Editor’s Intro: Author Jeffrey Westhoff is a lifelong fan of the Ian Fleming Bond books. His latest YA novel, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, harnesses the influence Ian Fleming has had on him into his own thrilling original teenage spy story. I reviewed Westoff’s book recently over at my site and enjoyed it immensely. I think Jeffrey did something quite original with his book, and I believe it holds tremendous appeal for both adult literary Bond fans as well as for younger readers who may have already enjoyed the Young Bond books. What Jeffrey has done in his debut novel is that he created a teenage protagonist entrenched and fascinated by the adventures of a fictional spy named Foster Blake who bares a keen resemblance to a certain Double -O agent we all know and love. While James Bond is never mentioned in Jeffrey’s book, it becomes clear from the very beginning that this was a book born out of a lifetime love of Bond. Indeed, Ian Fleming is one of the three authors that Jeffrey dedicated his book to, and once you read this profile I think you’ll understand why. By the way, the image that I used above as the Featured Image for this post is Jeffrey’s Bond book collection circa 1982.
I started reading Ian Fleming when I was 13. There is something ironic about that. The hero of my young adult spy thriller, “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” is 15. I have been told your target reader is two years younger than your main character. So, at least from a marketing standpoint, my book is aimed at 13-year-olds.
That means I am implying my target readers are too young for the same spy novels I read at their age. “Here, read this espionage thriller featuring someone your own age. You can wait a few years before reading those Ian Fleming Bond books. What’s that you ask? Well, yes, I was reading Fleming when I was 13. I was hitting the hard stuff. But times were different then.”
They were, of course. Back in 1979, there were no young adult spy novels. No Young Bond. No Alex Rider. No CHERUB. The concept of “young adult literature” (not yet named as such) was limited to the works of Judy Blume, and boys didn’t read her books. Back in my day (writing that makes me feel 30 years older than I really am), once you got hooked on the Bond movies and wanted to read 007 in print, you had no choice but to pick up Fleming.
I have no regrets. None at all. The sex, snobbery and sadism I consumed during adolescence failed to warp me as a human being, although they certainly shaped my tastes. I am more critical of Fleming today than I was as a teenager. His casual racism offends my scruples, and his use of American slang offends my ears. Yet he is still my favorite author, one whose books I will continue to reread for the rest of my life, no matter how tempted I am to skip over dialogue spoken by American gangsters (“Diamonds Are Forever” is my least favorite title, if you haven’t guessed).
One of my high school English teachers, perplexed that a seemingly intelligent student could be so wrapped up in the decadent works of Ian Fleming, once asked why I liked James Bond so much. I thought for a moment and replied, “Because it is fantasy rooted firmly in reality.” Decades later, I stand by that answer. Fleming himself once wrote, “My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible.”
When I started to write “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” which is about a teenage spy buff swept up in a real espionage plot, I wanted to do what Fleming did, to take my story beyond the probable, but not the possible. I followed lessons learned from the many hours I spent reading Bond. My readers may not be getting a direct shot of Ian Fleming, but they are getting a dose of him filtered through my sensibilities and tastes.
Some of Fleming’s lessons were simple ones. The author often got knocked for the snob appeal of Bond’s brand-specific accoutrements, but he used the brand names to place 007 in a world familiar to his readers. I wanted to do the same thing altered to the experiences of a teenage boy. So if James Bond had his Rolex chronometer, Ronson lighter and Sea Island Cotton shirts, my hero, Brian Parker, would have his Adidas Sambas, Levi’s 501 jeans and Marvel comic books. To further plant Brian in the real world, I placed him in an actual school, Wauwatosa East High School in suburban Milwaukee. It’s not Eton, but I wanted my hero to be an ordinary teen.
I also looked for ways to rework Bond’s very British and adult prejudices into the mindset of an American teenager. What would be the equivalent of Red Grant’s tie with a Windsor knot that would tip off Brian that perhaps CIA officer Jack Silver shouldn’t be trusted? I decided to reveal that Silver was a DC fan, which would certainly set off alarms in a Marvel Zombie like Brian.
Those are the little things. I hoped to follow Fleming’s example in grander ways, particularly his sense of place. Fleming always allowed the reader to see exotic locations through Bond’s eyes, and I hoped to do that with Brian Parker. In attempting this, I am going against modern trends. The detailed descriptive writing to be found in the Bond books is rare today. In contemporary thrillers anything that is not dialogue or exposition to move the story forward is discouraged. With some authors you’ll have a tough time finding a paragraph longer than three sentences.
