James Bond: Four writers carry forward Ian Fleming’s spy legacy
“You Only Live Twice” isn’t just the name of one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (and the movie it spawned). It’s also turned out to be a fitting description of Fleming’s legacy. Not only does Fleming’s most famous creation live on nearly 50 years after his death — the latest Bond flick, “Skyfall,” hit theaters Friday — but Fleming’s unique brand of international intrigue continues to influence today’s thriller writers.
While the Fleming estate recently announced that William Boyd would write the next official Bond novel (due next fall), a slew of other authors have been keeping the 007 spirit alive with their own series. They don’t all write about spies or diabolical plots to take over the world, but they do acknowledge their debt to Fleming and his sexy, high-stakes take on the thriller. Hero Complex has compiled dossiers on four such authors. For Your Eyes Only, of course.
Subject: Jeremy Duns, author of “Free Agent,” “Song of Treason” and “The Moscow Option.”
The 007 connection: Duns writes conspiracy-packed spy thrillers set at the height of the Cold War. His protagonist is British secret agent Paul Dark, who lives up to his name: He’s so ruthless, he makes Bond look as soft and cuddly as Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s cat.
The Fleming influence: “I try to write the kind of books I like to read, which include Ian Fleming’s novels,” Duns says. “And I often read thrillers in this vein because they take me all over the world, with danger lurking around every corner.”
Did he grow up a Bond fan? Yes and no. “I loved the films when I was a boy. Underwater cars and guns from lighters are the sort of thing a lot of boys like, I think. I tried to read a few Fleming novels in my teens, but they seemed stuffy and I was much more into the likes of Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins, both of whom were influenced by Fleming but took the thriller in a slightly different direction. When I read the Flemings again in my twenties, it was really his prose that drew me in. He had a great eye for telling, authoritative detail and was also a terrific stylist. I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for creating one of the great fictional icons of our time. The Bond novels are really the father of the modern thriller, and the character has a timeless appeal.”
How his books differ from Fleming’s: “I think some of Fleming’s more outlandish ideas would be difficult to get past an audience coming fresh to them today. If you had a villain like his Mr. Big in ‘Live and Let Die,’ for instance, or his Dr. No, it would probably seem parodic today, more like an Austin Powers film, because of the familiarity most people have with the conventions. Purely in terms of form, Fleming wrote very short novels by today’s standards, and some of them would probably be thought overly digressive if they were published today. Fleming often savored details that were irrelevant to his plots, which were usually not a main concern of his anyway.”
His favorite Bond adventures: “My favorite Bond films are the ones most faithful to the novels, which I think are ‘From Russia With Love’ and ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.’ They just have great suspense plots and, with the latter, an emotional dimension missing from most of the rest of them. I also love ‘Casino Royale’ with Daniel Craig, which updates Fleming’s novel in some very clever ways. ‘Casino Royale’ is probably my favorite novel by Fleming: It’s a taut, brutal, devastating book. I also love his short stories, particularly ‘Octopussy’ and ‘The Living Daylights,’ which also show the more human side of Bond. I enjoy the series most when there’s a friction between the thrilling fantasy of this globetrotting superman and the real and dirty world of espionage, and that’s something I guess I’ve tried to re-create in my own work.”
Subject: Barry Eisler, author of such bestselling thrillers as “Killing Rain” and “The Last Assassin.”
The 007 connection: Eisler’s most popular creation, John Rain, doesn’t have a license to kill, yet he makes his living doing it anyway. The half-American, half-Japanese assassin wrestles with his conscience in a way we rarely see Bond do, though, and he frequently uses his lethal skills to do a little pro bono good.
The Fleming influence: “The books are loaded with guns and other cool weaponry; femmes fatale and some fairly steamy sex; and exotic locations including Bali, Bangkok, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Phuket, Paris and some other great places, too,” Eisler says. “All elements I think it’s safe to say Ian Fleming would have approved of.”
Did he grow up a Bond fan? Yes! “I was a huge fan. [So it’s] probably no surprise that later in life I spent some time in a covert position with the CIA.”
