Thursday, 26 April 2018

Who did Number 2 work for before SPECTRE?

Anyone who’s read Thunderball or seen the film will be familiar with how SPECTRE conducts itself at meetings. Members of the criminal organisation are identified by number (in the novel, numbers are changed monthly, Blofeld being Number 2 during the events of the novel; this contrasts with the film, in which Blofeld, as chairman, is always Number 1) and quizzed about their criminal fund-raising activities before getting down to the main item on the agenda, in this case the theft of two atomic bombs. This set-up has been imitated and parodied since – Austin Powers hit the mark pretty accurately – but apparently SPECTRE wasn’t the first criminal organisation to adopt this model.
Cover of the first edition, published by The Bodley Head (artwork by Ernest Akers)
Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, published in 1922, features the pair of amateur sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence. In the novel, they’re on the search for a young woman, who’s gone missing after taking possession of a packet of secret documents, the contents of which would be dangerous in the wrong hands. 

The adventurous pair soon run up against members of a secret organisation who have a nefarious interest in the documents. At one point, Tommy follows one of the criminal agents to a house that transpires to be organisation’s headquarters, and finds himself eavesdropping on a meeting of the agent’s fellow members, an international cast of criminals that includes a Russian, an Irishman and a German. 

Hidden away, Tommy notices the arrival of another individual, who is allowed to enter the meeting room when he reveals his identity – Number 14 – to the doorman. Someone else arrives, gives his number, and gains access. Within the room, and at the head of the table, is Number 1, who, like Largo in the novel of Thunderball, is not himself the head of the organisation (who is known mysteriously as Mr Brown). 

Once everyone is assembled, they get down to business. One of the members requests more money from the organisation to pursue his part in the grand scheme. They read reports from various unions, which they have been infiltrating in order to spread discord and lay the foundations of revolution, which will be achieved with the release of the information contained in the missing documents. They agree that a certain union member, who might be a fly in the ointment, ‘must go’, and they discuss how they could induce the young woman to reveal the whereabouts of the package (‘In Russia we have ways of making a girl talk’).

Reading this, naturally I was reminded of Thunderball, and certainly there are similarities between the organisations in Ian Fleming’s and Agatha Christie’s novels: the use of numbers, the discipline, the international membership, the involvement of the unions, the threat of violence, and the business-like manner of planning world chaos. 

It seems that even in criminal organisations, there’s a standard way of doing things. Now there’s a thought – did Mr Brown and Blofeld attend the same evil business school?

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