I was a big fan of the early Bond films, starting with Dr. No, and my then BFF and I would eagerly wait for our small-town theater to put the next Bond movie on its marquee. The advantage of a small town was, even though the Bond films weren’t rated for pre-teens, we could say, “Our parents said it was okay,” and we could get a ticket. Now, of course, those early Bond films were pretty mild but considered risqué for the times.
In 1963 came Thunderball, the fourth in the series, and the previews (what they used to call trailers) were exciting: exotic seascapes, underwater action, and, naturally, the bevy of Bond women. With one exception.
In the film, Bond has a partner, and it’s not his usual compatriot CIA agent Felix Leiter. It’s a woman named Paula Caplan. In the movie, she’s more of an administrative type; she drives him around in a boat, and Bond tells her quite often to go back to their hotel while he goes off with one or the other of the movie’s love interests. However, when she’s captured by SPECTRE, she resists revealing Bond’s plans—to the point of taking a cyanide pill.
What a refreshing change! A female character who isn’t a simpering fool nor a femme fatale, who doesn’t fall into Bond’s arms at the blink of an eye, and who understood the mission couldn’t be betrayed.
Twenty years later the Thunderballplot was re-done in Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery playing Bond for the first time in seven years and for the last time. We were past the women’s movement, so surely the Paula character would be commensurate with the times.
This time the character’s name was Nicole, but she was described as an “MI6 agent,” not Bond’s assistant. However, if anything, her role was diminished. Once again, she drove Bond around, got dismissed by Bond, and ended up dead—stuffed in a waterbed and drowned by the bad guys. I’d like to think she fought back, but that was a scene we didn’t see.
Where were the badass, realistic women spies a young woman could look up to?
CATHY GALE AND EMMA PEEL
I didn’t see The AvengersTV series until Emma Peel joined, but I’ve since watched a few episodes with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale. Gale was an anthropologist with judo skills, and she was at the “advanced” age of 30, something unheard of at the time. The interaction between her and her partner, John Steed, was classy, intelligent, and intense. She clearly meant business, and Steed clearly respected her. Blackman went on to be a Bond Girl, and enter Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.
The Avengerscame to U.S. television in 1965, and Emma Peel was unlike any woman spy ever seen. Like Gale, she was clearly Steed’s full and equal partner. Also, like Gale she was clever and had the fighting skills, not to mention dressing in the latest mod fashions, with a penchant for leather. Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale was difficult to replace. A lot of actresses auditioned, and the first one selected was released after a few days because she didn’t have Gale’s self-assurance.
Diana Rigg was perfect as Emma Peel. Cool, calculated, confident, and capable. I wanted to be her. I tried to get my hair to do what hers did, but my hair has always been unmanageable. Emma Peel became what I wanted to see in a woman spy.
And it was a long time before we saw anyone close to her. For me, not until La Femme Nikita(the movies and tv series). I’m not discounting April Dancer from The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., but Dancer was never as satisfying as Peel. For one, why did she need a male partner, and why was she the girl from U.N.C.L.E. when Solo and Kuryakin were each a man from U.N.C.L.E? Peel moved about the world of men as an equal, as someone as capable as any male spy. She was beyond refreshing.
When I took to heart the advice of “write the kind of books you want to read,” I had to come up with a female spy who was an amalgam of the few serious women spies I’d seen in movies and read in a very few books.
My first attempt was Paula Fisher, named after the hapless Paula Caplan in Thunderball. She was a little wimpy and wouldn’t carry a gun, and I had her injured and/or rescued too much. Actually, not totally true. I first wrote her as pretty badass, but when I submitted some stories to an early critique group, one of the members—a man who was published—scoffed that she was “unbelievable” as a woman. She needed to be softer, to appeal to male readers. Unfortunately, I took his advice to heart and changed her.
I knew almost right away something didn’t feel right. First of all, she was no longer Emma Peel. She was every innocent caught up in the spy game: helpless rather than helpful; needing rescue rather than rescuing; an indefinite figure in the background. Certainly not what I wanted. I promptly ignored the critique and wrote her back the way she was in the beginning—just like Emma Peel.
As I fleshed out her character more, I wanted a more interesting name for her, something that reflected the fact she was half Irish. I settled on Maitland, which she shortened to Mai. And the back story began to fall into place.
Mai is the orphaned daughter of two spies. Her mother, Katherine Maitland, was a Bletchley codebreaker and analyst. Her father, Frederick Lord Fisher, Earl of Uxfield, was an SOE agent, along with his best friend, Sir John Stone. Fisher goes to Bletchley to thank the analyst who gave him important information for a mission, he meets Katherine and falls for her. When The Directorate was created at the same time as the United Nations after World War II, Fisher, Stone, and Katherine become some of its first employees.
Now married to Fisher, scion of a staunch Protestant family with connections to the Crown, Katherine, a Roman Catholic Irish heiress, decides she’s not content with being an analyst and wants to be an operative and partnered with her husband. She passes her operational training, and they balance their work cover life and their real lives. In real life, they want desperately to start a family, and after a decade of trying and several miscarriages, they have a daughter, Maitland Katherine Fisher, born on February 15, 1958.
However, Katherine was not the kind of woman to stay at home while her husband was doing dangerous things. They went back to their spy work when Maitland was barely a year old. When Maitland was five and while they were on a mission in Taiwan, Katherine and Frederick were betrayed to the Taiwanese secret police. Both died during brutal interrogations. (Or did they? In a couple of stories, I’ve hinted that at least one of them may have survived.) Maitland became the ward of Frederick’s old friend, Sir John Stone.
After a bout of adolescent rebellion wherein she declares her name is now Mai, Stone decides to recruit Maitland to The Directorate. He tells her the truth about her parents and what they really did for a living. Spying, he tells her is her destiny. Mai doesn’t have to give his proposition much thought. By the time she is 16 years old, she’s not only eavesdropping on conversations at society parties but she’s also filling and clearing dead drops for The Directorate’s London Station.
On one of those dead drops in Paris, she’s made by the East German Stasi (and that won’t be her last run-in with them) and has to be extracted by The Directorate’s top team of operatives: the one-named Nelson and a former Soviet defector named Alexei Bukharin.
She and Bukharin take an immediate dislike to each other, so you know where this is going, right? More on that next time.
So, there’s a thumbnail of Mai Fisher, part Emma Peel, part Paula Caplan, and all spy. She’s great fun to write; she gets to do and say things I never found the courage to do or say. I adore her, and I hope you do, too.