Thursday, 23 February 2017

Dear 007: Bill Adler's letters to James Bond

The American writer Bill Adler is well known for his compilations of letters to famous people and organisations. His books include Dear Beatles, Funniest Fan Letters to Batman, and Kids' Letters to President Obama. In 1966, he turned his attention to James Bond with Dear 007, a collection of spoof letters to the 'supersleuth', with illustrations by Paul Bacon.
The cover of Dear 007 (Simon & Schuster, 1966) by Bill Adler
The letters from
the (presumably) fictitious correspondents cover a range of topics. There are letters written from a male perspective that congratulate Bond on his success with women. “Boy, it must be just great to be a man of the world like you,” writes Ludwig D. Another correspondent, Milton C from Atlanta, writes, “You certainly have a fantastic way with women. Where did you learn your technique?”

Other correspondents admire Bond's toughness and physicality. “You're such a strong fearless and courageous person. I know you must be able to give me some good advice on how to overcome my fears.” The anonymous writer continues, “You see I'm the new 008 and if the boss ever finds out he'll fire me.”

Then there are letters from adoring women: “The thing that I like best is your cute accent” (Betsy P, Coney Island); “What excites me most is the marvellous way that you get rid of your enemies” (Theresa G, Birmingham, Ala.); “I just gotta be one of your ten most wanted” (Luzy W, Hollywood).

Other letters offer advice. Bruce L of Brooklyn provides a list of rules that will keep Bond safe, such as “Don't shoot a man unless his back is turned,” or “If you meet a suspicious person, kick him in the groin first and ask questions later.” Jim R of Portland writes with details of new type of gun he's invented.

Not every correspondent is so appreciative of Bond. “If it wasn't for Pussy Galore, you would have never won your battle over your arch enemy, Mr Goldfinger,” Andrea C of Washington tells Bond. Walter H of Trenton writes to tell Bond, “You may be a hot shot with the broads, but you'll never get a Nobel prize.”

The letters draw largely on the films for inspiration. A letter from Morris U of the Painters' Union of New York congratulates Bond for the 'good paint' job on Jill Masterson in Goldfinger. Dr William B from Levittown, meanwhile, is unconcerned about Bond's safety when he's handcuffed to an atomic device in Goldfinger or dodging a helicopter in From Russia With Love, but is worried about Bond's smoking habit.

The books are referenced too, though in a more general way. “Once I was a skinny runt who was ignored by women and didn't have any appreciation of fine wines. Then I read your books,” writes Harry F. In another letter, Mrs Charles B of Detroit expresses her concern about the bad influence Bond's books are having on her twelve-year-old son: “We feel that the Hardy Boys are more appropriate for a 12 year old boy.”

The back cover of Dear 007
The amusing illustrations similarly look to the films. Bond, usually pictured with his back turned to the reader, is shown, for instance, in frogman gear (a nod to Thunderball), behind the wheel of an Aston Martin (Goldfinger), or at the mercy of a Dr No-like villain.

The book plays on Bondian tropes that quickly became standard with the release of the first few Bond films, among them Bond's sophisticated tastes and knowledge, attraction to women, self-assurance, and physical prowess. There are some notable omissions, though. There is little reference to gadgets, for example, and no mention of M, Miss Moneypenny, and Q. Perhaps those elements or memes were not yet sufficiently well established in their own right within the cultural environment to merit spoof treatment. And of course there is no allusion to volcanoes, space and snow-covered mountains and other Bondian landscapes (Bondscapes?) that at the time the book was written had not featured in any of the films, the obvious point being that one can't parody what doesn't yet exist in Bond's world.

Overall, the book is very funny and is well worth a look. And to my mind an update is well overdue. In fact, we could make a start now. If anyone wants to write a letter to James Bond in the style of Dear 007 (keep it clean), post it in the comments section.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

James Bond in a Caribbean mystery

With Young Bond author Charlie Higson on writing duties, it was inevitable that ITV's 2013 adaptation of Agatha Christie's A Caribbean Mystery should include a few nods to James Bond. I was reminded of these when the drama was repeated recently on ITV3.

