They Came First
One of the many questions that came to me when I first started this collection of spy series was who might have come before the epitome of spy, James Bond. My personal favorites of the "old-timers", Matt Helm and Sam Durell, both came after Bond and most of the others in this collection came long after those two. So who preceded him in the post-WWII world of espionage?
As usual, that opened up another question. Since I was interested in the post-WWII era, did I consider those who were in the business before the war was over? Or did I just go with those that started after the end? I chose the later. Then changed my mind and went the other way.
What follows here is a synopsis of those agents who came first (that is, Before Bond), broken in three groups based on whether they started before, during, or after WWII.
But all came first.
I. Before the Second World War
The earliest series to work after WWII shows the confusion immediately. Tuppance and Tommy Beresford were adventurers-turned-agents as far back as 1922 when as young adults they worked as con men before agreeing to help the British Intelligence in a case. They were still helping in 1929 and 1941 before not being heard of again until in their 70''s they investigated a couple of murders. Though they were still active during that time, according to their creator, they were not being chronicled. For physical timespan between their first recoreded case and their last, they are currently in 2nd place behind Bond. The closest rival is the Executioner who is still a decade behind.
When looking for the first agent actually being on the job and being written about, Hugh North, by F. Van Wyck Mason, steps forward. This remarkable agent with G-2 saw his first recorded case in 1930 though he was said in that novel to have been active since before WWI. The man stayed quite busy for the next 38 years, through the War and well past it. He had no published adventures during WWII as the author was working as an official historian on Eisenhower''s staff, but the character was certainly busy as his reputation grew considerably. He stayed very active with a new published adventure coming every 2-3 years. He aged as time went along but not as fast as real time.
Third place goes to Department Z, by John Creasey. This prolific writer of over 600 books, told of the adventures of this Intelligence agency for the British government, under the capable control of Gordon Craigie, from 1933 to 1957. In that span of 24 years, there were 28 exciting cases. Or close to 50 since many of those were rewritten by Mr. Creasey to make them more timely. Indeed, though the last new case was in 1957, many of the pre-War adventures were edited up to 1969.
In fourth and final place is a reporter named Charles Latimer although this two-book series seems more out of place that the Beresford''s. Latimer''s first adventure is tracing a gun smuggler through the Balkans in 1939 and he isn''t active or heard from again until considerably older when, in 1969, he gets onto a mystery surrounding payments to spies, or possibly embezzlement involving fake spies. This second book had Latimer more as a secondary character as he goes missing and it is up to the main character to find him.
II. During the Second World War
Here we find four series involving characters who got their start during WWII and who continued after its end. All four are British.
Alistair Woodhead, by E. H. Clements, is an agent for the British Ministry of Scientific Research during the majority of his career. As the series opens in 1939, he has been called to duty and made an officer based on his considerable experience in the Far East some time before. His work is primarily counter-espionage as he seeks to keep others from learning classified information. Far more than most series about actual agents, Woodhead has a family life that often plays a part in the adventures. His 12 documented cases continued until 1963.
Tommy Hambledon, by Manning Coles, got his start in the Intelligence field while a professor of languages at a prominent boys school in England before the First World War. This is interesting as the two authors who corroborated to be Coles wrote the first book during the beginning days of the Second World War. The agent was more of a supporting character in the first book but gains considerable prominence in the second. Both books were published in 1940. The next year, the third book came out and Hambledon was clearly the center character, a position he maintained for another 23 adventures lasting until 1961 when he is brought out of retirement for a final case.
The last two are both spymasters and both came out in the same year, though they have nothing in common other than that position. John Creasey''s Dr. Palfrey is brought into the Intelligence community to help with a special case and stays on to eventually control the organization. Peter Quayle, penned by Peter Cheyney, is already the man in charge when the first book comes out. Palfrey''s adventures took the fight against the Germans to them which Quayle''s adventures concentrated on keeping the enemy from infiltrating the homeland.
III. After the War
So far I have discovered 7 series that started after the Second World War ended but before the introduction of James Bond. Six of these were British and the seventh was American. All of these, naturally, got their training during the war and so were already used to action and danger.
