Per Fine Ounce Interview
24th November 2016
Tom Cull sat down with Peter Vollmer, the author chosen by the Geoffrey Jenkins estate to reimagine his literary creations
By Tom Cull
Back in the 1950s, Ian Fleming's brother, Peter, conceived of a way to continue the legacy of Bond in print: get a number of writers, each proficient crime and thriller specialists, to pen one novel each under a pseudonym, Robert Markham. Geoffrey Jenkins, South African novelist and friend of Fleming was selected to be the first. His manuscript – "Per Fine Ounce" – was never published and subsequently lost. With the little remaining evidence of the novel and some of Jenkins' original characters, South African author Peter Vollmer has had the blessing of Jenkins estate to pay homage to Jenkins. Vollmer sat down with Tom Cull to discuss the relationship between Fleming and Jenkins, the task at hand, and his newly drafted manuscript.
What is your understanding of the relationship between Jenkins and Fleming?
From what I’ve learnt, Jenkins and Fleming were friends with similar interests, they spending hours together discussing books, stories and other topics, there was always a new story related to the times they lived in. After all, this was during the height of the Cold War and espionage was the name of the game. Unfortunately, except for a fortunate very few, none of us read Jenkins’ "Per Fine Ounce." We have no idea how Jenkins saw the man, James Bond, but I believe he would have cast him in the same mould as Fleming had; if the story was intended for Gildrose Publications, it was wise that he fit the Bond character of the already-published Bond novels.
I believe Bond’s character epitomised everything Fleming imagined he’d want to be if he were Bond. I don’t believe Jenkins would ever have portrayed quite the same gung-ho, class conscious, stiff-upper-lip character.
How did you approach working with Jenkins characters and material?
There really was little that I could work with. Yes, I used certain props as they appeared in Jenkins synopsis, the baobab trees, hyenas, Cherry Boxx and of course, the gold bullion. But I was writing my own story. My biggest problem with writing "Per Fine Ounce" was to ensure I didn’t plagiarise Fleming. Remember, Jenkins’ version of Bond was unknown to us and I had to create my own character. This I did with some tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t want him to be anything like Fleming’s Bond. However, Peace is also an ex-sub commander, as is Bond. I assumed that RN sub-commanders are a special breed of men – they definite loners but daring, decisive, forceful, and focussed. Also, they’re probably somewhat high-minded but definitely incorruptible. However, I did not want a superhero. The character had to be fallible, vulnerable and with his fair share of human faults, not to forget, his penchant for beautiful women. Bear in mind that I’ve never read any of the recent young Bond novels.
I pictured Jenkins Bond as the only child of a returned colonist family, they were reasonably well-off, sending their son to a public British school, thereafter attending Oxford or Cambridge, but studying something mundane like geology or aeronautical engineering but certainly not political science! Never obtrusive, but unfathomable and, at times, clearly unpredictable.
Also, I never wanted to create unrealistic situations. The story's background had to be plausible, that’s why writing about the end of the apartheid era, the die-hard Afrikaners and South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme seemed so appropriate.
Could you tell us about writing your sequel to Per Fine Ounce, 'High Velocity Impact' and what we can expect this time?
First of all, I needed to find a plausible background against which to set the novel. Of course, it would contain its fair share of death and mayhem, this is what you would expect from an MI6 operative and licensed assassin even in peacetime.
The South African apartheid government surrendered it nearly 500 kilogrammes of weapons-grade, 90% enriched uranium to the new democratic government. This was the uranium removed from its arsenal of nuclear weapons that were decommissioned when the new government signed the Non-Proliferation Agreement. However, the new South African government resisted the US attempts to have this stock of enriched U²³5 de-blended. This is stored at Pelindaba, the South African nuclear research facility; this also where the nuclear weapons were manufactured. This is situated just outside Pretoria.
We know that the Iranians are desperate to acquire weapons-grade uranium. With corruption a virtual way of life in the new South African government, the Iranians make their play. With the assistance of highly placed government ministers and officials, the stock of uranium secretly leaves South Africa. MI6, the CIA and the Israeli Mossad intervene and attempt to hijack the shipment by any means possible before it can reach Iran. However, the operations need to remain covert.
This takes the agents to various countries in Africa who are sympathetically disposed towards Iran where they leave a trail of death and mayhem.
What thematic connection do you see between your novels and the Bond novels?
In a sense "Per Fine Ounce" was supposed to be a bit of a dig at Bond – my protagonist, Peace, is not quite the gentleman, doesn’t smoke, no martinis, likes a beer and Glenfiddich, not the old-school-tie type really, can swear like a trooper, and rather more made-to-measure than Saville Row tailored. A modern man.
Would you like to write a Bond novel?
Of course, I’d like to be an author of a Bond novel, but without the gadgetry – just modern day communication equipment, GPS, cameras and sophisticated explosives capable of being detonated remotely. No remotely steered cars with hidden machine guns, etc. No way-out stuff – all would need to be believable.
Do you have any favourite Bond novels?
I can recall reading 'Casino Royale' at school and can still clearly remember Fleming’s descriptions of the Bentley, the large Michelin headlights, the then revolutionary Wankel-engine-ed NSU, the cool and calculating bond and poker-faced presence at the tables and his evil adversaries. I read that in the 1950s! This was Fleming’s visualisation of what a British agent should be. When I started writing "Per Fine Ounce," Jeffrey Deaver’s "Carte Blanche" was released. I purposely never read it, afraid that it could influence my idea of what my main protagonist Commander Peace should be.
Let’s never forget, Fleming’s depiction of what an MI6 operative should be set the benchmark as did Mickey Spillane’s vision of an American private eye.