The title card of ITV's adaptation of A Caribbean Mystery

In the story, amateur sleuth Miss Marple is holidaying on an unnamed Caribbean island. As ever, murder follows in her wake, the first victim among Miss Marple's fellow hotel guests being a retired major who realises that a serial killer is in their midst. Miss Marple is soon on the case.

Voodoo plays a role in the plot, and we see performers put on a Voodoo-inspired show for the hotel guests, much like the entertainment that greets James Bond's arrival in San Monique in Live and Let Die.

However, it is the Voodoo scenes at the end (or indeed in the pre-titles sequence) of Live and Let Die that appear to be referenced more closely. One of the performers carries a snake with which he playfully threatens the major. He also wears headgear made out of animal skin, and has white paint on the upper part of his face and black paint on his nose and around his eyes to create the appearance of a skull.
A Caribbean Mystery: The major is confronted by a Voodoo performer and a snake

The costume is presumably fairly typical of Voodoo ceremonies, but the performer nevertheless brings to mind the high priest (or whatever he is) in Live and Let Die, who wears a goat-skin headdress and threatens Solitaire with a snake, while his make-up replicates that worn by Baron Samedi.
Scenes from the Voodoo ceremony in Live and Let Die

There is another allusion to Live and Let Die when we see a close-up of the face of hotel owner Molly Kendall (who believes herself responsible for the series of murders), which turns into a flaming skull. This recalls Maurice Binder's titles in Live and Let Die, in which a flaming skull is a prominent motif.

Flaming skulls in A Caribbean Mystery (top) and Live and Let Die

More generally, the background music for A Caribbean Mystery incorporates Bondian notes and phrases, especially whenever the handsome hotel waiter, Errol (who knows how to mix a cocktail), appears on the scene.
Errol (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in A Caribbean Mystery

A cameo appearance of Charlie Higson, however, provides a much more obvious nod to James Bond. He plays an ornithologist who visits the hotel to give a lecture on birds. His name? James Bond, author of Birds of the West Indies.
The ornithologist James Bond, as played by Charlie Higson in A Caribbean Mystery

By coincidence, Ian Fleming (played by Jeremy Crutchley) is in the audience. He tells Miss Marple that he has been working on a novel (the events of the mystery must date before 1953), but he is stuck for the name of his hero. When James Bond introduces himself with the words "My name is Bond, James Bond", inspiration strikes. (James Bond was in fact named after the ornithologist, though not quite in the manner depicted!) 

Ian Fleming (Jeremy Crutchley) in A Caribbean Mystery

Interestingly, James Bond (the ornithologist) is introduced as a representative of the Audubon Society, the American bird protection society that Fleming mentions in Dr No. That novel gets another nod when James Bond points out that the island is rich in guano; Ian Fleming tells a puzzled Miss Marple that guano is bird droppings.

The 2013 adaptation of A Caribbean Mystery is very enjoyable tale of murder and intrigue, and the James Bond references are an added bonus. Well worth watching.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Ian Fleming the short story writer - good or bad?

In the second volume of Best Secret Service Stories, published in 1965, editor John Welcome devotes much of his introduction to Ian Fleming, who died the previous year. Welcome is generous and fulsome in his praise for Fleming's work. His books, Welcome writes, “were all beautifully written by an intelligence far above the ordinary.” “Fleming could write anyone else operating in this [the spy] genre clean off the page.” “Fleming abundance the three essentials of a writer in this genre – pace, conviction and a compulsive readability.”

