camp by some – and I almost don’t dare go back and read them in case they don’t survive time well – but my memories are of being pulled into the stories and wishing I could meet their hero.

    The inner working of Bond’s mind were in the books – movies lose those anyway, as they struggle to make ‘inner’ worlds visible. Instead, the movies replaced all that with car chases and bombs. Ugh.

    Which goes to show you will probably never know all the permutations of feelings and thoughts that people get out of reading your books.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    I think you have tapped in on one of the great travesties of literature, Chip. People know Ian Fleming because of the James Bond movies and never bother to read his work. And he wrote some really good novels that are indeed the stuff of quality literature.

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