Monday 25 November 2013

Are James Bond novels getting longer?

In an interview by Sathnam Sanghera for the Times Magazine in September, William Boyd said that he thought his James Bond book, Solo, “might be the longest Bond novel at 336 pages” ('...pretending he doesn't know this for a fact', Sathnam Sanghera commented). Boyd admitted at the 'Boyd on Bond' event at the Southbank that he hadn't read any continuation Bond novels except Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun and Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care, and so we can excuse the inaccuracy. In fact, the longest Bond novel is Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche, which at 432 pages is almost 100 pages longer than Solo.

Boyd's claim notwithstanding, his comment perhaps reflects a wider view that, certainly by modern standards, Ian Fleming's novels are rather on the short side, possibly even too short to be taken very seriously. Indeed, in his preview of the Designing Bond exhibition in London in July 2012, design critic Stephen Bayley, writing in the Times (2nd July 2012), dismissed the original novels as novellas. But is this fair? Are Fleming's books really so short? Are Bond books increasing in length over time? Let's have a look at some numbers.

I collected data for all of Fleming's books, except Octopussy (a statistical outlier), and all continuation novels, except the novelisations of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films. I chose to ignore several variables that might affect book length, such as font size, pages size, margins and spacing, simply taking instead the number of the last page in the UK first edition hardback. This gave me a dataset of 39 books.

Here are some basic statistics. As stated, the longest Bond book is Carte Blanche. The shortest is John Gardner's Nobody Lives Forever (1986), which is 192 pages long. In fairness to William Boyd, Solo is the second longest book (actually 322 pages). The longest Fleming novel is Goldfinger (1959) at 318 pages, only four fewer than Solo. The shortest Fleming novel is Casino Royale (1953) at 218 pages. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008) is within the top quarter with 294 pages, while Kingsley Amis' effort (1968) is roughly in the middle with 255 pages. Raymond Benson's novels are generally on the higher end, his longest being The Man with the Red Tattoo (2002), Doubleshot (2000) and Never Dream of Dying (2001), all being 320 pages in length. The longest Gardner novel is The Man from Barborossa (1991) at 303 pages. The overall mean across the dataset is 262 pages.

The sequence of books produced by Fleming, Gardner and Benson allows some interesting comparison. The mean length of Fleming's novels is 253 pages. This is slightly more than the mean for Gardner's books (241 pages) but somewhat smaller than the value (301 pages) for Raymond Benson's novels. The standard deviations for the books of Fleming and Gardner are also quite similar (27 and 29 pages respectively), but more than that for Benson (25 pages). This suggests that Benson's novels are more consistent in terms of page length, while the books of Fleming and Gardner varied rather more. This is confirmed by the overall range (that of Fleming is 100 pages, compared with 61 for Benson), and the coefficient of variation (standard deviation divided by mean), which standardises groups of data of different size. That for Fleming and Gardner is 0.12, while that for Benson is 0.08.

These values suggested to me that Gardner's novels are practically the same sort of length as Ian Fleming's, but that Raymond Benson's are different; judging by the means, Benson's books are consistently longer. I tested this by first combining into a single list Fleming's and Gardner's books and ranking the books in size order. I could see that the novels were fairly evenly mixed. There was a Gardner, then a Fleming, then two Gardners, followed by two Flemings, four Gardners then a single Fleming, and so on, as if randomly intermixed. When I compared Fleming and Benson, again combining the lists and ranking the books by page length, most of Benson's books were at high end of the list. There were eleven Flemings (out of 13) ranked below the shortest Benson. Evidently Benson's books were generally longer than Fleming's (and no doubt Gardner's too), and a Mann-Whitney test confirmed there there was a significant statistical difference between the lengths of Fleming's and Benson's books.

So while there has been no steady rise during the time that Fleming and Gardner were writing (1953-1996) (it could even be suggested that Gardner deliberately copied the length of the original novels for greater authenticity – his Herbie Kruger novels, for example, are much longer than his Bonds), the continuation novels of Raymond Benson and subsequent authors have been generally longer than earlier novels.

Much of the explanation for this is likely to be cultural, with authors (Gardner excepted) matching, to some extent unwittingly, the length of their Bond books with that of their other works or other contemporary fiction. It is probably true to say that when Fleming was writing, contemporary novels were the same sort of length as his own. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books averaged about 250 pages per book. William Boyd's novels are more consistently over 300 pages long. In other words, book length has been driven upwards over time, and authors conform to that trend. Nevertheless, does it really matter? After all, it's not the size of the book that counts, but what's inside it.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Over the moon about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Just as Ian Fleming wrote three Chitty Chitty Bang Bang adventures, Frank Cottrell Boyce has penned a third sequel to the original series. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Over the Moon sees the modern Tooting family – who find and restore the famous racing car (with the help of a little Chitty magic) in their first outing – adrift 1966 when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, now fitted with a time-travelling chronojuster, is stolen. There's only one to do: find the Pott family and the 'younger' Chitty, rescue the future Chitty, and go.... back to the future.

