Category Archives: Ian Fleming

Plastic Tubes and Pots and Pans*

People invent all sorts of ingenious devices. Some of them become hits, and their inventors do quite well. Others don’t. Either way, it’s really interesting to think about that aspect of human curiosity and innovation.

There are plenty of such devices in fiction, too, even outside of steampunk and other science fiction. And, when you think about it, that makes sense. Inventions and innovations are part of what moves us along as a society. Certainly, you see this in crime fiction.

In Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance, for instance, Peter Barstow, President of Holland University, dies suddenly during a golf game. At first, his death is put down to a stroke. But it’s soon clear that he was poisoned. And the weapon was a specially-designed golf club. Matters get murkier when Carlo Maffei, who designed the club, goes missing and is later found dead. When Maffei’s sister, Maria, becomes concerned about her brother’s disappearance, she hires Nero Wolfe to look into the matter, and he and Archie Goodwin get started. They find that, as you’d expect, Maffei’s and Barstow’s deaths are connected. And it’s all related to past history.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Flora Ackroyd asks for Hercule Poirot’s help when her uncle is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect in the murder is Flora’s fiancé, Captain Ralph Paton. It seems that Paton, who was Ackroyd’s stepson, had quarreled with Ackroyd about money. What’s more, he went missing on the night of the murder, and hasn’t been seen since. Flora is convinced that Paton is innocent, and wants Poirot to clear his name. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. He finds that Paton is by no means the only possible suspect; in fact, everyone concerned in the case is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who killed Ackroyd. It turns out that the murderer used an ingenious little innovation to try to escape detection.

In Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear, we are introduced to academician and physical anthropologist Gideon Oliver. He’s been invited to give a series of guest lectures over two months at the United States Overseas College (USOC), which serves those who are stationed at US military bases in Europe. Things begin to go wrong very soon, though. First, he’s attacked in his hotel room by two thugs who are apparently looking for something. Then, he’s drawn into a web of espionage and counter-espionage when Tom Marks and Hilaire Delvaux, who work for NATO, ask for his help. They suspect that the USSR (the novel was published in 1982) is trying to steal something, but they don’t know what. They want Oliver to keep them informed, and let them know of any unusual occurrences. Without much choice in the matter, he agrees. And he soon finds himself the target of some ruthless people. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s one scene in which an ingeniously-altered umbrella is used as a murder weapon.

While Fellowship of Fear isn’t really a spy thriller, it gives a hint about how very effectively that sub-genre uses inventions and innovations. Fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for instance will know that Bond has access to any number of devices that protect him, or that can be used as weapons. For some fans, that’s part of the appeal, really. And that’s by no means the only example.

Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry features his sleuths, London private enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewellyn. In the novel, which takes place in the late Victorian Era, Barker gets a visit from Scotland Yard Inspector Terence Pool. It seems that a certain Sebastian Nightwine has been granted diplomatic immunity, and is soon to arrive in London. Nightwine has expressed concerns for his safety, and wants assurances of protection. He’s even specifically mentioned Barker, so Poole wants Barker’s promise that he will have no contact with Nightwine. It turns out that Barker was responsible for Nightwine’s having to leave England in the first place, as he’d discovered several of his crimes. Now the British government wants Nightwine’s help; hence, his return to London. Barker is convinced that Nightwine has plans of his own, which will probably involve crime. So, he’s going to have to find a way to thwart his nemesis, although he’s forbidden to have any contact with him. Then, there’s a murder, for which Barker is framed. Now, he and Llewellyn are on the run from the police and from Nightwine. And they still have a murder to solve. As it happens, Nightwine is a brilliant scientist. So, throughout the novel, there are all sorts of devices that play roles. I can’t say more without coming too close to spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how those innovations are woven into the novel.

There are also novels, such as Charles Stross’ Rule 34, and Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, that take place in a slightly altered near-future. In a sense, you might argue that they’re science fiction, or at least akin to it. But the settings and contexts are very real-world, and life in those novels closely resembles what we’re accustomed to seeing. That said, though, there are some innovations that we don’t yet have, and it’s interesting to see how those authors weave ingenious devices and new innovations into their plots.

