Inventing a superspy — The Foster Blake story

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When I started The Boy Who Knew Too Much I wanted my hero to be a teenage connoisseur of spy novels who falls into an actual espionage plot while on a trip to Europe. He would use his knowledge of spy fiction to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

For this aspect of my character, eventually named Brian Parker, I would draw heavily on my own past as a teenage spy buff. When I was Brian’s age, I was a massive James Bond fan. I still am, but back in high school my love of Bond was all-consuming.

I realized early on, though, that I didn’t want to make my hero a James Bond fan for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to get sued, and 2) I didn’t want my story limited by what Ian Fleming wrote.

Without consulting an entertainment attorney, I am reasonably certain no one would have a case against me if I wrote a book about a character who loves James Bond. As long as Bond himself is not a character, there’s no real copyright infringement. Just look at Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (a fun book; I recommend it), which is filled with pop culture iconography. His hero uses spaceships from Star Wars and Firefly and battles monsters from Godzilla movies. Perhaps Cline spent a few years getting permission from George Lucas and Joss Whedon and Toho Studios and several dozen other creators and license holders before writing his book, but I doubt it.

However, the gatekeepers of 007, both the literary and cinematic Bond, guard their intellectual property ferociously. The people at EON Productions, the makers of the Bond films, are particularly trigger happy at filing lawsuits if they feel their rights are being infringed. I don’t believe they would have credible legal grounds to sue me, but that might not prevent them from doing so. I would prefer to live without the headache. And I should point out that while Cline uses almost every major pop culture property of the last 35 years in Ready Player One, the one franchise player conspicuously missing is James Bond. Maybe Cline wasn’t interested in Bond (sacrilege!) or maybe he just didn’t want that headache either.

The Real Reason

The second reason was the true reason I decided not to make Brian Parker a Bond fan. I knew that, especially in the early sections of the book, Brian would get out of jams by imitating acts from his favorite spy novels. If I went with 007 I would be limited to episodes in the Ian Fleming novels and would be forced to invent reasons for Brian to pilfer a knife from the dining table to use as a weapon later (Doctor No) or to manipulate the controls of a blow torch with his teeth (Moonraker). No, it would be more fun to invent clever escape ploys for Brian and then say he read them in a book.

But which books? The clear solution was to create a substitute for James Bond for Brian to focus his energies on, and that substitute would be Foster Blake, British secret agent 17K.

I came up with the name Foster Blake in high school. I stole the name from Foster Grant sunglasses. The success of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker spurred a mini Bond boom in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and a tiny part of that boom was a series of Bond-themed Foster Grant commercials. They got me thinking Foster would be a cool name for a spy, and that his last name should remain sharp and short like Grant. Blake came to mind right away. Even then, Foster Blake was meant to be a fictional spy in a fictional world. I had the idea for a novel titled The Other Side of Foster that was basically Ian Fleming and Roger Moore being forced to team up for a spy mission. Because that was the only idea I had for the book (plus, the fame of the Roger Moore character would be a detriment to clandestine work), it died fairly quickly. But the name Foster Blake lingered in my mind to reemerge when I did start to write a spy novel.

Launching a Canon

I had been writing The Boy Who Knew Too Much for a few months when I realized I needed to stop and flesh out the history of Foster Blake. Before I could proceed, I had to know what Brian knew about his favorite super spy. I had to know the titles of the books he read and reread. I had to know the names of the beautiful Blake women he fantasized about. I had to know the names of the villains who chilled his blood.

Bond fans familiar with Kingsley Amis’ The James Bond Dossier will remember the chart at the end of the book where Amis broke Fleming’s novels down by villain, girl, plot, etc. (Raymond Benson updated the chart when he wrote his indispensable James Bond Bedside Companion). I decided to compose a similar chart for the Foster Blake books. There’s no point in reproducing the chart here because much of it is gibberish, but these are the Foster Blake books in order of publication.

