While watching Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, originally shown on Sky Atlantic in January this year (click here for my review of the series), I was interested to see that Ian Fleming was shown reading a couple of books. There had been an allusion to Fleming the bibliophile early on during the first episode – at Fleming’s first encounter with Ann O’Neill (later Ann Fleming), Ann makes a witty comment about Ian being like a bumped and foxed first edition – and the allusion continued with scenes of Fleming with a book in his hands.
One of the books, seen in the first episode, had the title, Killer in the Alley. As far as I can establish, this book does not exist, and appears to have been invented for the series. Judging by the title, though, the book presumably represents some sort of crime novel in the manner of the hard-boiled thrillers of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Fleming was a huge fan of such fiction. Indeed, the works of Chandler, Hammett and others had a profound effect on Fleming’s own writing, the fast-paced and violent style of the Bond novels being very much influenced by American pulp-fiction.
The second book is a more familiar classic: John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). This is a predictable, though somewhat old-fashioned choice. While Fleming would certainly have read the book, by the late 1930s/early 1940s his reading matter had moved on from tales of simple derring-do by the likes of Buchan, Rohmer and Sapper to something a little more sophisticated, such as Turbott Wolfe (1925) by William Plomer, or Geoffrey Household’s The Third Hour (1937).
We see Fleming reading Buchan during episode 3 as Fleming’s career with the Naval Intelligence Division is burgeoning, and it is implied that Fleming uses the book to gain insight into intelligence work. In reality, however, Fleming is more likely to have read technical manuals and reports, as well as more recent novels set in the world of intelligence (for example, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, which had been published in 1939).
While the Fleming series conveyed Ian Fleming’s interest in books (including erotic prints!), it failed to give a representative impression of his contemporary reading, or capture his eagerness to acquire knowledge, particularly of a technical nature, not just from published material, but also from the experts themselves.