Saturday, 16 October 2010

James Bond PI: The American Origins of James Bond. Part 2.

Bond’s adventures were immediately familiar to Fleming’s readers, though perhaps not from British literature. The first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep reads, ‘I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them’. Later on, Marlowe orders two black coffees, ‘strong and made this year’. As in the Bond books, there is an attention to detail and exactitudes – the facts that ground the character in reality; and like Bond, Marlowe knows what he wants. Then there is the violence, which sparsely punctuates the narrative, but is distinctly Bondian in tone when it occurs:

‘Perhaps it would have been nice to allow him another shot or two, just like a gentleman of the old school. But his gun was still up and I couldn’t wait any longer. Not long enough to be a gentleman of the old school. I shot him four times, the Colt straining against my ribs. The gun jumped out of his hand as if it had been kicked.

Compare this with a passage from the pages of Fleming:

‘Bond’s right flashed out and the face of the Rolex disintegrated against the man’s jaw. The body slid sluggishly off its chair on to the carpet and lay still, its legs untidy, as if in sleep.’

That Fleming’s spare description and journalistic prose resembles Chandler is unsurprising. Fleming certainly admitted the influence of Chandler and other ‘superb masters of the modern thriller’, including Dashiell Hammett, creator of the brutal Sam Spade. Both were from the ‘hard-boiled’ school of writing, which Joseph T Shaw described as hard and brittle, with authentic characterisation and action and a very fast tempo. Chandler in particular was noted for raising the genre from pulp-fiction to literature by writing ‘genuine drama…in a very vivid and pungent style’. The results were generally met with approval; a review of The Big Sleep published in The New Statesman admired the ‘full strength blends of sadism, eroticism and alcoholism’ (a description remarkably similar to Paul Johnson’s rather more pejoratively-meant epithet, ironically also published in The New Statesman).

Both Chandler and Fleming placed an emphasis on toughness and the speed of the narrative. Chandler accepted the need for constant action: ‘If you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand’. Fleming agreed to the same demands: ‘The pace of the narrative gets me round tricky corners. You take the reader along so fast…that he isn’t thrown by…incongruities’.

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