A surfeit of secret agents: James Bond’s colourful predecessors (Column: Bookends LXIX)

By Vikas Datta (09:25) 

Even before a flamboyant secret agent with a penchant for vodka martinis “shaken, not stirred” appeared, Britain was not left undefended against communist or other subversives, the nefarious designs of megalomaniac criminal masterminds or terrorists.

Neither did it lack ability to settle accounts with traitors, recover stolen documents and otherwise protect the realm and its interests – in popular literature at least.

But only the eclectic reader – a fast-shrinking species – will recall many of these varied operatives, though they were no less feted in their times.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond has become the best-known secret agent since his 1953 debut with “Casino Royale” (and a successful foray into films). Fleming’s capacity to expertly serve fantasies created an archetype, putting into shade other less flashier practitioners, though Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer’, John Le Carre’s George Smiley, and Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise (who’s no less flamboyant) manage to hold their own.

But well before Bond, the British government could draw on the services of many others – right from Sherlock Holmes.

The master detective serves his government four times, though in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” (1893) – one of the espionage genre’s earliest examples – it is on the plea of an acquaintance of Dr. Watson, not an official request. In “The Adventure of the Second Stain” (1904), it is however the prime minister who himself seeks his services.

Turning more active in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” (1908) where Brother Mycroft suddenly drops in and urges him to abandon his “usual petty puzzles of the police court” for a “vital international problem”, he not only secures return of stolen documents but also entraps the spy. This is reprised in “His Last Bow” (1917), set just before the outbreak of World War I, where the stakes are much higher.

Though Baroness Emma Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel” (play 1903, novel 1905) can be considered an unofficial operative, Britain’s deep-cover spy in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France was the prolific Dennis Wheatley’s Roger Brook. Operating well before the Revolution till the downfall of Napoleon (whose aide-de-camp he becomes), his activities are not confined to Europe but also more exotic locations including the Caribbean, Qajar Iran, and Portuguese Brazil in a dozen books from “The Launching of Roger Brook” (1947) to “Desperate Measures” (1974).

Even George MacDonald Fraser’s arch-cad Sir Harry Flashman is dragooned into various missions – intelligence-gathering in post-Ranjit Singh Punjab inching towards war with the Raj (“Flashman and the Mountain of Light”, 1990), investigating signs of what would become the 1857 Revolt in “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) and more.

The espionage novel itself dates to the 20th century’s start, with an early and influential example being Erskine Childers’ “The Riddle of the Sands” (1903), where Carruthers, a minor Foreign Office bureaucrat, and his acquaintance, Davies, uncover a secret German plan to invade Britain – while on a sailing holiday in the North Sea.

Drawn on his own experiences of intelligence work, W. Somerset Maugham’s enigmatic agent has various adventures in neutral Switzerland during World War I and then in Revolutionary Russia in “Ashenden: Or the British Agent” (1928), while ‘Capt.’ W.E. Johns’ popular Biggles has an eventful career, from the First World War to well into the Cold War, not only as a flying ace but also an intelligence agent in over 100 books.

There is British-American Leslie Charteris Simon Templar alias Saint, who in his long series of adventures (1928-63) moves from a Robin Hood-type figure to secret agent (he also made transition to film and TV – played in the latter by Roger Moore), the little-known Donald Campbell’s Leslie Vane, who anticipated Bond in being an ace shot, fencer and pilot and able to reach any point of the globe in hours, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tupence, and Herman Cyril MacNeile ‘Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond and his band of vigilantes.

But two key inspirations for 007 were John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and Wheatley’s (again) Gregory Sallust. Debuting in “The 39 Steps” (1915), Hannay also laid quite a few tropes for the genre – the framed hero, the man on the run, and ingenious escapes from villains. He stars in four other books, though only the next two (“Greenmantle”, 1916 and “Mr. Standfast”, 1919) are on espionage.

Beginning with combating smugglers in “Contraband” (1936), Sallust takes on the Nazis in Germany in seven-odd adventures from “The Scarlet Impostor” (1940) to “They Used Dark Forces” (1964), where he facilitates Adolf Hitler’s suicide! His nonchalance in dealing with villains on their ground, and ability to win over their lady friends would be familiar to Bond fans.

Rarely popping up anew, literary characters often evolve out of existing ones. These series, though often politically incorrect, offer a good insight in the process – they also make for some enjoyable reading!

(07.06.2015. Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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