How his novels differ from Fleming’s: “Well, his depictions of women might be viewed as a bit … antiquated, by current standards. But even if a contemporary writer can get away with more stock-type female characters, why would anyone want to? Fleming was a pioneer but also a product of his time. I don’t see any reason that every significant character in a story shouldn’t be fully developed and three-dimensional. The plot, the character interactions, the dialogue, the whole reading experience — everything is enhanced as a result. Also, I think it’s common to suggest that Fleming was writing during a simpler time, the Cold War, when allegiances were easier to determine and the nature of the struggle was easier to understand. I think this viewpoint is mistaken…. [T]hriller writers who were interested at the time, or who are interested today, can come up with a nuanced, interesting and realistic take on geopolitical back story if they aspire to do so.”
His favorite Bond adventures: “I’ve seen all the movies and have enjoyed them all for different reasons. For some reason, one of my favorites was ‘Live and Let Die.’ Yaphet Kotto is a great actor and he was such a badass Mr. Big…. As for the books, likewise, I enjoyed all of them. But maybe ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ most of all. The morality was especially convoluted and confusing in those entries, and as you can tell from my own books, I find moral ambiguity the most engaging kind in fiction.”
Subject: Gayle Lynds, author of such novels as “Masquerade,” “The Last Spymaster” and “The Book of Spies.”
The 007 connection: Lynds specializes in unpredictable, high-octane spy thrillers and helped launch the Covert-One series, which was based on ideas by Jason Bourne creator Robert Ludlum.
The Fleming influence: “I’ve always loved spy stories. Who can resist?” Lynds says. “As J. Edgar Hoover said, ‘There’s something about a secret that’s addicting.’ And of course governments with secrets means great power is in play. Although Fleming had a delightful quotient of fantasy, as opposed to the grim realism of John le Carré, he wrote about fascinating secrets and dangerous power and made it all highly entertaining. That’s what I write about, too.”
Did she grow up a Bond fan? Yes and no — unlike some of our other subjects, she didn’t come to Bond via a childhood love of the movies. “I discovered Fleming’s work in the 1970s and read every one I could get my hands on. I loved the intimacy of his voice, the creativity of his ideas, the exotic locales and the great feeling one got because the good guy — we really love 007 — always won.”
How her novels differ from Fleming’s: “Fleming’s characters had flair, cunning and intelligence. We spy writers still do that today. However, his plots are largely outdated due to the demise of the Cold War. By the way, there are spies and writers who long for the return of those simpler days.”
Her favorite Bond adventure: “I vote for ‘From Russia, With Love.’ It’s twisty and diabolical, with MI6 and James Bond being set up by the Soviets for embarrassment and death. There are moments of moral complexity that are riveting, and of course 007 is at his sexy, wisecracking best.”
Subject: Brett Battles, author of conspiracy thrillers (“No Return”), techno-thrillers (the Project Eden series) and YA novels (“Here Comes Mr. Trouble”).
The 007 connection: Battles has written six novels about Jonathan Quinn, a professional “cleaner” who specializes in mopping up after shady deaths but frequently becomes a target himself. (The most recent entry in the series, “The Collected,” came out last month.)
The Fleming influence: “Like Bond, Quinn works in the world of spies and secrets where there is a lot more going on than those outside this world are aware,” says Battles. “Exotic locations, murky organizations and unexpected deceptions are other Fleming influences that run through the Quinn books.”
Did he grow up a Bond fan? Yes and no. “I was a fan of the movies first. A huge fan. Sean Connery could do no wrong and was always the No. 1 Bond to me. But I have to say Daniel Craig is homing in on that position. He’s spectacular. This is probably not something a writer should admit, but I like the movies more than the books.”
How his novels differ from Fleming’s: “Fleming could get outlandish at times, and that was fine. It worked great. Nebulous/nefarious organizations wanting to rule the world, that’s great stuff. It’s a bit harder for writers these days to go that big without seeming like they’re writing satire. Generally we have to tie what we’re doing a bit closer to the real world, though we can still get away with a bit of fun.”
His favorite Bond adventures: “Of the early ones, ‘Dr. No’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’ are two of the best. But my absolute favorite now is the Daniel Craig version of ‘Casino Royale.’”
— Steve Hockensmith
Steve Hockensmith lives in an undisclosed location somewhere in Northern California. He’s the author of several mysteries, including the Edgar Award finalist “Holmes on the Range.” Like Battles, he has a deep, dark secret: His favorite 007 is Roger Moore. He can be taunted via comments on his website (www.stevehockensmith.com).
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