First out the door, in 1946, was the amazing "Brains" Cunningham, created by E. P. Thorne. Of all the hundreds of characters discussed in this resource, none quite reach Brains for pizzazz. He is totally suave, completely at ease in any society, a man of fast action and even quicker responses. He has traveled the world several times over and speaks numerous languages with expertise. Back home he keeps a display case prominently placed in which he places small mementos of his adventures, including a tiny shrunken head. While in some regards he might be considered a prototype for Bond, he harkens, IMHO, more to the likes of Sax Rohmer''s Nayland Smith who fought continuously against Fu Manchu, as well as the unique portrayal of Sherlock Holmes that Basil Rathbone gave in the movies. Cunningham is never really surprised by anything or anyone.
Two years later, two characters made their entrance. One was an American named Mark Corrigan, written by Norman Lee though the series'' author was eponymously named Corrigan. As the series begins, the character was concluding his military service hunting down Nazis and sympathizers. It is hard to say who had the problem with deciding on a career, the author or the character. Corrigan leaves the army and becomes a private investigator in Washington D.C. He stays at it for a couple years before taking a job with the U.S. Consular Service as a roving troubleshooter. That lasts for a decade before he returns to the private sector. Corrigan is a hard-boiled detective whether or not he is wearing his cloak and carrying his dagger. A tough hombre, Corrigan is quick to punch a wise guy in the chin, give the nearest busty woman a hard kiss, and then slug down two fingers of bourbon.
The other was a British agent, though chronicled in the first person by an American. Burke Wilkinson''s Geoffrey Mildmay is a man who has earned the hard way a considerable number of medals and commendations but who remains to the public in the novels an unknown soldier, content to remain so. He is the epitome of savoir faire and panache. He could easy light the cigarette of a luscious brunette while holding an unwavering gun on a nasty enemy agent.
Following one year later, is Charles Blessington, by John Sherwood, an official with the Ministry of the Treasury. As mentioned in the write-up for this character, he is consistently referred to as Mr. Blessington, much as it would seem wrong to ever address Agatha Christie''s Miss Marple as Jane. Mr. Blessington is not a secret agent and he would certainly tut-tut any one who suggested it but he is, for a quiet, no longer young expert in global finance, a man who is not afraid to take action and to stand his ground. The five written adventures were a delightful blend of old fashioned whodunit and dark alley maneuvering.
If any character of this era deserves the title of precursor to Bond, it would be Johnny Fedora, written by Desmond Cory, who burst onto the espionage scene in 1951. He, like Bond would be two years later, was licensed to kill by His Majesty''s Government. And he did so with swiftness and excitement, though sometimes without as much forethought as might have been prudent. Fedora didn''t have the flair that Bond would but he was every bit the man of action. He would be portrayed by some book covers as a worthy successor to Bond, which is ironic since the third book of his adventures was coming out the same time the first of Bond was.
The same year, 1951, the terrific novelist Geoffrey Household brought out Roger Taine, a former officer in the military before becoming a businessman and taking on a very sedentary, ordinary lifestyle. His two-book adventures are the epitome of low-key. He is not flashy or exciting. He does not woo the ladies nor wow the enemy. He just gets the job done and prepares to go home to his slippers and pipe. What he doesn''t do, though, is put the reader to sleep as the author was far too good to let that happen. But should a comparison be needed for Taine, it would be much closer to the Mr. Blessington side than that of Bond.
Not so with the last character to hit the shelves before the Year Of Bond. 1952 saw the entrance of Desmond Drake. Written by Geoffrey Martin Bennett using the truly bizarre penname of Sea-Lion, this three-book series about the secret agent Drake makes one think of Bulldog Drummond. There is little subtlety with Drake. He sees it like it is, says it like it needs, and shoots it like it deserves. Much like Corrigan, he is a hard-boiled detective at heart, if not profession.
Finally, there comes the character of Gregory Keen, penned by Lindsay Hardy, a secret agent working for MI-5 who came out the same year as Bond. Whether he actually preceded 007 onto the shelves is unknown. He belongs in this listing, though, because the books were actually novelizations of a radio series in Australia and New Zealand, about a British agent fighting former Nazis and other enemies of the Crown. Originally depicted in 15-minute serial format, Keen is steadfast in his continuing hunt of enemy spies.
So these are the agents who came first, before Bond. Of course, there were many others who plied the espionage trade before the start of WWII, any one of which might have influenced Ian Fleming.
The purpose of this article, though, wasn''t really who might have influenced Bond but rather who might have influenced readers before Bond came along.
Sadly while several deserved it, none had anything close to the memorableness. But luckily several lasted well past the arrival of Bond. Fedora, Cunningham, North, Woodhead, Corrigan, and Hambledon all kept going strong for a decade. And the fictional world is safer because of them.