The Godfather of Invasion Fiction, MI5 & James Bond
While they were in Jerusalem members of the Parker expedition complained that individuals from the Jewish community spied on them to thwart the expedition in their search for the Ark of the Covenant. Yet the British expedition itself was nearly led by someone who helped create British secret services and its most famous fictional secret agent, James Bond.
William Le Queux
Valter Juvelius could not raise the money in Finland to pursue his cypher theories of the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant. So he asked Swedish businessman Johan Millen to go to London to try and raise the money there. He came to London with a letter of introduction from a Swedish baroness and one of the people he approached was William Tufnell Le Queux.
A literary godfather of James Bond
Le Queux has been largely forgotten but was arguably one of the most influential men in the creation of the British secret services, British spy fiction and its most famous figure, James Bond. Le Queux was a journalist and author. He wrote close to 200 books during his career and many dealt with the threat to the United Kingdom from foreign enemies and spies. He was obsessed with the danger he believed Britain was in and wrote passionately and prodigiously about it.
Arguably his most famous work was The Invasion of 1910, published in 1906 and serialised in the Daily Mail. He wrote it in conjunction with the Field Marshall Lord Roberts, a hero of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, during which he won the Victoria Cross, Abyssinia and Afghanistan and the Second Boer War. They wrote about an upcoming German invasion of Britain. Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, promoted the book heavily including using men in Prussian uniforms complete with spiked helmets walking round central London to advertise it. This was after Lord Northcliffe had altered the route the invading forces took in the book to go through towns and cities where he could boost his circulation!
Cover of the Invasion of 1910
The book was an enormous success selling over a million copies and being translated into twenty-seven languages. There was even a German translation which altered the ending so that the Germans were victorious. This was not Le Queux’s first book about an invasion. In 1894 he published The Great War in England in 1897 about a combined French and German invasion. These two books helped create the genre of Invasion Fiction which was incredibly popular in Britain before the First World War, and includes such works as the Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers and John Buchan’s The 39 Steps.
Le Queux did not just write about invasion. He was obsessed with spies and wrote innumerable books about them, including Spies of the Kaiser, England’s Peril, The Under-Secretary, Whoso Findeth a Wife, Revelations of the Secret Service and many more. Many writers on spy literature credit Le Queux with inventing the archetypal British gentleman secret agent. He created several characters, often with alliterative names, the most famous of whom was Duckworth Drew. He is a cosmopolitan much-travelled bachelor who is
“discreet about his age, we think of him as in his late thirties: old enough to have recovered from the heartache of a passionate and thwarted romance while a junior attaché, yet young enough to win the hearts of the many ladies he meets on his travels.”
In the bookIn Le Queux’s books English gentleman agents must foil dastardly foreign plots and agents. Le Queux’s writing is often mocked for cliches and terrible prose. However, he was highly influential. His legacy has been recognised by many. Graham Greene, who wrote many spy novel’s dedicated The Spy’s Bedside Book:
“To the immortal memory of William Le Queux and John Buchan.”
Le Queux almost single-handedly created spy fiction and the British gentleman agent, which reached its peak with Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Ian Fleming was an avid reader of Le Queux’s works when he was a young man and many have credited Le Queux as an influence on Fleming’s work. The 2006 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, described Fleming’s James Bond novels as ‘updated versions of Le Queux and Buchan designed for the Cold War consumer boom and changed sexual mores of the 1950s and 1960s’. Fleming wrote his first Bond book Casino Royale in 1953. He wrote it quickly, from memory and without research. Many elements in Fleming’s stories echo Le Queux’s works. Fleming Bond formula of a British gentleman up against an evil foreign villain was one which Le Queux had great success with. Further the Bond villains are often disfigured, much like many Le Queux villains. Fleming seems to have borrowed some plot lines from Le Queux’s work as well. In Le Queux’s Mademoiselle of Monte Carlo the protagonist Hugh Henry is gambling in Monte Carlo and confronts the eponymous mademoiselle in order to gain information about his father’s death. However, before she can say anything, she is shot with a rifle disguised as a walking stick. In Casino Royale Le Chiffre’s henchman threatens Bond with just such a weapon at the baccarat table in a fictional French gambling resort.
