Brit Grit Alley features news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways.
This week down Brit Grit Alley, I have a great guest column from
'Amazing how a train of thought works, isn’t it? In this case it was a visit to an air show, or to be more precise, the annual Air Day at RNAS Yeovilton. I went not only to see the usual amazing flying displays, but also in the hopes of being able to crawl all over the interior of a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Very useful for the new Charlie Fox novella, ABSENCE OF LIGHT, in which one of these venerable old heavy transport planes plays a role.
Also flying at the Air Day was an amazing Avro Vulcan B2 bomber—the first to be delivered to the RAF in 1960, and now the last complete one in the world. Watching the Vulcan perform in the air—and more importantly, HEARING it—was a remarkable sight. And after I returned home I was reminded that the Vulcan in the plane that is at the heart of the plot of one of my favourite James Bond movies—Thunderball.
At the time Thunderball was made in 1965, the Vulcan was still a state-of-the-art aeroplane, and James Bond—on only his fourth cinematic outing—was the height of sixties’ cool.
So, in a fit of nostalgia I dragged out my DVD of the movie and sat down to watch, as I’ve no doubt done numerous times in the past. I was immediately flabbergasted by the casual sexism, even more so than I remembered in other Bond films. And, when I consulted my print copy of Ian Fleming’s book, a little more than the source material as well.
There’s a scene near the beginning where baddie Count Lippe attempts to rid himself of Bond at a health farm by increasing the force of a mechanical traction device. In the book the doctor in charge apologises profusely and asks Bond not to let word of this ‘accident’ get out.
But in the movie Bond more or less blackmails his physio, Patricia Fearing into having sex with him to avoid taking the blame and losing her job (although it’s dressed up as seduction).
Thunderball is notable for having a strong female baddie in the form of SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe. Not quite Rosa Klebbe with the poison-tipped shoes of From Russia With Love but Fiona has the distinction of managing to spend the night with Bond without the experience convincing her to turn traitor to her cause and throw in her lot with him.
And, of course, being a baddie she has to die, but being a woman she has to die at the hands of her own bungling bodyguards rather than Bond himself, when our hero deftly turns her into the path of a bullet meant for him.
These days Bond women tend to be portrayed in a slightly more enlightened way, but back then they were a product of their time. The time when I was absorbing these social mores in order to find my place in the world. And, if I’m honest, beginning to find things just a little unbalanced.
So, it was movies like Thunderball that led me to come up with a strong female protagonist like Charlie Fox. Canned from the Special Forces training she was undergoing in the army and muscled out of her career, Charlie was a fish out of water. She was, as her old training instructor tells her when they meet again, ideally suited for the task, having the mindset and the guts to be a professional soldier. Finding her own place in the world, in which these innate abilities could play a part, has been her journey ever since, from self-defence instructor to close-protection operative.
And now I’ve branched out from Charlie and told the story of another strong woman, who’s equally been down at the rough end of life and has had to fight her way back. In my first standalone mystery thriller, THE BLOOD WHISPERER, we meet ex-CSI Kelly Jacks, now a London crime-scene cleaner who went to prison for a crime she can’t remember committing.
Somebody makes the mistake of trying to make history repeat itself, but Kelly learned a lot during her time inside, and she’s not going to be an easy mark for anybody.
Charlie and Kelly have a lot in common, but writing the new character gave me a chance to explore new avenues that have meant I returned to Charlie for the novella refreshed and reinvigorated. But I have other strong women in my head who are starting to clamour to have their stories told, too and my notebooks are filling up with scribbled ‘what if’s.
And it all started with an invite to an Air Day …
Word of the Week: deuteragonist meaning the actor taking the part of secondary importance in a drama, or a person who serves as a foil to another. In the early days of Greek drama, when the idea of having a dialogue between two characters was first devised, the players were designated the protagonist and the deuteragonist. The deuteragonist’s role was to highlight or emphasise the opposing traits in the protagonist’s character. From the Greek deuteron meaning second, and agonistes meaning a person competing at games.'