As with any story involving time-travel, the twists, complications and paradoxes soon mount up, and this latest Chitty adventure is no exception. What happens when the past and future Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs meet? What would become of the Tootings if the future described in the first two sequels never happened as a result of their saving the world in the 1960s? As with any time-travelling story, it's probably best not to think about it too much.

The story has much to enjoy. Meeting the Potts again is like seeing old friends. Or, rather, old-fashioned friends. Frank Cottrell Boyce nicely contrasts the attitudes of today with those of the 1960s, reflecting the changes in society that have occurred over the past 50 years. So, Commander Pott is authoritative, Jeremy is independent and capable, ever ready with a map, compass, pocket knife and catapult, Mimsie makes tea and thinks about picnics, while Jemima reminds everyone that she's not very good at things because she's a girl. Of course, the Potts soon learn that to overcome the villainous Tiny Jack, they all need to work together as a family – and with the Tootings.

There are nods to the Bond series and other films. Commander Pott drives an Aston Martin DB5. Tiny Jack, who's building up his collection of (stolen) cars, already has the Batmobile and Marty McFly's DeLorean. Other allusions are probably unintentional. When Tiny Jack hijacks Big Ben (actually the Elizabeth Tower), which is flying across the sky thanks to one of Commander Pott's inventions, anti-gravity paint, I was reminded of the plot of Bond spoof, Alligator, in which the eponymous villain steals the Houses of Parliament. I expect, however, that this vague similarity is purely coincidental.

With the Potts involved in much of the action, the spirit of Ian Fleming is never far away, and Frank Cottrell Boyce further links his adventures with the original stories with references to Crackpot's whistling sweets and Monsieur Bon Bon's 'Fooj' shop. And with these references, it seems that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's adventures have come full circle, and to an end. But I hope not. I've enjoyed reading these new adventures, and would love to see Chitty take flight again. After all, in the words of Commander Pott, never say no to adventure.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

James Bond's top ten books

Last week, a list of Ian Fleming's top ten books, as selected by me, was posted on Artistic License Renewed: An Art and Literary James Bond Blog and Tribute to Richard Chopping. Now it's the turn of James Bond. Far from being an occasional reader of books about golf and cards, Bond's library is far more varied. Indeed, Fleming wrote of Bond's 'book-lined sitting-room'. Visitors to Bond's London flat are likely to see not only sports books, but also detective and mystery thrillers, gothic chillers, books about politics, a book of 18th-century letters, and travel writing, among other works. Inevitably the interests of Fleming and Bond overlap, but I think Bond's library still retains a distinctive profile. Click the link to see my suggestions for Bond's top ten books. Many thanks to Artistic License Renewed for inviting me to write the article.   

Monday 11 November 2013

James Bond at the Intelligence and Security Committee

Intelligence chiefs at the ISC ('C' in the centre). Photo: The Guardian
When UK’s spy chiefs appeared before the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee last week, it was inevitable that James Bond would be referenced in the extensive media coverage of the event. James Bond is a standard cultural touchstone for any espionage-related story, but allusions to Bond were especially relevant on this occasion, as Judy Dench’s M faces the same committee in Skyfall (2012). In the film, the committee was chaired by Gareth Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes. His role in reality was taken by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP.

A trawl through the coverage in British media brought up various James Bond references. The headline for a comment piece by Julian Huppert in The Guardian read, “Spy chiefs can give evidence without the sky falling in – so let's reform oversight,” an obvious reference to Skyfall. An editorial in same paper contrasted popular perceptions of spy work with reality by alluding to Bond villains, white cats, and steel-rimmed bowler hats. In a parliamentary sketch in The Daily Mail, Quentin Letts wrote of “a petite Miss Moneypenny, taking notes” behind Sir John Sawers, chief ('C') of MI6. A piece by Alex Stevenson in the online edition of Metro had the headline, “Spy chiefs grilled: James Bond’s bosses hit back hard,” and suggested that C's performance at the committee hearing was not as exciting as the portrayal we're used to in the Bond films. In the print edition of Metro, a cartoon by Robert Thompson showed a Blofeld-like character (of Donald Pleasence type) in a chair stroking a white cat. He says to an image of Bond on a TV screen, “Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you.” “Yes, sorry there's a two minute time delay,” Bond replies, referring to the small transmission delay in the broadcast of the proceedings.

On BBC Radio 4, Eddie Mair, presenter of the PM programme began his broadcast with the words, “On Her Majesty's Not So Secret Service,” and the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner introduced his report by saying, “It wasn't Skyfall.” Even before the committee met, the BBC was reaching for references to Skyfall in its reporting on the upcoming event. On Radio 4's Today programme, a segment by correspondent Gordon Corera used clips of M's scenes in front of the committee.

