We all know James Bond—a secret agent and perhaps one of the most famous persons on the planet. Even though just a fictional character, he’s synonymous with our idea of what an agent should be like. I myself grew up on an unhealthy diet of 007 novels sneaked out of my grandpa’s shelves that were full of the choicest pulp.

But how much do we know about Bond’s creator—Ian Fleming? Was he anything like Bond himself? Granted, he did work for British intelligence but after recently meeting Fleming’s biographer, Andrew Lycett, and studying his book Ian Fleming, it became clear to me that the author’s career in Her Majesty’s secret service was more of an office job than one involving parachuting off mountains chased by enemy agents. Rather than caviar and champagne, Fleming’s preferred diet was scrambled eggs and cigarettes.

One other thing I had no idea about is that Fleming was a lifelong collector of rare books and that his own debut work, at the age of 20, was a volume of poetry, The Black Daffodil, which he later found so embarrassing that he rounded up and burned all the copies. Anybody who happens to be in possession of a stray specimen that didn’t go into the bonfire has a valuable rarity on his or her bookshelf.

So what relevance did Fleming’s World War II intelligence work have for his thrillers? Until lately, little was known about what he actually did, except for the odd remark he made, such as telling us in a 1962 essay about his attempt to out-gamble a bunch of Nazi spies at a Portuguese casino, thereby reducing the funds of the German secret service. This, he says, was the inspiration for his first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953).

In the biography, Lycett notes that the event was heavily embellished by Fleming, it was actually a “sombre and uneventful evening… His fellow gamblers were Portuguese businessmen in suits, the stakes were not particularly high, and Ian lost." Afterwards, Fleming reportedly said to his travel companion: “What if those men had been German secret service agents, and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money; now that would have been exciting."

In such illuminating anecdotes we see how the novelist’s mind had already started the process of turning fact into fiction. Lycett is the first biographer to access the relevant intelligence service archives of recently declassified documents—including the many memos Fleming wrote with plans for various imaginative, often far-fetched plots to thwart the Germans, several of them worthy of inclusion in any Bond novel.

All this and much more is described in the thrilling biography that also covers Fleming’s career as a journalist, his relationship with women (he was a wild bachelor), and the inspirations for his books. Although a sequence in the movie Octopussy is set in Udaipur, none of the novels take 007 to India—even though, we learn, Fleming visited India twice: Dressed in only a tropical suit in Delhi, in the winter of 1945, he felt it was far too cold; and in 1958 in Mumbai he found it impossible to get alcohol. One can speculate that if there hadn’t been prohibition at the time, perhaps Bond would have come and had a fictional dry martini in the town!

To chronicle the lives of popular writers is a fascinating job and Lycett, a former journalist, has also written biographies on Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), the India-born Rudyard Kipling (whose Kim is one of the earliest Asian espionage novels), and forthcoming is a biography of Wilkie Collins who wrote what is considered to be the first full-length detective novel—The Moonstone (which, interestingly, also has an Indian element in it).

For his work, Lycett was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009. When we met at the Jaipur Literature Festival recently, he told me that what he likes to do is put people in context, “Biography is a nice mixture of history and investigation."

He points out that a biography writer needs a sense of what makes a good story, and an ability to come up with subjects that can become popular and will sell.

But why write about crime writers, why not, say, important scientists?

“Well, writers aren’t intrinsically interesting because they just sit and write most of their lives, but some of them have interesting back stories. One of the things that draw the writers I write about together is that many of them worked as journalists." Then he adds: “I have a feeling that people read less and less—people don’t read Fleming any more, they go and watch James Bond movies. In fact, Fleming himself is coming back in fashion, and people are more and more interested in his life."

Lycett gets a kick out of finding new and not much written about material—apart from coming across Fleming’s top-secret wartime memos, he was among the first to read Conan Doyle’s private papers when they were acquired by the British Library.

So what can we expect from the forthcoming Collins biography?

“It’s been very much an investigation: Collins had two women in his life, but he wasn’t married to either. After his death lots of letters were burned and the women were purged out of history," says Lycett.

But thanks to a hard-working biographer like Lycett, the mystery women around Collins stand a chance to find their way, albeit posthumously, into literary history.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

Close