Sunday, 1 February 2015

A little bit of Bond in every spy novel

A few weeks ago I read Charles Cumming's spy novel, The Trinity Six (2011, HarperCollins). The book follows academic Sam Gaddis on a dangerous trail that takes him from London to Winchester and then on to Moscow, Berlin and Vienna to uncover the truth behind a fabled sixth member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring.

It's a gripping book, which I enjoyed very much, but as I read it, I couldn't help note a number of allusions to James Bond. Some were obvious, others less so and perhaps unintentional. In any case, it struck me as ironic that even in realistic, serious spy novels, a world away from the James Bond novels and films, Bond has a habit of making an appearance.

Turning first to the obvious references to James Bond in The Trinity Six, Charles Cumming describes how Sergei Platov, the novel's fictional Russian president (and a thinly-disguised Vladimir Putin) used a hollow reed to breath while submerged in a pond to escape pursuers during the Second World War; Sean Connery, Cumming writes, “had the same trick in Dr No.” Later in the novel, Tanya Acocella, an MI6 agent, tells Gaddis that the watch he had been given by a contact had a false casing to conceal information. “Very James Bond,” Gaddis comments.

The novel also contained descriptions and phrases that didn't directly refer to James Bond, but nevertheless seemed to nod to aspects of the Bond books and films. For instance, Sam Gaddis, like Bond, appears to have a fondness for scrambled eggs. He consumes the dish for breakfast in Winchester a short way through the narrative, eats them again near the end of the book as he homes in on a vital piece of evidence that proves a conspiracy at the highest levels, and if I remember aright, Gaddis has scrambled eggs in between.

The choice of scrambled eggs may simply be a coincidence; after all, they are a very common breakfast dish, and Sam Gaddis does have other breakfast foods (for example cereal). On the other hand, Charles Cumming knows the Bond novels (he wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Man with the Golden Gun) and would be well aware of Bond's penchant for scrambled eggs. It's possible that even if not intended as a nod to Bond with the first mention of the dish, Charles Cumming developed the allusion with repeated descriptions.

I thought I also detected a nod to the 2006 film of Casino Royale. In Tanya's apartment, Sam Gaddis looks through a photo album containing holiday snaps taken by Tanya and her boyfriend Jeremy. Gaddis notes that “Jeremy wore Speedos – without apparent irony – whenever he came within striking distance of a body of water.” This is presumably a reference to the iconic scene in the film where Daniel Craig's well-toned Bond steps out of the sea in the Bahamas, the irony being that Jeremy is also an agent working for MI6.

I wondered too about a phrase uttered by former MI6 agent Robert Wilkinson as he reveals crucial information to Sam Gaddis. “'We're not a country club'”, he says. The phrase recalls M's line in Licence to Kill (1989) when Bond offers his resignation from the service: “We're not a country club, 007!” 

Then there's a possible allusion to the novel of From Russia, with Love. In The Trinity Six, Sam Gaddis reads Robert Harris' thriller Archangel during a rail journey from Barcelona to Vienna. I was reminded in this case of Bond's flight from London to Istanbul in Fleming's novel; Bond reads the classic thriller The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (whose novels, incidentally, influenced Charles Cumming's writing in The Trinity Six).

References to James Bond (the certain ones at least) in spy novels, together with the descriptions of actual product brands and geographical locations, give the novels an air of realism. We believe in the characters a little more because they share aspects of our lives; they watch the same films as us, read the same books, and eat the same food. The descriptions of fictional spies talking about fictional spies serve as a knowing wink to readers, but they also acknowledge the continued significance of James Bond (whether literary or cinematic) in spy fiction. There's a little bit of Bond in every spy novel.

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