It’s arguably human nature to want to innovate, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there are all sorts of inventions out there. Some of them are far-fetched, and not particularly practicable. But some are exciting and turn out to be wildly popular. Little wonder we see such things in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Oingo Boingo’s Weird Science.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Charles Stross, Frankie Y. Bailey, Ian Fleming, Rex Stout, Will Thomas

The Spy Who Loved Me is Keepin’ All My Secrets Safe Tonight*

The spy thriller doesn’t really fit neatly into the crime fiction genre. Certainly there are crimes committed in spy stories; but those novels generally aren’t ‘whodunits,’ or even ‘why/howdunits.’ Their suspense comes from the ‘cat-and-mouse’ plot, or sometimes from the question of which characters can be trusted and which can’t. There are other ways, too, in which spy novelists add tension and suspense to their stories.

The spy novel can take a number of forms, too. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have done their share of espionage. In novels such as By The Pricking of My Thumbs and N or M?, they find ways to outwit highly placed and well-funded spies. By no means are they bumbling amateurs, but they’re also not the sort of people we usually think of when we picture a ‘typical’ spy. And that’s part of what makes them successful.

It is for Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, too. As fans can tell you, at the beginning of the series, she’s a widowed New Jersey woman with grown children. She’s looking for a new purpose when she sees an advertisement from the CIA. She’s selected for what’s supposed to be a very easy mission: a simple delivery to Mexico. No espionage or other spy activity is involved. But things don’t work out that way, and Mrs. Pollifax is soon in much deeper than anyone thought. As the series continues, she shows the advantage she has in not looking threatening. She’s simply a late-middle-aged woman going about her business. This series is cosier than a lot of spy series are; and in that sense, it’s not, strictly speaking just a set of spy novels. But it does show the diverse ways in which fictional spies find their way into the genre.

The Cold War between the UK, USA, and their allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies provided a very effective context for some memorable fictional spies and spy thrillers. For instance, it would be hard to discuss fictional spies without discussing the work of John le Carré. His George Smiley (and some of this other characters) have become iconic. And the stories are as much about the characters as they are about the espionage and the ‘thriller’ aspects of his novels. Novels such as Call For the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold take readers into the lives of the people in the various spy agencies. That makes them more human, and it’s one reason for which many people argue that he’s the best in the spy/espionage genre.

But there are plenty of others. Authors such as Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins have also created memorable stories. The Cold War has frequently been the context for those stories, but so has World War II and its aftermath.

Today’s world, of course, is a changing landscape in terms of geopolitical realities. And authors such as Daniel Silva and Tom Clancy have addressed those changes. So has le Carré, among others. And we can see in both this changing landscape and the sorts of spies and other espionage artists that there isn’t only one way to be a spy.

But in popular culture, perhaps the most memorable spy is Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Whether you’ve read the books, seen the films, or both, it’s hard to deny that character’s influence. And it’s not hard to see why. Bond is suave, sophisticated, and smart. He has all sorts of gadgetry at his disposal, and he travels in some of the highest circles. He’s got plenty of skills, too, from baccarat to boating. And there are the women…

Several actors have portrayed Bond over the years, and we could certainly debate about which one was the best Bond. One of them, Sir Roger Moore, left us yesterday, and he will be missed. In the years between 1973 and 1985, he took the role of Bond in films such as Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, Moonraker and Octopussy. He may not have originated the role, but he definitely left his mark on the franchise.

I know, I know, fans of The Saint; he left his mark there, too.

What about you? Do you read espionage/spy novels like Fleming’s, Deighton’s, Ludlum’s or Clancy’s? Which spy characters have stayed with you?

 

In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of Sir Roger Moore, who brought Bond to life for many people.

 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s Nobody Does it Better.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daniel Silva, Dorothy Gilman, Ian Fleming, Jack Higgins, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy

Am I Too Late?*

sleuths-and-late-appearancesAn interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about timing. In her post (which you should read) about Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Tracy points out that James Bond doesn’t make an appearance in that novel until later in the plot. And that’s not the only story in which we see that.

When the sleuth doesn’t come into the story until later, the author has to build interest and suspense in other ways. It might be through following other characters; or, the author may choose to focus on the buildup to the murder or other crime. There are other approaches, too. Whichever choice the author makes, the key to having the sleuth come into the story later is ensuring that there’s some way to engage the reader.

