Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Un-Bond: William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell

I remember that when reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels I was struck by how much the character and his outlook, his associated image of glamour, the basis of his existence as a globe-trotting British agent (policing the Empire in its last days, playing junior but more skillful partner to the Americans in the Cold War contest) was very much a product of a particular period that has since passed. This has been so much the case that novelists working in the series, less able to rely on brand name and flashy filmmaking than their cinematic counterparts, have in recent years so often seen no option but to go back to those days--Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd taking Bond back to the '60s, Anthony Horowitz taking Bond all the way back to the '50s (or in the case of Jeffrey Deaver, starting with the character again from scratch in the present day).

Still, Fleming's creation has held up considerably better than Haggard's, and his longtime protagonist, Colonel Charles Russell, head of the imaginary Special Executive.

Russell, like Bond, is a formidable ex-military counterintelligence operative; like Bond, handsome, suave, urbane; like Bond a man who enjoys good food, drink and the other luxuries. Still, his version of luxury is different. Instead of the dated image of jet air travel and casinos, there is the even more dated image of the club, the country house, enjoyed by this old officer with his regimental moustache and pipe. Bond might brood about the taxi driver's manner, but Russell never has occasion to, appearing to exist untouched by the changes of the world surrounding him.

Indeed, at times Haggard's characters can almost seem caricatures (at least, to an American rather sensitized to "stage Englishmen" by terrible Hollywood writing). This is particularly the case when Haggard writes figures like Sir Jeremy Bates in Slow Burner, with the following line exemplary: "it was barely four. It would be unheard of for Sir Jeremy Bates to leave his office at tea-time" (116); or better still, when Bates comes home after a drunk to a valet who offers no question or comment:
Confound and damn the fellow! His lack of interest was an insult. A gentleman's gentleman--the convention had survived, the convention of the English manservant, secret, uninquiring, impersonal (111-112).
It is much the same with William Nichol, who after nearly getting run over by a would-be assassin in a big truck, and losing his hat, takes a cab because he "was not a man to walk hatless in London" (127).

Such things are even more evident in their social attitudes, the bigotry and snobbery fiercer and more bluntly expressed. While Fleming wrote many a foreign villain, he generally eschewed depicting treachery by Britons. The French unions may have been a Soviet fifth column in Casino Royale--but the British unions (even the Jamaican unions), however much Fleming disliked organized labor, were in the end no traitors to the nation. Many a scientist can be counted among Fleming's villains--but scientists as such were not presented as a perverse lot.

Not so with Haggard, who condemns scientists as such as untrustworthy because their affinity for reason makes them a bunch of damned crypto-Communists; and when the traitor is exposed, the scientist is indeed a man of "the far, far Left," while also being "no gentleman," not solely as a matter of his less than upper-crust social origin but his "character" in his dealings with his wife.1 (And that is not only all we know about him, but, it seems in Haggard's rather old-fashioned view, all that we need to know.)

All that makes it seem less surprising that there was never a Colonel Russell film franchise--and why, even by the standards of series' that did not land successful movie franchises to keep him on people's minds, the books have slipped into comparative obscurity.

1. "Take a clever boy . . . and put him into a laboratory for the next seven or eight years. What emerged inevitably was a materialist . . . a man who would assume without question that the methods of science could be applied to human societies" (58)--a prospect the narrator clearly regarded with horror.

My Posts on William Haggard
My Posts on Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on James Bond
Two Reviews: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks and Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver

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