Friday, December 28, 2012

My Crime Beat Column: My Q & A With Ben Macintyre, Author of "For Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming & James Bond"

This is truly Ian Fleming’s year. Fleming, who was born 100 years ago on May 28, 1908, is being given the royal treatment in the United Kingdom, the U.S., and around the world. For some months I’ve been reading a good number of newspaper, magazine and Internet articles on Fleming and his iconic character, James Bond.

As regular readers of this column know, I’m a true Fleming aficionado, so I’m pleased that Fleming is getting the attention and respect I believe he truly deserves.

To celebrate the Fleming centenary Penguin is releasing a new collection of his short stories as well as his novels. His children’s story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is also being released in a new hardback edition. Ian Fleming Publications, which is run by the Fleming family, has authorized two series of peripheral Bond stories. Charlie Higson has written a series of Young Bond novels, and Samantha Weinberg has written The Moneypenny Diaries. The family has also hired a "literary" author, Sebastian Faulks, to write a Bond continuation novel called Devil May Care. I’m set to review the continuation novel for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’ve always been interested in Fleming’s wartime experience, so I’m looking forward to the publication Ian Fleming’s Secret War in August. According to the publisher, Pen & Sword Military, little is known about Fleming’s contribution during WWII. Fleming joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of WWII and he served as "the right hand man" to the Director of Naval Intelligence for six years. From the outset, the publisher notes, Fleming was at the center of events, meeting key political and military figures as well as those of exceptional intelligence, experience and courage. This experience gave him invaluable background when he came to write the Bond novels.

According to the publisher, the book’s author, Craig Caber, has uncovered through official documentation, private papers and contacts the depth of Fleming’s work in wartime naval intelligence.

There is also talk of a film based on Fleming’s life. Leonardo Dicaprio’s film production company has the rights, but I can only hope that he doesn’t choose to portray Fleming.

This October we’ll see the 22nd film in the Bond series, Quantum of Solace. Although Daniel Craig does not fit Fleming’s physical description of Bond (I believe that Clive Owen would have been a better choice), his first outing as Bond in Casino Royale was well received by both critics and the public.

The film producers wisely returned to Fleming’s original material and made a thriller rather than a cartoon, which many of the later films were in my view. The producers claim the next film will also be an exciting thriller.

The new editions of Fleming’s work, the continuation novel, and the film Quantum of Solace will no doubt create new James Bond fans and remind his many older fans that Fleming was a first rate thriller writer.

The British are honoring Fleming with Royal Mail stamps and the Imperial War Museum in London is marking the Fleming centenary with a major exhibition that explores his life and influences that guided him in his creation of his famous character James Bond. Fleming’s father died in combat in WWI and his younger brother died in combat in WWII. Considering his family’s sacrifices and his own military experience, Fleming, I think, would be proud of the exhibition honoring him at the Imperial War Museum.

Ben Macintyre (seen in the below photo), a writer at large for The Times of London, and author of Agent Zigzag and The Napoleon of Crime (two outstanding books in my view) has written a companion book to the Imperial War Museum exhibition called For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming & James Bond (Bloomsbury, USA).

As Macintyre wrote in his introduction, the book was published to coincide with the exhibition. The book is homage to Ian Fleming on the centenary of the author’s birth, and a celebration of James Bond, his greatest creation.

"It is not a biography –others, notably John Pearson and Andrew Lycett, have already performed that task admirably – nor is it a biography of James Bond, for that, too, has been written," Macintyre states in the introduction.

"It does not purport to be a comprehensive guide to the James Bond phenomenon (for this, I recommend Henry Chancellor’s official companion). Rather, it is a personal investigation into the intersection of two lives, one real and one fictional."

Macintyre went on to state that as a journalist and writer of non-fiction, he had always been intrigued by the factual origins of fiction. His previous books were in search of the nineteenth-century criminal Adam Worth, the model for Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes tales, and Josiah Harlan, an adventurer who would win literary immortality in Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King.

"All novelists find inspiration in reality, but Ian Fleming, more than any writer I know, anchored the imagined world of James Bond to the people, things and places he knew," Macintyre wrote.

Espionage is itself a shadow trade between truth and untruth and is a complex interweaving of imagination, deception and reality, Macintyre noted.

