Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Through a Thriller-Writer's Eyes: The Life & Work of Ian Fleming & My Q & A With Fergus Fleming

Last year was the centenary of Ian Fleming (1908-1964). It was a very good year for the creator of Bond, James Bond.

To celebrate his life and work, a good number of events took place in the United Kingdom, the U.S. and around the world.

As his family-run web site,, noted, the year’s highlights included the publication of Devil May Care, the new Bond continuation novel written by Sebastian Faulks (I gave the book a mixed review in the Philadelphia Inquirer) and a major exhibition celebrating Fleming’s life at the Imperial War Museum in London. More than 100,000 people visited the exhibition, which was called For Your Eyes Only - Ian Fleming and James Bond. The exhibition will run until April of this year.

The United Kingdom issued Royal Mail stamps in Fleming’s honor last year and events, books, and numerous articles in newspapers, magazines and Internet publications praised Fleming and celebrated his life, legacy and the impact of his fictional character James Bond.

The year 2008 also saw the release of the Bond film Quantum of Solace. Although I was not totally thrilled with the non-stop slam-bam action, I was glad that the producers have returned to making Fleming/Bond thrillers, rather than the camp action-comedies of earlier years.

Since the publication of Casino Royale in 1953 more than than 100 million Bond novels have been sold. Last year Penguin published new hardback editions of Fleming’s books. Also last year, Queen Anne Press published a limited high quality edition of Fleming’s complete works.

Fleming wrote 17 books: 12 Bond thrillers, two volumes of Bond short stories, a book of travel journalism, Thrilling Cities; a nonfiction account of the diamond trade, The Diamond Smugglers; and the children’s book Chitty-Chitty, Bang-Bang. The publisher also added Talk of the Devil, a posthumous collection of rarely seen material, including some unpublished material. The title, according to the publisher, was taken from a list that Fleming kept in his notebook.

Fleming’s travel book Thrilling Cities, a collection of pieces on the most interesting cities in the world that originally appeared in the Sunday Times of London, was reprinted this year. The introduction was written by travel writer Jan Morris.

“The essays in Thrilling Cities were originally written as journalism, but display the kind of patrician literary defiance, peculiar I think to himself, that gave the Bond novels their style,” Morris wrote in the introduction.

“They are a very unorthodox kind of travel writing; Fleming was rich, he was fashionably connected, he was famously successful, he was a man of cultivated and urbane tastes and he didn’t give a damn,” Morris wrote.

”He was not out to thrill his readers, most of them Bond addicts by then, with his evocations and often severe critiques of places around the world; he was out to inform and entertain himself. Not often for him the museum or the guided tour: he traveled in the spirit of 007, with an eye for the slinky and the significant, in places where the martinis were shaken not stirred (or was it vice versa?), and all life could be viewed with a cool raised eyebrow.”

With his interest in crime and espionage, Fleming interviewed Charles “Charlie Lucky” Luciano, the exiled prince of American organized crime, in Naples. In Berlin, he interviewed a Cold War spy, and in other cities he interviewed detectives, crooks, journalists, authors and other interesting people. This is not your typical travel book.

I carried a paperback copy of Thrilling Cities with me throughout my time in the U.S. Navy in the early and mid-1970s. I was thrilled that I was able to visit many of the cities Fleming visited and wrote about two decades before me.

“All my life I have been interested in adventure, and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide, well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns,” Fleming wrote in his introduction. “It was perhaps this habit that turned me into a writer of thrillers and by the time I made the journeys that produced these essays, I had certainly got into the way of looking at people and places and things through a thriller-writer’s eye.”

The Diamond Smugglers, a nonfiction account of a smuggling ring, was also reissued. The book’s introduction was written by Ian Fleming’s nephew, Fergus Fleming.

The Sunday Times had acquired a manuscript from an ex-MI5 agent named John Collard who had been employed by De Beers to break up a diamond smuggling ring,” Fergus Fleming wrote in his introduction to the book.

“Fleming, whose Diamonds Are Forever had been one of the hits of 1956, was invited to bring it to life. Treasure, travel, cunning and criminality: here were the things he loved. Flying to Tangier - home to every shade of murky dealing - he spent ten days interviewing Collard, for whom he had already prepared the romantic pseudonym “John Blaize” and the equally romanticized job description of “diamond spy.”

Fergus Fleming goes on to describe Ian Fleming’s disappointment in the book, noting that De Beers wanted material to be cut from the book and they threatened legal action if it were not. “It was a good story until all the possible libel was cut out,” Ian Fleming said at the time.

“Yet if The Diamond Smugglers was a disappointment to its author it still contains flashes of Fleming-esque magic,” Fergus Fleming wrote in the introduction. “More than forty years later it remains something of a conundrum: a journalistic chore that its author disliked but which nevertheless became a best-seller and very nearly his first film; a book that is neither travelogue nor thriller but contains the discarded hopes of both; a tale of international intrigue…”

Fergus Fleming took note of a sentence his uncle wrote in the opening paragraph: “One day in April 1957 I had just answered a letter from an expert in unarmed combat from a cover address in Mexico City, and I was thanking a fan in Chile, when my telephone rang.”

And now in 2009, his nephew writes “If you’re given a line like that you can only read on.”

I contacted Fergus Fleming and asked him about his uncle’s life and work.

DAVIS: Would you explain your personal and professional relationship with Ian Fleming?

FLEMING: Personally, I am his nephew. Professionally, I am a Director of Ian Fleming Publications (IFP), the company which manages his literary estate. Also, with my cousin Kate Grimond, I am the co-publisher of Queen Anne Press, the firm of which he was once Managing Director. I’m the son of Richard, Ian’s younger brother. My cousin and co-publisher Kate is the daughter of his older brother Peter.

