Thursday, 2 March 2017

Did E Phillips Oppenheim invent James Bond?

Who do the following two literary characters remind you of? The first is a resourceful, tough, sardonic man of action. He's attractive to women. He travels the world, he's handy with a gun, and uses gadgets in his pursuit of the villain. He's a bit of a daredevil, too. At one point, he jumps off a bridge on to a moving train.

The second is a former military officer and a spy. He's attractive to women. He's not afraid of danger, and is also handy with a gun. He travels widely, and knows his way around the Alps and the casino. He enjoys a cocktail or two and a game of golf, and he drives a high-powered sports car.

Sound familiar? No, neither is James Bond, but they could be. The first is American detective, Sanford Quest, the hero of the novel, The Black Box (1915). The second is another American, Major Martin Fawley, a freelance spy in the novel The Spy Paramount (1934). Both books are by the English thriller writer, E Philips Oppenheim, who was also one of Ian Fleming's favourite authors.



I'm not actually going to argue that Oppenheim invented James Bond, but reading The Black Box, The Spy Paramount, and others, Bond appears to be cut from the same cloth as Oppenheim's heroes, and we could make just as good a case as Simon Winder and Nigel West did when they argued that a contemporary author, Phyllis Bottome invented a prototype James Bond in her novel, The Lifeline (1946). Indeed, Oppenheim has the advantage, because Fleming identifies him as an influence. He told Jack Fishman that 'I was considerably influenced by those masters of the modern thriller, Hammett and Chandler, and, to some extent, in my childhood, by E Phillips Oppenheim, and Sax Rohmer.'

And perhaps not just in Fleming's childhood. The Spy Paramount is packed with Bondian moments. Having ostensibly offered his services to Italy, Fawley drives in his powerful Lancia into the Alps on the French/Italian border in search of a secret mountain base that houses a superweapon. He succeeds, but not without being discovered and shooting his way out. He returns to his hotel and nonchalantly orders café complet. Later, he plays golf with a scheming German politician in a chapter that gives Fleming's account of Bond's game of golf with Goldfinger a run for its money.



The book contains descriptions of food and drink that wouldn't be out of place in a Bond novel: 'The cocktails tasted good, as indeed they were, for granted the right material, the American touch on the shaker is after all the most subtle in the world.' Or, as Fawley's brother says: 'French champagne tastes all wrong in Italy, and though food is good enough for a time, it's monotonous.' At one point, Fawley consumes rounds of caviar sandwiches, just as Bond does in Goldfinger.

We also have a physical description of Fawley: visionary eyes, an air of immense self-control, a firm mouth, and a little wave in his hair brushed back by the ears. Not so different from Bond's calm grey-blue eyes with a hint of ironical inquiry, thick comma of hair above his right eyebrow, and cruel mouth.

Much of the story is set in the luxury hotels, clubs and casinos of Monte Carlo (as are a number of Oppenheim's spy novels), and though Fawley doesn't visit the gaming tables himself during his mission, the scene is familiar to readers of the Bond novels.

In another of Oppenheim's spy novels, The Spymaster (1938), it's the hero's attitude towards female agents that's familiar to Bond's readers. Admiral Guy Cheshire, head of British naval intelligence, responds to the opinion of his counterpart in the army, General Mallinson, that in espionage work, 'women... are the biggest nuisance,' with the view that 'they are in the way, of course.' He and James Bond would get on well: Bond also thinks that 'on a job, [women] got in the way.' 



At another point of the novel, Cheshire plays bridge in his club and demonstrates his skill with the cards, both impressing and irritating his fellow players with his winning form and ability to shuffle the pack to his advantage; Cheshire performs these tricks for amusement, so he avoids the accusation of cheating. Bond's abilities with the cards, as demonstrated during a game of bridge at Blades, is no less impressive, but even so, Bond might find Cheshire a tricky opponent at the card table.

Actually, given Guy Cheshire's position as head of naval intelligence, membership of a London club, and, as we learn in the novel, access to the highest political level (he has the ear, for instance, of the Prime Minister), he is more M than Bond. If M were to feature in his own novel – and it's about time – the book might look something like The Spymaster.

Fleming's Bond novels and Oppenheim's thrillers have much in common. It is going too far to claim that Fleming based Bond on any aspects of Oppenheim's work specifically, but the influence is clear, and it is fair to say that Bond emerged out of the literary tradition represented by the novels of Oppenheim, Phyllis Bottome and others. Indeed, Bond could not have existed without them. But while it's easy enough to spot the similarities, there are lots of differences too. The Spy Paramount, The Spymaster and others could not be mistaken for Bond books. After all, the Bond books reflect other influences, such as American detective fiction, the Second World War, the Cold War, and Fleming's own experiences.

The result is that while the Bond books express some of the traits and memes of the earlier literary tradition, they have diverged from it too - and are different enough, as we know, to have created their own tradition and become influential in turn.

Returning to E Phillips Oppenheim, his novels are fast-paced, exciting thrillers, and it's no surprise Ian Fleming enjoyed them. Oppenheim's detective story, The Black Box (coincidentally (almost) the title of the latest James Bond comic book), is somewhat corny, with a story involving mad professors, ape-men, and stupid policemen, but his spy novels are superb, being full of intrigue, action, and, unsurprising given the context in which they were written, growing foreboding of war.

No comments:

Post a Comment