Sean Connery as James Bond
The catalyst to the creation of British secret services
However, William Le Queux did more than merely influence spy fiction. He is credited with having played a leading part in the establishment of Britain’s first modern secret service. During the Edwardian era, fuelled in large part by the invasion and spy fiction of writers such as Le Queux there was great pressure on the British government to counter this foreign spy menace. Papers such as the Daily Mail branded virtually every German in the country as a spy. It singled out waiters as a particular problem and said that people should refuse to be served by an Austrian or German and if the waiter claimed to be Swiss to demand to see their passport. In May 1907 the Morning Post newspaper printed a letter claiming that there were 90,000 German reservists and spies hiding in the country. In March 1909 under mounting pressure the British government set up a committee under RB Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, to examine the ‘nature and extent of foreign espionage’ in the country. Initially they found little evidence. However, one of the committee’s members was Major James Edmonds a close friend of Le Queux’s. He kept on providing information on massive numbers of alleged spies operating in the country. None of this evidence had been provided to the police and it often consisted of minor trivia; a bald German barber in Portsmouth who wore a wig and took an interest in gossip from naval personnel, a series of Germans living living near the naval base who received registered mail from Germany. Much of this ‘intelligence’ appears to have come from Le Queux himself. There were other sources of information and the Russian government helped convince Haldane that the government should set up a body to counter foreign espionage in the country and the Secret Service Bureau was set up in 1909, the precursor to MI5 and MI6.
Le Queux’s deadly cigars
Once these agencies were set up, including later the CIA, there have been occasions where the reality of espionage imitated Le Queux fiction. Famously the CIA concocted innumerable plots to kill Fidel Castro. Two of the most famous involved Castro’s love of cigars. The CIA proposed to give him both poisoned cigars and exploding cigars. Le Queux had used both these ideas in his books decades before. In the Czar’s Spy of 1905 there is the following assassination:
“Suddenly, while the Privy-Councillor lay back in his chair pulling thoughtfully at his cigar, there was a bright, blood-red flash, a dull report, and a man’s short agonized cry. Startled, I leaned around the corner of the deck-house, when, to my abject horror, I saw under the electric rays the Czar’s Privy-Councillor lying sideways in his chair with part of his face blown away. Then the hideous truth in an instant became apparent. The cigar which Oberg had pressed upon him down in the saloon had exploded, and the small missile concealed inside the diabolical contrivance had passed upwards into his brain.”
In his 1911 work Hushed Up! the prologue commences with a death which has been certified as a heart attack:
“Nothing very extraordinary in that, surely? He died while smoking.”
“Yes,” said the bald-headed man, bending towards the other and lowering his voice into a harsh whisper. “He died while smoking a cigar—a cigar that had been poisoned! You know it well enough. What’s the use of trying to affect ignorance—with me!”
Le Queux also used cigars in another of his works Secrets of the Foreign Office. In the book Duckworth Drew is once again called upon to foil a foreign plot, on this occasion involving the French and he uses a drugged cigar in order to gain vital intelligence from the French Foreign Minister. When the two meet the French Minister asks for one of Drew’s Corona Superbos cigars. However, the cigar was drugged and Drew was able to get the vital information he sought out of the befuddled opponent.
‘To this day Monsieur le Ministre is in ignorance that that particular Corona had been carefully prepared by me with a solution of cocculus indicus’
The potential leader of Juvelius’ expedition to Jerusalem
As mentioned earlier Johan Millen approached Le Queux to raise funding for an expedition to Jerusalem based on Juvelius’s cyphers. Le Queux wrote about the encounter in his autobiography published in 1923. He wrote that he was approached in the Cecil Hotel in London, where he was living at the time with the letter of introduction from the Swedish Baroness Nernberg:
“This letter explained that my visitor was a well-known civil engineer in Sweden, that he was highly trustworthy, and that he had a very curious disclosure to make to me. We sat down, and certainly what he told me caused my eyes to bulge. Briefly, it was that a friend of his, a certain Professor Afzelius (sic), at Abó University, had discovered in the original text of the Book of Ezekiel preserved in the Imperial Library at Petrograd a cipher message that gave the whereabouts of the concealed treasures from King Solomon’s temple. At first I was inclined to laugh, but he assured me that he wished for no money, only my influence and support to induce a London newspaper to take up the matter and send out an expedition to Jerusalem to explore.”
Neither Millen nor Le Queux gives any reason why he specifically was approached. Certainly he was a well-known author and journalist. However, there were many of these in London. There are two possible reasons Johan Millen may have known William Le Queux and thought he might have been receptive to the idea.
In 1907 Le Queux travelled to Sweden, Denmark and Norway while preparing for an expedition he planned to take to Lapland and round the top of Norway to Russia. The expedition was planned in conjunction with the explorer Harry de Windt. Le Queux and de Windt travelled to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Narvik and Tromso in the summer of 1907 and they seem to have met the Swedish King and Prime Minister. They were introduced to Swedish society by Baroness Barnebour a friend of Le Queux’s. Bizarrely they also hitched a ride on the yacht of the Prince of Monaco when they were stranded on the Lofoten islands in the very north of Norway.
