Monday, 3 October 2016

The tradition of the operational mix-up

First edition cover by Richard Chopping, published by Jonathan Cape
The novel of On Her Majesty's Secret Service contains so many wonderful passages and descriptions that it's difficult to single out any one as the best, but, when idly flicking through the book, I do find myself turning to the moment when James Bond, in conference with the Count de Bleuville (Blofeld, of course), recognises fellow secret service agent Shaun Campbell, who's been captured and brought before the count (chapters 14 and 15).

Bond surmises that Campbell was following a lead of his own and had no knowledge of Bond's mission. “Typical of the sort of balls-up that over-security can produce!”, Bond concludes, but he does the only thing that an agent can do in such circumstances: deny Campbell and leave him to his fate.

The operational mix-up is something of a standard trope, and Ian Fleming could have drawn on several examples from spy and detective fiction. One example can be found in Dennis Wheatley's short story Espionage, published in Mediterranean Nights (1942). British secret service agent Rowley Thornton is travelling by train to St Tropez, and becomes suspicious about a German women, Fraulein Lisabetta, who is sharing his compartment (the story is set between the world wars). Suspecting that Lisabetta has taken possession of secret blue prints for a new fighter plane stolen by a German agent, Rowley goes after her and plans to have her hotel room searched or, if necessary, have her searched.

However, it transpires that Lisabetta is herself a British agent, who has inveigled the blue prints from the German agent. As Rowley later reflects, “It's one of the rules of the service that even if your own side gets up against you through ignorance you must never show your hand until your job is done.”

This rule of never showing your hand is also evident in Peter Cheyney's Never a Dull Moment (1942). FBI agent Lemmy Caution is in England, investigating the disappearance of a woman, Julia Wayles. He suspects that American gangster Maxie Schribner has something to do with her disappearance and is talking to Schribner at his English residence.

When another gangster, Rudolf, enters the house, Caution “almost gets heart disease”. Though purporting to be one of Schribner's associates, Rudolf is actually a fellow FBI agent, Charlie Milton, working under cover. A few words from Milton prevent Caution from giving the game away, but unfortunately for Caution, Milton also maintains his cover by “smacking [him] one across the kisser that makes [his] teeth bounce.” Caution is out for the count and comes to in the cellar waiting to be thrown in the river.

With these examples in mind, we can see that Ian Fleming continued the tradition of the operational mix-up. James Bond sticks to the rule of never showing your hand until the job is done, but finds that it is a rule that can have harsh consequences.

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