  • A Whisper of Death
  • Snowfire
  • Hotel Noir
  • Dying on Borrowed Time
  • An Emerald Eternity
  • Tears From Moscow
  • Lightningrod
  • Clandestinely Yours (a short story collection containing the following titles: “Clandestinely Yours,” “Bandersnatch,” “Measure of Silence,” “Peligro,” “Funeral for a Coelacanth,” “The Finger on the Trigger”)
  • A Tiger Hunts Alone
  • My Darling Assassin
  • For Queen and Country
  • Silver Mind
  • Platinum Hit
  • To the Point of Insanity
  • Who Will Find My Yesterdays?
  • Paradigm Shift (a short story collection containing the following titles: “Will O’ the Wisp,” “Paradigm Shift,” “The Item in her Handbag”)

Coming up with these titles was a fun exercise, but also a challenging one. It is easy to invent spoof Bond titles like Bronzefinger or Live and Let Die Another Day, but it’s much less easy to invent titles that Ian Fleming may have dreamed up in an alternate universe. For the most part, I think I was successful. Obviously, many of these titles correlate directly to Bond titles. An Emerald Eternity is Diamonds Are Forever. Clandestinely Yours is For Your Eyes Only. My Darling Assassin is The Spy Who Loved Me. The one direct lift is “The Finger on the Trigger,” which is the title to Chapter 6 in Doctor No.

One of my favorite Blake titles, A Whisper of Death, was inspired by a Bond title in a roundabout way. The German title to the film The Living Daylights translates into English as The Breath of Death. I love the image that title conveys — the thin layer that separates life from death — but unfortunately most people will look at The Breath of Death and think “halitosis.” I changed it to A Whisper of Death, which also resonates with a chapter title from Casino Royale, “A Whisper of Love, a Whisper of Hate.”

Not every title comes from Bond. Snowfire was the name of my sled. If that also happens to be my dying word, I’ve just spared you from having to make a movie about it.

The chart gave me the names of the novels and characters that I could drop into The Boy Who Knew Too Much when Brian Parker needed to refer to his hero. Brian’s favorite Foster Blake novel is Lightningrod. Jack Silver, the rogue CIA officer who kidnaps Brian, reveals that his favorite Blake book is Dying on Borrowed Time, which also features his favorite Blake woman, Fabiola Montez.

Creating a Creator

I invented more back story than I needed for the book. Foster Blake’s creator, Clive Hastings, served in British Naval Intelligence’s 30 Assault Unit during World War II (Bond fans will understand the significance of this). He briefly served in MI6 after the war, but he found its bureaucracy stifling after his wartime excitement. He began writing Foster Blake novels in the mid-1960s, wanting to bring some old-fashioned, John Buchan excitement back to the spy genre after John le Carre washed it down in shades of gray. Hastings continued to write Foster Blake novels until his death in a car accident in 1979. The final two Blake books were published posthumously.

None of that information made its way into The Boy Who Knew Too Much, but you can bet Brian Parker knows every bit of it.

Foster Blake films began to appear in the early 1970s. I didn’t invest as much time into background of the films, except that Roberta Flack sang the theme to Clandestinely Yours and Gwen Stefani recorded a cover version sometime in the last 15 years. Because Brian is the hero of a book, it made more sense to reward him for reading than for watching movies (which is a strange sentiment to come from a film critic). When someone makes an incorrect observation about Foster Blake, Brian will say, “That happened in the movie, not the book.” My friends heard me say those same words many times throughout high school.

Foster Blake was born out of necessity for my novel, but I believe that his existence (or his nonexistence) gives The Boy Who Knew Too Much an extra layer of “reality.” I wrote a better book with Foster Blake than I would have with James Bond.

I am kicking around the idea of creating a Foster Blake website to help promote my book. I think I could have a lot of fun with it. He’s the world’s greatest secret agent you’ve never heard of, which means he really is the world’s greatest secret agent.

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