Friday, August 20, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Spy Writer Vs. Spy Writer: John le Carre Calls Ian Fleming's Iconic James Bond Character A Neo-Fascist Gangster

Regarding John le Carre’s recent critical remarks about fellow thriller writer Ian Fleming’s iconic character James Bond, the author of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is right about one thing. 

Le Carre is correct in stating that the Bond films have overtaken the books. It is true that the general public’s image of the fictional secret agent is that of the often silly, superman-like film character, rather than the darker, more complex and more realistic Bond character in the novels. 

Le Carre is wrong about everything else. 

Le Carre, aka former British intelligence officer David Cornwell, upon reviewing a 1966 BBC broadcast in which he was highly critical of Ian Fleming, calling his character James Bond “a neo-fascist gangster,” noted that he would be “much kinder” in his remarks today. 

The 78-year-old, bitter leftist spy novelist then went on to state that Bond “would have gone through the same antics for any country if the girls had been so pretty and the martinis so dry.”

So much for being kinder. 

“I dislike Bond,” le Carre told the BBC in 1966. “I’m not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it’s a great mistake if one’s talking about espionage literature to include Bond in that category. 

“It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill… he’s a man entirely out of the political context. It’s no interest to Bond who, for instance, is president of the United States or the Union of Soviet Republics.” 

It was a pity that Fleming, who died in August of 1964, was not alive to respond.

I suggest that le Carre, like millions of thriller readers around the world, re-read the Fleming stories. 

Although Fleming stated that his James Bond thrillers were highly romanticized and he wrote them unabashedly for entertainment (the public’s as well as his own), the novels portray a character based on the secret agents and military commandos Fleming met while serving as a British naval commander attached to naval intelligence in World War II. He also added a good bit of his own likes, dislikes and personality to the character. 

The Bond character was driven primarily by a love of adventure and a strong sense of patriotism. He was all Queen and Country. He fought the good fight against communists, terrorists and criminals. He was a modern-day knight. 

As for le Carre’s comment that Bond was not truly a spy, if he were to re-read the novels, he would discover that the character was a senior intelligence officer in the British Secret Service - the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), often referred to as MI6.  

Although he did not perform traditional intelligence officer duties, such as recruiting and controlling agents, Bond was sent out on missions to “spy” on and take out enemies of the Crown. Bond was a special operator. 

Although the double-00 license to kill was a fictional device, there are in reality special operatives in the intelligence services of both the U.S. and the U.K who have special operations backgrounds and have skills in guns, knives, unarmed combat and explosives. These men, and some women, are hunting al Qaeda today. 

“Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” Fleming said. 

Although his thrillers had fantastic elements, many of his plots and characters were inspired by true events. A case in point is the plot of Goldfinger, in which a gold-crazed criminal mastermind plans to rob Fort Knox. 

Ben Macintyre recently wrote a good piece for The London Times, in which he informs us that a German spy in WWII named Gustav Steinhauer planned to blow up the gold reserves of the Bank of England. Macintyre wrote that Fleming liked the interplay between truth and fiction. 

In 1966, when le Carre recorded his disparaging remarks, Fleming was dead, but Bond-mania was in full bloom. Although le Carre’s novels sold well and he was critically acclaimed, Fleming’s thrillers were well on their way to selling 100 million copies world-wide. James Bond was a house-hold name around the world. 

As for le Carre’s realism, I’ve interviewed a good number of former and current CIA and military intelligence officers who object strongly to the moral ambiguity found in his novels. Most Cold War intelligence officers were, like Bond, patriots who were dedicated to fighting communism. 

British, American and other Western intelligence officers were certainly not like their utterly ruthless KGB and Eastern bloc counterparts who were defending a totalitarian, evil empire. There was a moral distinction between the Cold Warriors that you will not find in a le Carre novel.

And it should be noted that John Bingham, le Carre's boss and mentor at MI5, and reportedly the man le Carre based George Smiley on, despised le Carre's portrayal of British spies.

William F. Buckley Jr, the late conservative author, columnist and political talk show host, noted that films and novels in the 1960s and 1970s often portrayed CIA officers as no better than the KGB.

Having served briefly as a CIA officer, he objected.

Buckley said the CIA pushed little old ladies out of the way of moving cars, while the KGB pushed little old ladies into the path of the moving cars. People like le Carre say both the CIA and the KGB push around little old ladies.

Buckley, who wrote his own series of spy thrillers, believed the CIA and the Western intelligence services were a force for good in the Cold War. 

I agree.

Despite the moral ambiguity, I used to like le Carre’s novels. But his most recent novels have been marred by his increasing anti-Americanism and leftist opinions.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a first-rate spy thriller, and in the novel le Carre offers a James Bond type of character with Peter Guillam, the tough guy head of the "Scalphunters." The Scalphunters were in le Carre's novels a group that performs the rough stuff one associates with James Bond.

And Peter Guillam was played in the TV mini-series by actor Michael Jayston, who was also considered for the role of James Bond at one point.

Yes, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a great Cold War thriller, but so is From Russia With Love.

Lastly, it should be noted that Fleming lost his father in combat in World War I and his younger brother in World War II. Ian Fleming was a British patriot, as was his creation, James Bond.

Note: As I wrote above, William F. Buckley wrote a series of spy thrillers. You can read my Philadelphia Inquirer review of Buckley's last thriller via the below link:

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