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Master spy Sidney Reilly: The inspiration for James Bond


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He learnt a great deal about the operational history of his own department, including its role in the greatest intelligence coup of the First World War – the cracking of the German diplomatic code 0070, which gave Fleming the inspiration for Bond’s own code number 007.4 This background knowledge enabled him to draw on a rich seam of characters, experiences and situations that would prove invaluable in creating the fictional world of James Bond.

One of Fleming’s wartime contacts, for example, was Charles Fraser-Smith, a seemingly obscure official at the Ministry of Supply. In reality, Fraser-Smith provided the intelligence services with a range of fascinating and ingenious gadgets such as compasses hidden inside golf balls and shoelaces that concealed saw blades. He was the inspiration for Fleming’s Major Boothroyd, better known as ‘Q’ in the Bond novels and films.

Having a fascination for gadgets, deception and intrigue, Fleming was particularly attracted to the ‘black propaganda’ work undertaken by the Political Warfare Executive, headed by former diplomat and journalist Robert Bruce Lockhart, with whom he also struck up an acquaintance. In 1918 Lockhart had worked with Sidney Reilly in Russia, where they became embroiled in a plot to overthrow Lenin’s fledgling government. Within five years of his disappearance in Soviet Russia in 1925, the press had turned Reilly into a household name, dubbing him a ‘Master Spy’ and crediting him with a string of fantastic espionage exploits.

Fleming had therefore long been aware of Reilly’s mythical reputation and no doubt listened in awe to the recollections of a man who had not only known Reilly personally but was actually with him during the turmoil and aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Lockhart had himself played a key role in creating the Reilly myth in 1931 by helping Reilly’s wife Pepita publish a book purporting to recount her husband’s adventures. As a journalist at the time, Lockhart also had a hand in the deal that led to the serialisation of Reilly’s ‘Master Spy’ adventures in the London Evening Standard.

Although Reilly was a spark or catalyst for Fleming’s ‘Master Spy’ concept, Bond’s personality was a fictional cocktail, culled from a range of characters, including Fleming’s own. There are certainly threads of Reilly’s hard-edged personality to be found in the Bond who inhabits the pages of Fleming’s books. The literary Bond was visibly a much darker, more calculating and altogether more sinister character than his big screen counterpart, who has tended to dilute Fleming’s original concept over the years.

Like Fleming’s fictional creation, Reilly was multi-lingual with a fascination with the Far East, fond of fine living and a compulsive gambler. He also exercised a Bond-like fascination for women, his many love affairs standing comparison with the amorous adventures of 007. Unlike James Bond, though, Sidney Reilly was by no stretch of the imagination a conventionally handsome man. His appeal lay more in the elusive qualities of charm and charisma. He was, however, equally capable of being cold and menacing. In many ways, the closest modern fictional character to resemble Reilly is Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather, a man of controlled coldness and deadpan calculation. Like Corleone, the equally calculating Reilly had a powerful hold over women – or, at least, a particular kind of woman – which he never failed to exploit.

But who was Sidney Reilly and what were the forces that drove him? To lovers, friends and enemies alike, Reilly remained a mystery. In spite of the many books that have been written about him, often themselves making contrary claims, major questions still remain unanswered about his true identity, place of birth and the precise facts surrounding his disappearance and death. During his life Reilly laid an almost impenetrable fog of mystery and deception around his origins as he adopted and shed one identity after another. Those who entered this ruthlessly compartmentalised life knew only what Reilly himself had told them.

Over a century of falsehood and fantasy, both deliberate and intentional, has obscured the real Sidney Reilly. Reilly’s tendency to be something of a Walter Mitty character, telling tall tales of great espionage feats, has only added to the legend and muddied the water still further. To piece together an accurate picture of his extraordinary life it has been necessary to shed all preconceptions and to return to square one to reveal the man behind the ‘Master Spy’.

Extracted from Ace of Spies by Andrew Cook