Ian Fleming wrote a few articles for The Spectator, including the following piece of literary criticism. It is a gently negative review of what is often considered to be the first spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers. The review is perhaps most interesting for revealing Fleming's own thoughts on what makes a good spy thriller. My commentary appears below the article. Enjoy!
Mudscape with Figures
(The Spectator, August 5, 1955)
By Ian Fleming
Some people are frightened by silence and some by noise. To some people the anonymous bulge at the hip is more frightening than the gun in the hand, and all one can say is that different people thrill to different stimuli, and that those who like The Turn of the Screw may not be worried by, for instance, The Cat and the Canary.
Only the greatest authors make the pulses of all of us beat faster, and they do this by marrying the atmosphere of suspense into horrible acts. Poe, Stevenson and M R. James used to frighten me most, and now Maugham, Ambler, Simenon, Chandler, and Graham Greene can still raise the fur on my back when they want to. Their heroes are credible and their villains terrify with a real ‘blackness.’ Their situations are fraught with doom and the threat of doom, and, above all, they have pace. When one chapter is done, we reach out for the next. Each chapter is a wave to be jumped as we race with exhilaration behind the hero like a water-skier behind a fast motor-boat.
Too many writers in this genre (and I think Erskine Childers, on whose The Riddle of the Sands these remarks are hinged, was one of them) forget that, although this may sound a contradiction in terms, speed is essential to a novel of suspense, and while detail is important to create a atmosphere of reality, it can be laid on so thick as to become a Sargasso Sea on which the motor-boat bogs down and the skier founders.
The reader is quite happy to share the pillow-fantasies of the author as long as he is provided with sufficient landmarks to help him relate the author’s world more or less to his own, and a straining after verisimilitude with maps and diagrams should be avoided except in detective stories aimed at the off-beta mind.
Even more wearying are ‘recaps,’ and those leaden passages where the hero reviews what he has achieved or ploddingly surveys what remains to be done. These exasperate the reader who, if there is to be any rumination, is quite happy to do it himself. When the author drags his feet with this space-filling device he is sacrificing momentum which it will take him much brisk writing to recapture.
These reflections, stale news through they may be to the mainliner in thrillers, come to me after rereading The Riddle of the Sands after an absence of very many years, and they force me to the conclusion that doom-laden silence and long-drawn-out suspense are not enough to confirm the tradition that Erskine Childers, romantic and remarkable man that he must have been, is also one of the father-figures of the thriller.
The opening of the story— the factual documentation in the preface and the splendid Lady Windermere’s Fan atmosphere of the first chapters—is superb.
At once you are ensconced in bachelor chambers off St. James’s at the beginning of the century. All the trappings of the Age of Certainty gather around you as you read. Although the author does not say so, a coal tire seems to roar in the brass grate; there is at glass of whisky beside your chair and, remembering Mr. Cecil Beaton’s Edwardian decors, you notice that the soda-water syphon beside it is of blue glass. The smoke from your cheroot curls up towards the ceiling and your button-boots are carefully crossed at the ankles on the red-leather-topped fender so as not to disturb the crease of those spongebag trousers. On a mahogany bookrest above your lap The Riddle of the Sands is held open by at well-manicured finger.
Shall you go with Carruthers to Cowes or accompany him to the grouse-moor? It is the fag-end of the London season of 1903. You are bored, and it is all Mayfair to a hock-and-seltzer that the fates have got you in their sights and that you are going to start to pay for your fat sins just over the page.
Thus, in the dressing-room, so to speak, you and Carruthers are all ready to start the hurdle race. You are still ready when you get into the small boat in a God-forsaken corner of the East German coast, and you are even more hungry for the starter’s gun when you set sail to meet the villains. Then, to my, mind, for the next 95,000 words there is anticlimax.
This is a book of great renown; and it is not from a desire to destroy idols or a tendency to denigration that this review—now that, after the statutory fifty years, The Riddle of the Sands has entered the public domain—is becoming almost too much of an autopsy. But those villains! With the best will in the world I could not feel that the lives of the heroes (and therefore of my own) were in the least way endangered by them.
Dollmann, villain No. 1, is a ‘traitor’ from the Royal Navy, whose presence among the clucking channels and glistening mudbanks of the Frisian Islands is never satisfactorily explained. His job was ‘spying at Chatham, the blackguard,’ and the German High Command, even in 1903 when the book was first published, was crazy to employ him on what amounts to operational research. He never does anything villainous. Before the story opens, he foxes hero No. 1 into running himself on a mudbank, but at the end, when any good villain with his back to the wall would show his teeth, he collapses like a pricked balloon and finally disappears lamely overboard just after ‘we came to the bar of the Schild and had to turn south off that twisty bit of beating between Rottum and Bosch Fat.’ His harshest words are ‘You pigheaded young marplots!’ and his ‘blackness’ is further betrayed by the beauty and purity of his daughter, with whom hero No. 1 falls in love (it is always a bad idea for the hero to fall in love with the villain’s daughter. We are left wondering what sort of children they will have.)