As for the appearance of the spy chiefs themselves, fact mirrored fiction as some of what the committee heard was not too dissimilar from what M tells the committee in Skyfall. In his opening remarks, Sir John Sawers said, “It is not like it was in the Cold War. There are not states out there, trying to destroy our Government and our way of life, but there are a very wide range of diverse threats that we face.” This could have been one of M’s lines. She tells the committee, “I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They're not nations, they're individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque. It's in the shadows.”

I was also reminded of M’s speech when Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, told the committee, “The task that we are all paid to do is to keep the country safe. That is challenging and difficult work to do; and where the techniques we have are compromised, that makes our work even harder.” This echoes the appeal about operational matters that M makes: “So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?”

James Bond has long been something of a recruiting sergeant for the intelligence services (at least unofficially), but it was still remarkable to hear Sir John Sawers mention him: “I think the idea of sending an agent off into the field like James Bond and then he comes back two months later and reports... That does not work that way. Our people in the field will have constant communication with us through our stations or direct to head office. And they can communicate very rapidly.”

Ironically, far from being unrealistic, MI6 as portrayed in recent James Bond films has increasingly been working in a manner that Sir John Sawers would recognise. James Bond, particularly in the Daniel Craig era, is less a lone wolf sent out by M and relying on his wits and judgement (and some gadgets) to complete the mission, and is more part of a team which provides backup and feeds information and resources to Bond while in the field. M has also played a more active role, staying in regular contact with Bond and even going out into the field.

As I suggested in an earlier post, this in part reflects the fact that communication is much easier today than it was in the early days of the Bond films. As technology has evolved, the Bond films have naturally kept pace with it; Bond without a mobile phone is now unthinkable, and there is now no reason for Bond to stay incommunicado (except perhaps when held prisoner or in a situation where to attempting to communicate would be dangerous). A more active M also reflects the reality of accountability and oversight that Government (and society) demands of our intelligence services. The Bond films have moved, again probably without too much deliberation, with this trend. Besides, given his experience on the Intelligence and Security Committee, I expect the new M, Gareth Mallory, will be no different to his predecessor and will continue to direct, or be regularly updated on, Bond's next mission.

Returning to the media references to Bond, memes that emerged in the Sean Connery era – the Blofeld of You Only Live Twice, the white cat, Oddjob's hat – continue to endure. It is no surprise, too, that given its huge success, Skyfall has also provided elements that, a year after the film's release, have retained their cultural currency. M's appearance at the Intelligence and Security Committee is one element that is likely to be as enduring in cultural space.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Ian Fleming's top ten books

I was honoured to be asked to write a guest post on the top ten books of Ian Fleming and James Bond for the excellent blog, Artistic License Renewed: An Art and Literary James Bond Blog and Tribute to Richard Chopping. My list of Ian Fleming's top ten books based on his interviews and writing and other sources has now been posted. Click here to read the article.

Monday 4 November 2013

The music of For Your Eyes Only – by Bill Conti, with a hint of Ennio Morricone

There’s a scene in For A Few Dollars More (1965) where Clint Eastwood's Monco and Lee Van Cleef's Colonel Mortimer watch the bank of El Paso and wait for the arrival of El Indio and his men, who are going to rob it. The music, reflecting the tense mood and anticipation of the robbery, is a nerve-jangling and unpredictable sequence of piano chords, bells and percussion. But as I was watching the scene the other week, the score reminded me of music from another film, For Your Eyes Only (1981).

The music leading up to the bank robbery in For A Few Dollars More is characterised by a discordant sequence of drum rolls, short combinations of low notes on the piano, random beats of more drums, the striking of low piano chords, and chimes of a bell. And then, as El Indio arrives, we hear the blast of a horn that goes on forever. With a cut to a view of the safe timed with the striking of a bell and low piano chord, the music sequence ends.

Listen now to the scene in For Your Eyes Only in which Bond, after leaving Bibi Dahl at the biathlon event, is pursued by Kriegler. As Bond skis through the trees, and Kriegler attempts to get a clean shot, we hear an unsettling sequence of staccato motifs (mainly from the piano), muted rolls of the snare drum, a few searching strings (or other instrument), and crashing piano chords. And when Bond skis off the roof of a building and manages some impressive spins over the heads of henchmen on motorbikes, we get a long blast of a horn. The music sequence terminates with a few more piano chords and the striking of a bell that coincides with a shot of the ski jump building.

To me, the similarity between the two scores is uncanny. Structurally they are very close, and both employ the same devices of piano chords, drum beats, bell chimes and that wonderfully long horn blast. The pieces of music no doubt utilise a range of standard musical tropes that typically accompany such scenes of tension and suspense, but I wonder too whether Bill Conti was to some extent inspired by Ennio Morricone's music when he scored his sequence. Indeed, Jon Burlingame suggests as much in his excellent book, The Music of James Bond. In a very small way, the sound of the spaghetti western is present in the world of James Bond.

Note: I was unable to find the clips on YouTube, but the relevant DVD chapters are 21 (For A Few Dollars More) and chapter 12 (For Your Eyes Only).