Sunday, 21 August 2011

Bonding with Dirk Pitt, Lucifer Box, Archie Noble and Asterix

Evidence of the significant place James Bond has in popular culture is found in a number of novels that cannot be called James Bond parodies – Bond is not the subject of the books, which instead usually feature a well-established character of their own – but contain allusions to Bond in tribute to Ian Fleming’s character and hint at the influence that Bond has in the shaping of the authors’ works.

For example, there is Clive Cussler’s Night Probe!, published in 1981. The hero of the novel is Dirk Pitt, a marine adventurer who works for the US National Underwater and Marine Agency. Pitt is dispatched to locate and retrieve the only copies from a shipwreck of an old, but potentially dangerous, treaty between Great Britain and the United States. Meanwhile, the British Government has brought the legendary spy Brian Shaw out of retirement to make sure the documents never get into American hands.

That Brian Shaw can be identified as James Bond is clear from Cussler’s descriptions. We meet Shaw at a funeral of, we learn, his old boss. ‘There were times I wanted to kill him, and there were times I could have embraced him as a father.’ A neat summary of the love-hate relationship between M and Bond. We also meet his chief’s old secretary (Moneypenny?) who lets slip that Brian Shaw is a pseudonym. Then there is reference to SMERSH, Shaw’s former enemy, and to the death of his wife, and Shaw’s home in the West Indies. At the end of the novel, Dirk Pitt thinks he’s discovered Shaw’s true identity. ‘James Bond would be proud of you’, he says. Shaw replies that Bond only exists in fiction. ‘Does he?’, Pitt asks. Cussler’s ‘Bond’ is largely the Bond of the books, but the cinematic Bond creeps in. ‘The same old flatterer’, the elderly secretary says when Bond tells her how sensual she looks. We can hear Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny utter that line.

Dirk Pitt is something of a Bondian character himself, and Clive Cussler has acknowledged the influence of Bond in Pitt’s make-up: ‘I began researching and analysing all the series heroes, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe's Inspector Dumas. Next came Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and all the other fiction detectives and spies: Bulldog Drummond, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlow, Mike Hammer, Matt Helm, and James Bond. I studied them all.’

Black Butterfly, by Mark Gatiss and published in 2008, is the third novel to feature the bisexual secret agent, Lucifer Box. In the novel, he investigates the unexpected deaths of members of the establishment, which, he discovers is caused by a poison deriving from the black butterfly.

Bond references come thick and fast. On the cover of the hardback edition, the lettering of the title and author’s name is stencilled, and very much like the tea-chest font used in the Richard Chopping covers of Ian Fleming’s later novels. The cover art shows, in the manner of the cover for The Spy Who Loved Me, a commando knife piercing a playing card and the wood beneath. The artwork is a fine tribute to Richard Chopping. There is even a fly, Richard Chopping’s trade mark. Incidentally, the paperback cover nicely mimics the Pan covers of the 1960s.

The allusions to Bond continue inside. The action is set in 1953 (the year that the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published), and moves from England to Istanbul, then Kingston, Jamaica. The prologue, describing a dream of Lucifer Box, is a good Fleming pastiche, featuring expensive branded products (a Siebe Gorman wetsuit), the taking of Benzedrine tablets, and appearance of a Blofeld-like villain, Gottfried Clawhammer. Further into the novel, we meet Whitley Bey (a nod to Kerim Bey of From Russia, With Love) and Dr Cassivellaunus Fetch, the Man with the Celluloid Hand. There is even a reference to Jamaica’s Undertaker’s Wind, something that Fleming often mentioned in his books.

There are fewer Bond references in The Reavers, by Octopussy screenwriter, George MacDonald Fraser, but those that are present reveal the work of a Fleming aficionado. The novel, published in 2007, is a comic historical adventure set in the world of the Border reivers or raiders on the Anglo-Scottish border in the 16th-century. As usual with his novels, Fraser intersperses the narrative with factual snippets, among them the fact that ‘the original “M”’, Sir Francis Walsingham was Elizabeth I’s espionage chief. The hero of the novel is the spy, Archie Noble. He moves with ‘cat-like agility’ (a reference, perhaps, to how Harry Saltzman thought Sean Connery moved), is head of Station B for Border, ‘licensed to slay’, and a ‘double-nought operative’.

Finally, Asterix and the Black Gold (published in English in 1982), is a comic book adventure by Albert Uderzo, and features the indomitable Gaul on a mission to secure a supply of ‘black gold’ or rock oil, which is an essential ingredient in the druid Getafix’s magic potion. A wandering druid, who is really a Roman spy, joins an unsuspecting Asterix, and tries to sabotage the mission. The druid is Uderzo’s tribute to the early Bond films. The character’s name is Dubbelosix, and looks like Sean Connery. He drives a chariot, which, like Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin, hides many gadgets (for example retractable scythes on the wheels).

It is no surprise that Uderzo incorporates the cinematic Bond in his work. The comic strip medium is, of course, cinematic, but Uderzo is also a film buff who often references aspects of French and American cinema in the Asterix books. For example, Laurel and Hardy are portrayed as Roman soldiers in Obelix and Co, and Kirk Douglas, in Spartacus mode, has a role in Asterix and Obelix All at Sea.

All these works are testament to the continuing influence of both the literary and cinematic James Bond in popular culture, and it is a rare spy or adventure novel that features a spy that does not make a reference to Bond. Ian Fleming said that he wanted to write the spy novel to end all spy novels. The genre didn’t end, but the landscape of the spy novel was undoubtedly altered, with Fleming creating an archetype to which other novelists inevitably turn.

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