DAVIS: Are you old enough to have known him?

FLEMING: I don’t remember meeting Ian - he died when I was five years old - but his books were on the family shelves and of course every new Bond film was a must-see.

DAVIS: Can you tell us about your professional background?

FLEMING: My background is unglamorous. Having trained as an accountant and barrister I worked as a furniture maker before becoming a writer and editor at Time-Life Books. Since the 1990s I have written several works of narrative nonfiction, including Barrow's Boys, Killing Dragons and Ninety Degrees North.

DAVIS: Please tell us about the Queen Anne series of Fleming’s novels and the compilation of Fleming’s journalistic pieces, Talk of the Devil?

FLEMING: Talk of the Devil is a collection of rarely seen material, some of it unpublished. The contents are mainly journalistic but they also include two short stories. One of them, A Poor Man Escapes, is Ian’s earliest known attempt at fiction. The other, The Shameful Dream, was written in 1951 and has as its hero a journalist named Bone - a year and a letter-change later the hero would be Bond. For fuller details, see our web site, The book is restricted currently to the Centenary Edition but it will be available as a single volume sometime in the future.

DAVIS:: I read The Diamond Smugglers and Thrilling Cities again and I enjoyed them. I thought the new editions and covers were smart-looking. Would you please tell us about the genesis of these non-fiction books and why they’ve been reprinted again?

FLEMING: They are pieces of extended journalism that were first published by The Sunday Times in the late 1950s. Of the two, Thrilling Cities is probably the most entertaining but The Diamond Smugglers was something of a hit at the time - remarkably, it was the first of Ian’s books to be optioned (by Rank). They have been reissued by IFP not only to mark the centenary but because they are good books in their own right which have been overshadowed by the more glamorous Bond novels.

DAVIS: Ian Fleming’s Centenary, 2008, was a good one, I thought. What were the highlights for you?

FLEMING: Yes, the Centenary Year was excellent, its highlights many and varied. The Ian Fleming Gala evening was outstanding. My personal favorite was the launch of Sebastian Faulkes’ Devil May Care.

DAVIS: Considering Ian Fleming’s WWII service as a naval intelligence officer and his father’s death in WWI and his brother’s death in WWII, do you think he would have been pleased with the Imperial War Museum tribute to him?

FLEMING: Ian would definitely have been pleased with the Imperial War Museum exhibition. He was brought up in the shadow of WWI, served in WWII and created a fictional spy for the Cold War. He never forgot that his father and brother had died defending their country. The Imperial war Museum was therefore a perfect place to celebrate his life and works.

DAVIS: I believe thrillers are an art form, with thrillers being like jazz to literary fiction’s classical music. I also believe that Fleming was a first-class thriller writer. Although he said numerous times that he unabashedly wrote the Bond books as entertainment and wrote primarily for money and personal pleasure, he was also a serious craftsman who took thriller-writing seriously. Do you agree?

FLEMING: I couldn’t comment on the jazz/classical analogy! I agree that Ian wrote for a living and avoided any hint of pretentiousness. He drew a sharp line between those who called themselves “authors” and those who called themselves “writers,” numbering himself in the later. In a 1960s Who’s Who entry he described himself as having written “several novels of suspense.” In my view he wrote novels not of suspense but sensation. In this respect he took his job seriously and at the same time made money and had a lot of fun.

DAVIS: Has a new writer been selected to pen a new James Bond continuation novel? Do you have input into the selection? If so, may I suggest that you pick a thriller writer this time. Frederick Forsyth would be my pick.

FLEMING: No comment on the next Bond author. But Frederick Forsyth is an interesting idea.

DAVIS: I first read Fleming’s thrillers when I was about 11 or 12 in the 1960s after I saw the first couple of Sean Connery-Bond films. I became a Fleming aficionado then and I remain one today. When did you first read the Bond thrillers and what did you initially think of them?

FLEMING Like you I first read the Bond books aged 11-12, but in the early 70s. I thought they were excellent (naturally) and re-read them constantly for the next four years. Then didn’t them up again until 2005. What struck me the second time around was how colorful, vibrant and dramatic they were.

DAVIS: What do you think of the Bond films?

FLEMING: The films are very good and very entertaining but after a while one tends to assume they are the be-all and end-all of Bond. This is probably why the books seemed so fresh on a second approach.

DAVIS: In re-reading The Diamond Smugglers and Thrilling Cities I was struck by Ian Fleming’s droll sense of humor. One criticism I always see of Fleming is that the Bond books lack humor. Granted that the book Bond does not have the sophomoric, flippant sense of humor of the movie Bond, but there are pieces of humor in the books. For example, From Russia With Love has a character named Darko Kerim who has a good sense of humor. And when Tatiana asks Bond why British men don’t use perfume like Russian men, Bond replies “We wash.” What can you tell us about Fleming’s sense of humor in the thrillers and in his nonfiction?

FLEMING: Yes, he had a sense of humor. But he had to keep it low-key lest he compromise the seriousness of Bond’s profession. His nonfiction is more humorous but equally dry and self-deprecating.

DAVIS: I’ve read that an Ian Fleming film biography is in the works. Do you know anything about the film? I understand that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company owns the rights. I hope he is not planning on portraying Fleming. What actor would you pick?

FLEMING: A Fleming film biography is news to me. It would be interesting if he was played by a complete stranger.

DAVIS: If Ian Fleming were alive today, what do you think he would think of his still-growing popularity?

FLEMING: If Ian was alive today he would be amazed and delighted to find he had such a large body of fans. Many thanks on his behalf - and keep turning the pages.

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