You won't hear any argument to the contrary from me, but Welcome's introduction is by no means a hagiography; Welcome acknowledges that there are considerable debts to Fleming's literary ledger. One of these, in Welcome's view, is Fleming's skill as a short story writer. “This was an aspect of the art of writing,” Welcome suggests, “in which [Fleming] was almost wholly at sea. Virtually all of the published short stories are misfires.” (It should be noted that at the time of publication, John Welcome had not seen Octopussy and The Living Daylights.)

Contrast this view with that of thriller writer Robert Ryan, who suggests in his introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition of Octopussy and The Living Daylights that “as with Sherlock Holmes... Bond was at his best in the shorter adventures,” and that Fleming “was a short story/novella man at heart.”

There is usually a tendency for books or films poorly received at the time of publication or release to acquire classic and cherished status simply with the passage of time (there's hope for Die Another Day yet). After reading Welcome's and Ryan's very different opinions, I wondered if this were the case with Fleming's short stories, but a quick survey of critical opinion suggests that Welcome is somewhat out on a limb.

In The James Bond Dossier (1965), Kingsley Amis thought 'From a View to a Kill' ingenious, 'Risico' well written, and 'The Hildenbrand Rarity' effective, while The Guardian thought the For Your Eyes Only collection better than the novels. Not to say that all critics were effusive. Philip Larkin thought that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, James Bond “does not fit snugly into the short story length.”

For my money, I'm with Robert Ryan – I think that Ian Fleming's short stories represent some of his best writing. 'Octopussy', 'From a View to a Kill', 'The Hildebrand Rarity' and 'The Living Daylights' are for me particular highlights, being full of thrills, insights into Bond, wonderful descriptions, and some delicious turns of phrase. It's a travesty that the first two of those still haven't been faithfully adapted for the screen. I would like to have seen more short stories from Fleming, and now that Fleming's unrealised TV treatments are reaching the page, perhaps one day I will.

Chancellor, H, 2005 James Bond: The Man and his World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming's Creation, John Murray, London

Friday, 3 February 2017

Brazilian adventures: The Lost City of Z and Peter Fleming

Fans of the work of Ian Fleming's brother, Peter, might be interested in an upcoming film, The Lost City of Z, which tells the true story of the explorer Colonel Fawcett, who, in 1925, led an expedition deep into the Amazonian jungle to search for a fabled city of a lost civilisation. Fawcett and the rest of the expedition were never seen again, and Fawcett's fate was soon shrouded in mystery.
Poster for The Lost City of Z, exclusively revealed by Empire
If the film proves to be a great success, and there's a clamour for a sequel, then the film-makers would do well to turn to Peter Fleming's 1933 book, Brazilian Adventure, in which Peter recounts the trials and tribulations of his own expedition into the Amazon to discover what had happened to Colonel Fawcett.

Peter and the other members of the expedition got no closer to solving the mystery, and, as if struck by a curse of the earlier explorer, saw more than their fair share of hardships and disaster. Along the way, they stumbled into a revolution in São Paulo, fell out with the expedition leader, Captain John Holman (largely identified as Major George Pingle in Peter's book), who had little interest in the search for Fawcett, hacked their way through impenetrable jungle, had so few provisions that they survived mainly on what they could hunt and forage, encountered alligators and piranhas, organised the evacuation of an expedition member who went down with blood poisoning, and, on deciding that they could go no further, faced a thousand-mile trek back to civilisation, all the time racing against Holman, who had the money and boat tickets.

Brazilian Adventure (Cape, 1933)
As for what happened to Colonel Fawcett (spoiler alert), Peter accepted that Fawcett is likely to have died at the hands of the Suyá tribe, and if by some remote chance he had been alive at the time of Peter's expedition, he must have gone mad.

Peter Fleming's Brazilian adventure is every bit as thrilling as Fawcett's own, and is compelling, hilarious, and wonderfully evocative of the land and the people Peter met. If any cinema-goer, having watched The Lost City of Z (released in March), is wondering what happened next, I recommend they pick up a copy of Peter's book. And you never know, it might be coming to a cinema near you.