That style of writing bores me. I wanted my readers to feel the thrill of the sensual that I found in Ian Fleming (and, I should point out here, in Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my other prime inspirations. “The Boy Who Knew Too Much” is a loose update of “Treasure Island” with spies instead of pirates). My book takes place in Switzerland, France and Spain, and I wanted my readers to see the sights, hear the sounds and smell the scents in those locales. I’m not about to pretend I have Fleming’s worldliness or descriptive prowess. I did visit Lucerne, Nice and Barcelona during a high school trip that fueled my story, but that was many years ago and memory has faded. Fleming could write from his own experience of the cities Bond visited, but I had to rely on DK Eyewitness Travel books and photographs I could glean from the Internet.
In some ways this worked for me because my hero is a teenage boy and not a tough, experienced secret agent. The key to Bond’s world is his knowledge, but Brian Parker doesn’t know much about the world outside Milwaukee except what he’s read in spy novels. As Brian is chased through Toulouse, France, I specified street names in my first draft. While revising I told myself, “This isn’t James Bond, the veteran traveler. Brian doesn’t know this city, and he doesn’t have time to read street signs.” I replaced the street names with quickly observed impressions of cars and trees and canals.
Another area where Brian’s relative lack of experience comes into play is the girl. Fleming occasionally introduced a female character by calling her one of the most beautiful girls Bond had ever met. Brian hasn’t had much of a dating life yet, so when he encounters Larissa DeJonge she is the most beautiful girl he has ever met.
Creating the teenage version of a Bond girl was tricky. I didn’t want to sexualize Larissa, but there was no question she had to be drop dead gorgeous. Some aspects of the Bond formula are unassailable. Fleming may have been incredibly sexist, but more often than not the women Bond romanced were intelligent, independent and memorable. I wanted Larissa to have those qualities as she becomes Brian’s guide across Europe. She is French (her father, a scientist, is mixed up in the conspiracy), so Brian automatically finds her alluring, but his attempts at romance are awkward at first.
In the Young Bond books, authors Charlie Higson and Steve Cole follow the established formula of a girl and a villain in every book. But young James seldom becomes romantically involved with these girls. The same is true in Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels. I knew I would be breaking from these other YA spy tales because the romance that blooms between my young heroes is be key to the story. That attraction became inevitable as I fell in love with Larissa while writing her. If I had fallen for her, than Brian Parker damn well better follow suit!
On one level I got to play Ian Fleming while writing “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” and that proved to be a lot of fun. As I indicated, the hook to the story is that Brian is a devoted reader of spy novels who gets swept up in a real espionage conspiracy while touring Europe. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Brian is largely the teenage me. But for various reasons I decided against making Brian a James Bond fan. Instead I created a substitute named Foster Blake and gave him many of Bond’s characteristics. This required inventing the titles for the Foster Blake canon along with names of the villains, leading ladies and henchmen that Brian would cite throughout the story.
I didn’t want the Foster Blake titles to sound like spoofs. I wanted them to sound like titles Ian Fleming would have dreamed up in an alternate reality (for the record, Foster Blake’s creator is Clive Hastings, making him the alternate reality Ian Fleming). Many of the Foster Blake titles correspond to Bond titles, such as “Clandestinely Yours,” “My Darling Assassin” and “An Emerald Eternity.” I got a kick out of inventing the Foster Blake backstory, and I’ve taken it so far that I’m working on a Foster Blake short story right now. If I told you which Bond short story it most closely resembles, you’d think I was out of my mind, so I’ll just finish writing the thing and let you discover for yourself (if I find a way to publish it).
Even though James Bond isn’t mentioned in my book, “The Boy Who Knew Too Much” at heart is a story about being a Bond fan and being a Fleming fan (Brian is more into the Foster Blake books than the movies). There are dozens of Bond references scattered throughout the text, some obvious and some oblique. In fact, I believe I have included the most obscure Bond in-joke ever, and I await the email from a reader with a deep knowledge of Fleming who asks, “Is that a reference to…?” It may take years, but I know I’ll get the email eventually. I should probably send that reader a prize if I can figure out something worthy.
When I wrote “The Boy Who Knew Too Much” I hoped Fleming fans would get that the book was a Valentine to Bond fandom. My earliest reviews on Amazon indicated exactly that. “Ian Fleming would’ve been pleased to know that he inspired this kind of work,” wrote one reviewer. That was a joy for me to read. Another of the most gratifying reviews came from Bond novelist Raymond Benson. How thrilling to be praised by one of Fleming’s successors!
Knowing I had won over Fleming fans, I then crossed my fingers and hoped to hear from the Alex Rider fans, because that’s who today’s 13-year-old spy buffs are reading. It took a couple of months, but I got a rave from a devoted Alex Rider reader. What a relief. If my book appeals to middle-age James Bond fans and adolescent Alex Rider fans, I’ve done something right
article by Jeffrey Westhoff