For James Bond aficionados, the boardroom murder of a disobedient member of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s crime syndicate SPECTRE is part of 007 mythology.
Less well known is that the brutal scene, as written by Ian Fleming in Thunderball, takes place in the heart of the French capital: on the third floor of number 136 Boulevard Haussmann, to be precise, a short walk from the BBC office.
With the cabal’s 20 members gathered round a large table, Blofeld reaches for a secret switch and sends the Corsican into oblivion. Ignoring the smell of charred flesh, his colleagues look on impassively.
The spot where he describes the victim’s body “arcing in the armchair” like he’d been “kicked in the back” is now no more than a bland workspace in a business consultancy in central Paris.
Exploring Bond’s many French connections from the original books is made possible by his creator’s exquisite attention to detail. The films are another matter.
Sixty years after Thunderball’s publication, SPECTRE HQ’s modern-day occupants were understandably surprised to learn of its dramatic literary past.
In the sparse, parquet-floored room overlooking the boulevard where Blofeld plotted to hijack an atomic bomb, there is no lingering presence of evil, just a whiteboard, projector and marker pens.
Fleming’s eye for accuracy
People who met Fleming said he was much less interested in who they were than in what they did.
He accumulated places, specifications, manufacturing techniques and brands, then peppered those facts over his novels. It is part of what makes them so readable. The action in James Bond books more often than not takes place in real-life locations.
Take the murder of a Nato dispatch-rider that kicks off the plot of his short story From A View to a Kill.
Until the mid-1960s Nato’s military headquarters in Europe – SHAPE – was in the west Paris suburbs. You can still retrace the exact route taken by the motorcyclist from there, through the Marly woods towards St Germain-en-Laye.
He is shot by a Soviet agent at the Carrefour des Curieux, and it is very much still there.
A few hundred metres back up the D98 road, just before a motorway bridge as described by Fleming, is a roundabout called the Carrefour Royal.
Here, in a clearing in the woods, Bond spies from up a tree on the Russian agents as they emerge from their underground bunker. Nothing has changed.
Getting the boot in the Ritz
Take the last chapter in From Russia, With Love – where Bond is kicked in the calf by the poison-tipped boot of Soviet torturer-in-chief Rosa Klebb.
That scene takes place in room 204 of the Ritz Hotel, on the Place Vendôme. Klebb’s poison is from the sex organs of the Japanese globefish: more Fleming detail.
Incidentally, Bond goes into the hotel surreptitiously via the service entrance on the rue Cambon – the same door later made famous by Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, who used it to escape the Ritz before the car chase that ended in their deaths in 1997.
And in Goldfinger you can follow Bond as he in turn follows Auric Goldfinger’s Rolls Royce, traversing France from Le Touquet to Geneva, via Rouen, Orléans, Nevers, Moulins and Mâcon.
Who knows? You might even find the “pretty bridge over a pretty stream” on the N79 where Goldfinger leaves a cache of gold for his Soviet masters. The bridge is designated 79/6.
Ian Fleming, who died in 1964, knew France well – which is why he chose it as the setting for so many of his hero’s exploits.
The very first chapter of the very first book – Casino Royale – brings us to a fictional town on the northern French coast, Royale-les-Eaux.
Based on a combination of the seaside resorts of Deauville and Le Touquet, the location draws on Fleming’s own memories of floating around the watering-holes of Europe as a carefree young man in the 1930s. Presumably being whacked about the genitals with a carpet-beater by a villain called Le Chiffre was not part of them.
Primarily a connoisseur of German-speaking countries, Fleming had a familiarity with the whole of Europe appropriate for a man of his background, connections and money. In later life there was nothing he liked better than popping across the Channel in his Ford Thunderbird and following his nose.
In 1940, serving as aide to the UK’s director of naval intelligence, he had first-hand experience of the French collapse, when he was sent to persuade the retreating government of Paul Reynaud not to surrender its navy to the Germans. After the war he had an intriguing friendship with French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.
At times in the books, we get a glimpse of Bond/Fleming’s feelings for France – not always favourable.
In From A View to a Kill, sitting at Fouquet’s café on the Champs-Élysées, Bond reflects that Paris is a city he has “cordially disliked since the war… Since 1945 he had not had a happy day in Paris”.
The reason, which has echoes today, was that “its heart was gone – pawned to the tourists… who had gradually taken the town over… You could see it in the people’s eyes – sullen, envious, ashamed”.
In the same section incidentally we learn that Bond lost his virginity in Paris, after a trip to the famous Harry’s Bar.
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service there is a long passage about the horrors of certain French restaurants: “sucker-traps for gourmandising tourists… [Bond] had had their ‘spécialités du chef’ – generally a rich sauce of cream and wine and a few button mushrooms concealing poor-quality meat or fish.”
But overall there is no mistaking the affection the spy and his author both feel for France.
The Loire is “perhaps Bond’s favourite river in the world”.
The Deuxième Bureau (secret service) chief René Mathis may not be a bosom-buddy of Bond’s on a level with the CIA’s Felix Leiter – but he’s still a friend and to be trusted.
After complaining about disappointing cuisine, Bond phones “one of his favourite restaurants in France” opposite the railway station in Etaples, and two hours later “is motoring back to the Casino with Turbot poché, sauce mousseline and half the best roast partridge he had eaten in his life, under his belt”.