For example, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the removal of a valuable diamond called the Moonstone from a palace in India. The thief, Colonel John Herncastle, later bequeaths the stone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. However, it’s not the generous bequest it may seem to be. The story is that the stone curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and misfortune soon befalls the Verinder family. First, the stone is stolen from Rachel on the night she receives it. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff investigates the robbery, and, after a two-year search, traces the stone. He doesn’t make an appearance, though, until later in the novel. Before we meet Cuff, we learn the story of the stone, of the Herncastle and Verinder families and staffs, and of the curse.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill investigates the death of postman Joseph Higgins. It seems that Higgins was taken to Heron Park Hospital, where he was operated on for a broken femur. But he died on the table in what everyone thinks is a tragic accident. In fact, Cockrill himself thinks so at first. But one night at a party, Sister Marion Bates, who is a nurse at the hospital, has too much to drink, and says that she knows Higgins was murdered, and how it was done. She herself is then killed. And Higgins’ widow had already insisted he was murdered. So Cockrill starts to ask questions and investigate more thoroughly. This story doesn’t begin with the death or with Cockrill. It starts as Higgins is making his rounds, delivering letters to the people who are later mixed up in this murder case. Slowly, we learn who they are, what brought them to Heron Park, and a bit about their histories. Cockrill doesn’t come into the story until a bit later. Instead, Brand builds engagement by introducing the other characters and showing how they all know Higgins, and what their relationships are to one another.

Agatha Christie’s The Hollow begins as a group of people plan for a weekend at The Hollow, which is the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Slowly, we get to know a little about Sir Henry and Lady Lucy. We also meet the rest of the house party. The guests are to be well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda, and another relative, Midge Hardcastle. Also invited are relatives Edward Angkatell and David Angkatell. Christie gives background detail on all of these characters and their network of relationships (and those turn out to be very important in the story). Everyone arrives, and the weekend begins. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch on the Sunday, so he doesn’t make an appearance until farther along in the story. When he does, though, he finds that Christow has been shot, and his killer is holding the weapon. At first, he thinks it’s a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ But it turns out to be quite real. The case seems very straightforward, and that’s how Inspector Grange looks at it. But Poirot isn’t sure. As he investigates, he finds that the case is quite different to what it seems at first glance.

And then there’s Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). That novel begins as we meet Gunder Jormann, who’s lived a very quiet life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He’s no longer young, but he’s in reasonable physical shape and he’s a steady worker. In other words, he’s a solid prospect for marriage, and that’s what he wants to do. He becomes fascinated with the idea of choosing a bride from India, and makes his plans to travel to Mumbai. All of this shocks his sister, Marie, who finds many reasons he shouldn’t go ahead with his plan. But Gundar heads to Mumbai, anyway. Soon after his arrival, he meets Poona Bai and is soon smitten. It’s not long before he proposes marriage, and she accepts. She has to take care of the details of ending her time in India, and get the necessary papers to go to Norway. So Gundar returns to Elvestad with the agreement that Poona will join him as soon as possible. On the day of her return, though, Gundar isn’t able to meet her at the airport. Marie has been in a tragic accident, and he can’t leave her. So he delegates a friend to meet Poona. But that friend and Poona miss each other. The next morning, Poona’s body is found in a field not far from Gundar’s home. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate Poona’s death. But they don’t make an appearance until later in the novel. Instead, the novel’s focus at the beginning is Gundar, his trip to Mumbai, his meeting with Poona, and his relationship with Marie and with the other people of Elvestad. Fossum also gives background information on those other residents.

It can be tricky to have the sleuth make an appearance later in a crime novel, but it can be successful. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration! Folks, treat yourself and visit Tracy’s excellent blog. There you’ll find all sorts of fine reviews

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tavares’ Too Late.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Ian Fleming, Karin Fossum, Wilkie Collins

We Suspend Our Disbelief*

Suspension of DisbeliefA recent interesting comment exchange with Melanie, who blogs at Grab the Lapels, and an interesting post from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, have gotten me thinking about the difference between books and their film adaptations. More to the point, they’ve gotten me thinking about whether we’re more willing to suspend disbelief for film than for a book.