According to the journalist and BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, Le Queux books were pot boiling melodramas of the most lurid and preposterous sort. In 1903 Le Queux wrote one book which certainly fitted Cooke’s description. It was a mysterious tale including an Ark, the discovery of old secret cyphers and a search for buried treasure. It was entitled The Tickencote Treasure. Its plot is an incredible one and bizarrely echoes much of the start of the Parker expedition. The book starts with a doctor called Paul Pickering who goes to sea and on the voyage off the African coast, the ship he is on encounters a mysterious vessel floating nearby.
“Look, Joe!” exclaimed Seal. “What the dickens do you make out o’ that?”
Thorpe swung his body with the motion of the vessel and took a long look at the object of mystery.
“Thunder, cap’n!” he cried. “Looks like Noah’s Ark, sir.”
It turns out incredibly that the ship dates not from Noah but from the time of the Spanish Armada. Onboard it they find skeletons, gold, ancient scrolls with cyphers and even more incredibly someone alive, dressed in Elizabethan dress and carrying a sword, who cannot speak.
When Pickering returns to London he shows the parchments to an expert who verifies that they are authentic. He says they relate to the story of Bartholomew da Schorno who captured a ship from the Spanish Armada in 1588 with an enormous fortune on board. He brought this to England and buried the treasure. However, its location was hidden by a secret cypher.
Illustration from The Tickencote Treasure
The story then progresses in the normal Le Queux fashion as a race between Pickering and a deadly rival named Black Bennett who is also on the trail of the fortune and who will stop at nothing, including murder to get his hands on it. The plot involves a beautiful innocent young woman who the evil Bennett is blackmailing to help him get his hands on the treasure. This does not stop Pickering falling in love with her. Le Queux describes her in typically melodramatic form.
“But her face held me fascinated; I could not take my eyes off it. It was oval, regular, with beautifully-moulded cheeks, a small, well-formed mouth, and fine arched brows, while the eyes, dark and sparkling, looked out at me half in wonder, half in fear. Hers was a kind of half-tragic beauty, a face intensely sweet in its expression, yet with a distinct touch of sadness in its composition, as though her heart were burdened by some secret.”
The story takes many twists and turns but ends with Bennett falling to his death while fleeing the police and the beautiful Dorothy Drummond inheriting the fortune.
“And the rest? Need I tell you? I think not. All I shall say further is that within two months of our sudden fortune Dorothy, whom I had loved long before I knew her to be heiress of the treasure, married me at Hampstead, where we now live—in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, to be exact—leading an idyllic life of peace and love. If you pass up the thoroughfare in question you will probably notice the name, “Mr. Pickering, Surgeon,” upon a brass plate, for although the sum realized by the sale of the jewels has provided us with a comfortable income for life, yet I am not by any means an idle man.”
We cannot know why Millen chose to approach Le Queux. He certainly approached several individuals before he was introduced to Montagu Parker. However, it seems so incredible or appropriate that he chose someone who had written a story with are so many similarities between the project that Juvelius and Millen were proposing. Both centred on cyphers found in an ancient document showing the location of long-buried treasure. They both had Arks (though different ones). Who knows, maybe Juvelius had read The Tickencote Treasure.
After he was approached Le Queux says that he took the papers to a Dr Adler, a friend who was also the Chief Rabbi, to verify the documents. Le Queux says that Dr Adler came back and said that there was something to the documents.
Dr Adler, Chief Rabbi
On the basis of the positive response to the cypher documents Le Queux approached Sir C. Arthur Pearson, the proprietor of the Standard newspaper for funding for the expedition to Jerusalem. He described what happened next:
“To this he most generously acceded, and an initial sum was agreed between us for its cost. I was to head the expedition to Palestine. That afternoon I walked along the Strand full of suppressed excitement.”
We do not know how long this process took, although Le Queux suggests it was quick. However, when he informed Millen that he had secured the funding Millen told Le Queux that they were not pursuing the matter. We know that this was because they had decided to move forward with the syndicate led by Montagu Parker. However, he did not tell Le Queux this and he was bemused.
The author was not completely frustrated as it gave him the idea for another novel The Treasure of Israel (known as the Great God Gold in the USA), which was another international bestseller for him. In it he took much of the cypher information that Millen had given him and then added many of the elements from The Tickencote Treasure!