Von Bruning, villain No. 2, is frankly a hero to the author, and is presented as such: and No.3, Boehme, though at first he exudes a delicious scent of Peter Lorre, forfeits respect by running away across the mud and leaving one of his gumboots in the hands of hero No. 2.
The plot is that the heroes want to discover whist the villains are up to, and, in a small, flat-bottomed boat, they wander amongst the Frisian Islands (and two maps, two charts and a set of tide-tables won't convince me that they don’t wander aimlessly) trying to find out.
This kind of plot makes an excellent framework for that classic ‘hurdle race’ thriller formula, in which the hero (despite his Fleet-Foot Shoes with Tru-Temper Spikes and KumfiKrutch Athletic Supporter) comes a series of ghastly croppers before he breasts the tape.
Unfortunately, in The Riddle of the Sands there are no hurdles and only two homely mishaps (both of the heroes’ own devising)—a second grounding on a mudbank, from which the heroes refloat on the rising tide, and the loss of the anchor chain, which they salvage without difficulty.
The end of the 100,000 word quest through the low-lying October mists it a hasty, rather muddled scramble which leaves two villains, two heroes and the heroine more or less in the air, and the small boat sailing off to England with the answer to the riddle. Before 1914 this prize must have provided a satisfactory fall of the curtain, but since then two German wars have clanged about our beads and today our applause is rather patronising.
The reason why The Riddle of the Sands will always be read is due alone to its beautifully sustained atmosphere. This adds poetry, and the real mystery of wide, fog-girt silence and the lost-child crying of seagulls, to a finely written log-book of a small-boat holiday upon which the author has grafted a handful of ‘extras’ and two ‘messages’—the threat of Germany and the need for England to, ‘be prepared.’
To my mind it is now republished exactly where it belongs—in the Mariner's Library. Here, a thriller by atmosphere alone, it stands alongside twenty-eight thrillers of the other school— thrillers where the action on the stage thrills, and the threatening sea-noises are left to the orchestra pit.
First, I'm amused to note that Fleming apparently doesn't believe Henry James is one of the greatest authors, since The Turn of the Screw does not make everyone's pulse beat faster. I am not too offended, since I was forced to read Henry James in high school and still have rage-filled memories of the experience.
The article presents a fuller picture of the authors who influenced Fleming--we were already aware of Ambler, Simenon, Chandler, and Greene, but it's good to have confirmation that Fleming also read Poe, Stevenson and M R. James (and Oscar Wilde).
What Fleming praises in these authors are his own qualities as a thriller-writer. "Above all" he values pace and in a thrilling metaphor says "each chapter is a wave to be jumped as we race with exhilaration behind the hero like a water-skier." Pace is certainly of great value in the Bond books, especially since it's used to hustle the reader past implausibilities and potential defects.
Fleming's counsel against getting too bogged down in detail might at first sound hypocritical, but one can argue that Fleming had to convince his readers of far wilder events and characters than the comparatively realistic Childers, or else readers would be left in disbelief. Fleming certainly took his own advice in avoiding "those leaden passages where the hero reviews what he has achieved or ploddingly surveys what remains to be done." Perhaps this helps explain why his books are relatively short.
Predictably, Fleming is most entranced (and seeks to entrance the reader) by details of clothing and furnishings ("you notice that the soda-water syphon beside it is of blue glass"), right down to the spongebag trousers of the hero. As many have stated, he was sometimes more interested in things than people, but his interest was deep and sensual.
Fleming's biggest complaint against Childers involves his villains. Fleming's own, full of "blackness," are one of his greatest strengths, and it is no coincidence that the weakest Bond books are the ones with the least substantial villains. We also have an amusing namecheck of the "delicious" Peter Lorre, who had already played a Bond villain by the time Fleming penned this article.
Lastly, we're given one of Fleming's funniest aphorisms: "it is always a bad idea for the hero to fall in love with the villain’s daughter. We are left wondering what sort of children they will have." Perhaps this is why the crime-lord Draco is made into a loveable ally! Looking back, one of the prime implausibilities of OHMSS is the Secret Service letting one of its top agents marry the daughter of an international crime lord.
Edited by Revelator, 01 March 2013 - 10:07 PM.