"As a former officer in naval intelligence, Fleming thought like a spy, and wrote like one. This book is an attempt to explore a remarkable double life and to establish, as nearly as possible, where the real world of Ian Fleming ended and the fictional world of James Bond begins."

I contacted Ben Macintyre and arranged an interview. Below is my Q &A with him:

DAVIS: To begin with, why did the Imperial War Museum offer a tribute to Ian Fleming?

MACINTYRE: The IWM exhibition is to mark the 100th anniversary of Fleming’s birth; more broadly I think the Fleming family and the museum felt there was mileage in drawing more attention to Fleming’s wartime past and its role in the development of the Bond books.

DAVIS: What drew you to write the companion book? Where you a fan of the novels and/or the films?

MACINTYRE: I have always been a fan, but was asked by the family, partly because of Agent Zigzag and partly because of articles I have written in the past about Bond and Fleming.

DAVIS: Did you find Fleming to be as interesting a subject as Adam Worth or Eddie Chapman?

MACINTYRE: In truth, though Fleming is a complex and interesting character, I got great pleasure in exploring characters who are less well known, and finding out about them or the first time, as it were.

DAVIS: Can you describe how Fleming was inspired by his late father who died in WWI and his own military service in WWII?

MACINTYRE: Val Fleming is a large part of the Bond myth. His early tragic death and gallantry provide, I think, the template for the Bond character. Fleming’s wartime service is critical: plots, characters, events, gadgets, places and politics all flow directly from that war. Bond is very much a World War II personality, fighting a Cold War.

DAVIS: How did his work in journalism play a role in his novels?

MACINTYRE: His ability to write to deadline, to get the facts right, and ensure a pacey narrative can all be traced directly to his early journalistic training.

DAVIS: I've read critics who state that Bond is a cardboard character with no motivation, but I see Ian Fleming as a patriot and believe Bond's main motivation is patriotism (as well as a love of adventure). Do you agree?

MACINTYRE: I do agree, although the somewhat veiled motives of Bond are part of appeal in the books: he is supposed to be a blunt instrument, and we are not really intended to be privy to his personal feelings about anything.

DAVIS: Many people find his novels and the films to be utterly fantastic, but you've noted that his plots, as well as his characters, were in fact based on reality. Can you explain this?

MACINTYRE: Fleming always based his books firmly in reality. "Everything I write has a basis in truth". True, Bond is able to carry out exploits that would be hard to believe in fact, yet the world of spying quite often beggars belief: Agent Zigzag being a good example.

DAVIS: What do you think of Fleming's attitude towards women?

MACINTYRE: Fleming’s attitude to women was odd: he never really understood them, and was, I think, very slightly afraid of them; he was a fantastic womaniser, but the women he really loved were not in the cocktail party poppet mould, but grown up, bossy, independent, often older (and married).

DAVIS: What do you think of "Bond Girls?"

MACINTYRE: I think the Bond girls in the books can be traced pretty directly to his wartime girlfriend, Muriel Wright, who was killed: Bond Girls tend to be beautiful, flawed, a little vulnerable, athletic, independent, biddable… and doomed.

DAVIS: Do you see a difference between the movie Bond and the novel Bond?

MACINTYRE: The film Bond is more violent, sexually promiscuous, and far wittier than the Bond of the books.

DAVIS: I was glad to see The Times rate Fleming as Number 14 in their list of the 50 greatest post-war writers. Why do you think he was rated so highly?

MACINTYRE: Because the books really do warrant re-reading.

DAVIS: Raymond Chandler was a friend and a fan of Fleming's novels. Can you describe their friendship and mutual admiration?

MACINTYRE: They had a huge amount in common, and Chandler felt that Fleming had broken out of a particularly hidebound tradition of English thriller writing.

DAVIS: Why do you think Fleming's James Bond character has endured and probably will endure for some time?

MACINTYRE: I think it will last forever, because the Bond character is endlessly malleable.

DAVIS: Lastly, has the Imperial War Museum's Fleming exhibition been successful?

MACINTYRE: Yes, very, so far, but it has another year to run.

DAVIS: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us.

For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming & James Bond is a well-written, well-researched and smart-looking book. The book also offers great photos.

I truly liked the book and I highly recommend it to Fleming aficionados who wish to celebrate the Ian Fleming centenary.

Note: The above column originally appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2008.

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