Most readers will tell you that, for the most part, they want their books to be credible. Books are, of course, fiction, so there’s likely to be at least a bit of suspension of disbelief. But at the same time, most readers do want a sense of authenticity about what they read.

Is it the same for films? Do we want more credibility in books or films, or does it not matter? For instance, John Hart’s The Last Child features thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon, whose twin sister Alyssa went missing a year before the events in the novel. He’s determined to find her, or at least find out the truth about her, and one important plot thread is his search for answers. At one point, he’s skipping school for the day, spending time at a local lake. That’s when he sees a car accident on a nearby bridge, and a man’s body hurtle over the bridge and land near him. The man turns out to be very important to the mystery, and it’s a legitimate question to ask whether that’s too much of a coincidence. That’s the question Melanie raised, and I’m glad she did. Each person, of course, has a different response, which makes it a bit difficult for authors. But it highlights the issue.

To my knowledge, The Last Child hasn’t been adapted for film as yet (but please, someone, put me right if I’m wrong). But if it were, would that scene be more believable? Would viewers think it required too much suspension of disbelief? It does have quite a strong visual impact, so one could easily see it adding to the film. Perhaps that might encourage viewers to be more accepting of it. But perhaps not.

FictionFan reviewed Michael Apted’s 2001 film adaptation of Robert Harris’ Enigma. This is the WWII-era story of Tom Jericho, a mathematician who’s working with the Bletchley Park team to try to break the Enigma code. There’s also a plot thread involving his relationship with Claire Romilly, a clerk who works on the Bletchley Park property.  In her review, FictionFan mentions several important differences between the film and the novel. The novel makes it clear how difficult life was in England during the war. Food and fuel were strictly rationed, and most people couldn’t afford more than the very basics, if they had those. It was a time, as you’ll no doubt know, of real privation. FictionFan points out that the film isn’t accurate about that point, and it makes a major difference. So does the weather. In the novel, it’s very clear that people suffered quite a lot during the winter, when there was barely enough fuel available to keep a home warm enough to manage. As FictionFan says, the film changes the weather quite a bit, so that it’s not realistic at all. There are other important differences, too, which FictionFan makes clear. You can read the entire review right here. And you should.

If you’ve seen the film and read the book, do those stretches of credibility bother you? If you’ve not seen the film, would you be forgiving of the need to suspend disbelief? Would the format matter?

The real action in Stephen King’s Misery begins when novelist Paul Sheldon decides on impulse to make a car trip from Colorado, where he’s been staying to work on a manuscript, to Los Angeles. He’s driving through the mountains when a snowstorm strikes, causing him to have a car accident and leaving him with severe injuries. He’s rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a dedicated fan of his work. If you’ve read the novel, or are at least somewhat familiar with King’s work, you’ll know that this rescue turns nightmarish for Sheldon. Some readers might see Annie’s finding her idol as requiring too much suspension of disbelief. Others don’t mind, seeing it as something that falls out credibly from the plot and from her personality. The film version also includes Annie Wilkes finding a badly wounded Sheldon and taking him back to her home. If you’ve seen the film, do you see that as too much of a coincidence? If you’ve read the novel, do you see a difference between the way you regard the book, and the way you regard the novel?

And then there are Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Since they’re spy thrillers, most readers expect to suspend disbelief. And some of the novels ask for more of this than do others. If you’ve read any of the novels, does that bother you? Or do you take it as part of the package, so to speak? If you’ve seen any of the James Bond films, you’ll know that they ask for at least as much suspension of disbelief as the novels do. Does that put you off the films?

You’ll notice that I’ve mentioned different sorts of novels here. Part of the reason for that is that I suspect that some of our willingness to give our disbelief a rest has to do with the sort of novel or film we’re reading or seeing. We may allow for more stretches of credibility in some kinds of stories than in others

What do you think of all of this? Do you forgive more lapses in credibility in films than you do in books? Thank you, Melanie and FictionFan, for the ‘food for thought.’ Folks, do please visit their excellent blogs. You won’t regret it.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Mystic Rhythms.

