Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming came into the shop today, in a manner of speaking. We took in a nice selection of Fleming paperbacks. They are all of mid-1960s vintage, and that makes them almost 50 years old.

This ain't great literature, but they're all fun reads. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Fleming, by the way, was one of President Kennedy's favorite authors (just as the UK's Queen Elizabeth makes it a point to read each Dick Francis novel as soon as it is published).

And I've always found it interesting to see how good some books really are before Hollywood screws them up.

Fleming was an interesting guy all by himself. During World War II, he worked in British intelligence and, so the story goes, he got the germs of many of Bond's exploits from actual events. That's the story, anyway, and it sounds good to me.

But here's another story, and this one happens to be true. I first wrote about it in one of my books, How To Tell A Secret (HarperCollins was kind enough to publish that in 2007): At the onset of World War II, the United States had no single, coordinated agency for gathering or evaluating intelligence. Independent offices were run by the Navy, the Army and the State Department. And not only did they not work together, they didn't even talk to each other or share what information they had. So President Roosevelt turned to an old friend, William Donovan, and asked him to draw up a proposal for a unified nest of spies.

Donovan retreated to his townhouse in the Georgetown section of D.C. to devise what was to be known as the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS). This was the direct precursor of the modern CIA.

"Wild Bill" Donovan as he was called (but not to his face) had some help. The British spymaster in the US, William Stevenson (who later gained fame as A Man Called Intrepid), along with his aide, a naval commander, both worked diligently on the document. Their role, however, was kept secret. It wouldn't have been good politics to let the world know how much the Brits were involved in the development of the American spy agency. So no one really knows for sure how much of the OSS actually came from Donovan or from Stevenson or from the aide for that matter.

The aide's name was Ian Fleming.

It's kinda neat that the guy who wrote all those books about 007 with the license to kill and all those gadgets and girls (did I mention the girls?) actually had a hand in creating the CIA. James Bond was, like Fleming, a Commander in the Royal Navy.

Fleming wrote things other than the Bond series. His day job was on the editorial board of The Times of London, although he left that job and devoted himself more-or-less full time to producing books after the received the Presidential boost. His most commercially successful book, other than the 14 Bond novels, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (made into a movie starring Dick Van Dyke), juvenile fiction about a car that could sprout wings and fly or turn itself into a boat all in an attempt to catch the bad guys.

None of these books will be in the Classics section, and I don't think they made a Cliff Notes on any of them. But they are a lot of fun. And they did spark the whole spy-craze that included such characters as James Bond, Matt Helm, Maxwell Smart and the works of John le Carre and Robert Ludlum, among others.

Fleming died of a heart attack in 1964.

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