Sunday, 6 February 2011

Bond's rivals

James Bond emerged in 1953 as an amalgam of an American private detective, a World War II commando and a British club-land hero, but in turn inspired a range of Bond-like characters that for a time, especially in the 1960s, sought to steal the crown of the toughest, handsomest, and most exciting secret agent. We are more familiar with the cinematic rivals – Derek Flint, Charles Vine, Matt Helm, and latterly Austin Powers – but there was no shortage of pretenders in the literary world. Let’s meet a few of them.

The American spy Nick Carter works for the Axe organisation, an ultra-secret organisation that takes orders direct from the president of the United States. Like Bond, he has a licence to kill, and takes the epithet of killmaster. Nick Carter was heralded as ‘the American answer to Ian Fleming’s James Bond’ and the inheritor of Bond’s mantle in his first spy adventure, Run, Spy, Run, published in 1964. In fact, the character was much older, originally appearing in a crime novel, ‘The Old Detective’s pupil’ in 1886, and subsequently featuring in detective magazines, crime novels and radio stories until the 1950s. Various authors contributed stories, which were all credited to Nick Carter. Run, Spy, Run marked a significant change to the character in an attempt to emulate Bond’s success.

Hammerhead was also published in 1964. Called the ‘toughest of post-Bond thrillers’ by the Spectator, this was the first adventure for Charles Hood, an art dealer and secret agent, written by James Mayo, a pseudonym of Stephen Coulter. Four more adventures followed, the last being The Man Above Suspicion in 1969. Charles Hood is tough (‘Hood freed one hand and before the man could move, scooped a fistful of ash down the open throat’), urbane, fond of the ladies, and a traveller. The fourth novel, Once in a Lifetime (also available as Sergeant Death), takes Hood to Iran in an archaeological-themed story.

James Leasor was a prolific writer who turned his attention to the spy genre in 1964 with the publication of Passport to Oblivion (also known as Where the Spies Are). The hero was Dr Jason Love, a country GP turned secret agent, and ‘heir apparent to the golden throne of Bond’, according to the Evening Standard. He certainly has the right qualities – a love of fast cars (a supercharged Cord roadster), and fondness for martial arts (judo), and exotic places (Iran again). There were nine Jason Love adventures, the last, Love Down Under, published in 1992.

Hugo Baron was another an adventurer who first appeared in 1964 in Diecast. ‘How like Bond and just as good’, said the Daily Express. Like Love and Hood, he combines his secret-agent life with his day-job, this time a barrister. Diecast was written by John Michael Brett, a pseudonym of Miles Tripp. Hugo Baron is less a spy than a ‘man-of-danger’ hired as a tough problem-solver. In Diecast he is hired to extricate a millionaire and head of an organisation called DIECAST out of blackmail trouble.

Not all Bond’s rivals were born in 1964. Philip McAlpine arrived in 1967 in The Dolly Dolly Spy, by Adam Diment. The character was compared with Bond, but the contrasts were also noted. While he likes fast cars, women, and violence, McAlpine is younger than Bond (23), is part of the swinging London scene and smokes marijuana. This updating of the Bond model had its fans, but the character, like many of the others, didn’t last. The final novel, Think, Inc, was published in 1971.

This brief survey of Bond’s rivals raises some points. 1964 was a good year for the competition. It was the year that Ian Fleming died, and with the prospect of no further Bond novels, writers saw the opportunity to bring out their secret agents to fill the niche. All these characters took to various extents James Bond’s traits and were identified with Bond. They were not identical, though, and could be regarded as Bond re-imagined and adapted by writers other than Fleming. In evolutionary terms, the memes from which James Bond developed evolved in a form of speciation. The memes or traits were isolated in other writers’ minds and new species of secret agents – Jason Love, Nick Carter, Charles Hood and others – evolved along different, though similar, trajectories.

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