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Filed under Ian Fleming, John Hart, Robert Harris, Stephen King

When I Want to Run Away*

Books as EscapismLet’s face it: the world is sometimes not very much fun at all. Whether it’s your personal or professional life, or the larger world in general, there are times when you just need to take a break. And book lovers know that there’s nothing like the right book to help you escape.

We all have our own ‘escape routes,’ too. Some readers like to turn to light crime fiction. You know, the kind that takes place in small towns, with a minimum of violence, quirky characters, and maybe even some romance. There are many examples of this kind of cosy mystery, of course. Lorna Barrett’s Booktown mysteries, which feature mystery bookshop owner Tricia Miles fall into this category. So do Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which ‘star’ retired folk art curator Beatrice Coleman. If you enjoy cosy series, I’ll bet you’ve got several to add to this list.

These series, when they’re done well, can create for the reader a world where things work out, and where it’s all going to be all right. It’s a little tricky to do such a series well, though, without it getting too ‘frothy.’ The best cosy series have enough realism and solid characters that they’re not too full of ‘sugar content.’

Those kinds of series aren’t for everyone, though. For some people, ‘escape’ means a ‘high-octane’ sort of thriller, complete with narrow escapes, undercover operatives, and shadowy groups. Robet Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels come to my mind as an example of this. So does Lindy Cameron’s Redback, which features a crack team of Australian retrieval/rescue specialists who go up against a mysterious and very dangerous terrorist group. By the way, Ms.Cameron, if you happen to be reading this, I think Redback would make a terrific film.

Some thriller fans don’t mind suspending quite a lot of disbelief, and it’s easy to see why. It’s escapism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect real life. Other thriller fans like their ‘wild rides’ to be more realistic. So, for the thriller author, there’s always the question of just how much to stretch credibility. But even so, there are plenty of readers for whom ‘escape’ means the ways in which Ian Fleming’s James Bond gets himself out of trouble.

‘Escape’ can have another meaning too: travel. For some readers, the novels they read when they need to ‘get away from it all’ are set in exotic places. I see you out there, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. It’s not hard to appreciate the allure of gorgeous weather, delicious food and white, sandy beaches. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series is also set in what for many people is an exotic location: Singapore. Inspector Singh travels quite a lot in the series, to places such as Mumbai, Beijing, Cambodia and Bali. So the novels really give the reader a chance to ‘visit’ all sorts of different locations.

A series set in an exciting, different sort of place can’t just trade on its setting, of course. The story and characters do matter, and readers don’t want their crime novels to start resembling a travelogue. But sometimes, when the world gets a bit much, a virtual trip to Greece, or Malaysia, or Ibiza, or perhaps Botswana, can be very enticing indeed.

There are also plenty of crime fiction fans who like to escape using a virtual time machine. Life might not have been better during the Victorian Era, or Ancient Rome, or the early 1950s. In fact, in some ways, it was very much harder. But it can be really interesting to learn about life in a very different time. And isn’t it nice to contemplate a life without spam email and ‘robo-calls?’ C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, for instance, are set in Tudor England. Life at that time, and in that place, wasn’t very easy, even if you had money. But there’s plenty of court intrigue and insights on the customs of the times to invite readers to forget their modern-day worries, at least for a time. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is set in the 1950’s mostly in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s not completely idyllic; there’s post-war financial difficulty, for instance. But Bradley does evoke a quieter time.

Of course, readers only enjoy literary escapes if their destinations are well-written. It’s not enough to have a cosy premise, or an exciting ‘thrill ride,’ or a solid historical context. Character development and story content really do matter. But that said, there are just some novels and series that are perfect ‘getaway vehicles.’ I’ve mentioned a few. Now it’s your turn. When you’re looking for a book simply to escape, what sort of series do you choose? If you’re a writer, do you write escapist novels? I know, that’s not an easy question as we all define that term differently. What’s your take on this?

 

On Another Note…

 

Thanks very much to all of you who voted on which of my stories you’d like to see continued. It means a lot to me that you liked them that well. Interestingly, A Bite to Eat and Giving All Your Clothes to Charity were tied. So the matter was settled by a coin toss. The winner? A Bite to Eat.  Look for the next instalment very soon!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, C.J. Sansom, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ian Fleming, Lindy Cameron, Lorna Barrett, Robert Ludlum, Shamini Flint