Who is Q? (James Bond Version)

In 1952, a newspaperman and former British naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming embarked on a new career. Marrying his experience serving in World War II with his love of writing, Fleming began writing a spy novel. His first book, Casino Royale, was published the next April, and with it, James Bond came to life. Fleming ended up writing another 11 Bond novels and other creators have taken up the mantle since. And to date, we’ve been treated to 26 feature films with a 27th scheduled for release this fall. 

Bond, for those unfamiliar with the character, is an intelligence agent (code number 007, of course) with MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. Bond is hardly inconspicuous, as spies typically are; he’s a debonair partier who finds himself in the center of large social gatherings, and therefore at risk of capture or worse. That requires him to always have an escape plan, one which often involves interesting gadgets, provided to him by MI6’s resident tinker, Q. And it’s important that Q do a good job — Double-O Seven is a skilled marksman with a license to kill, and he shoots his way out of trouble more often than not.

But who is Q? It turns out, he’s a super-fan.

The success of Casino Royale in 1953 gave Ian Fleming a window of opportunity most authors only dream of — he was able to write and publish another Bond book each year thereafter, one per year through 1966. (The last two books were published after his death in 1964.) Along the way, Fleming amassed a dedicated fandom and a gun enthusiast named Geoffrey Boothroyd was one of them. Boothroyd, like many fans, wrote to Fleming to share their love of his stories, but this fan mail wasn’t just praise. Boothroyd also shared some constructive criticism. Boothroyd was a fan of Bond’s and a fan of guns, but he wasn’t a fan of Bond’s gun. 

At the time, Bond carried a very small semi-automatic pistol, described as a .25-caliber Beretta (and likely a Beretta 418). If you click that link, you’ll get an idea of just how small it is — it fits in the palm of your hand. It’s designed for concealment, which is good if you’re a spy but doesn’t have a lot of stopping power. Boothroyd, being the gun-lover he was, didn’t believe it was the appropriate choice for Bond. And he wanted Fleming to know that. He wrote a very long letter to the author, describing in detail why the Beretta wasn’t the right weapon; specifically, according to the BBC, Boothroyd called the Beretta a “ladies’ pistol” (as it fit well in a woman’s purse) and made suggestions for other options. 

Fleming was impressed. About a week after receiving Boothroyd’s note, he replied in a two-page letter of his own, as seen here via Letters of Note. Fleming told his fan that “you have entirely convinced me [ . . . ] to change his weapons in accordance with your instructions.” And per the reply letter, Fleming endeavored to pay Boothroyd for the suggestion, as he was “not in the habit of stealing another man’s expertise.”

While we don’t know if any money changed hands, we do know that Fleming carried the suggestion forward. In 1958, Fleming published his sixth Bond novel, Dr. No. In one scene, M — the head of MI6 — introduces Bond to a quartermaster whom he refers to as “the greatest small-arms expert in the world.” That armorer outfits Bond with a Walther PPK, a larger semi-automatic that met Boothroyd’s specifications. And to make it even more clear that Geoffrey Boothroyd was the inspiration for the change, Ian Fleming named the quartermaster Major Boothroyd. 

A few years later, a film adaptation of Dr. No came to theaters, and for the first time, fans of the movie franchise were introduced to a new character: the same arms expert. Initially played by Peter Burton, that character is named Major Boothroyd in Dr. No. In subsequent films, and portrayed by different actors (Burton was unavailable to reprieve the role in 1963’s From Russia With Love), the character is simply known for the one-letter abbreviation for “quartermaster,” or “Q.” 

Bonus fact: Q is named for a fan, but who is James Bond named for? Most likely, by an ornithologist. Fleming was a bird-watcher himself and was aware of a book titled “Birds of the West Indies.” The book was authored by an expert named James Bond and Fleming, looking for a boring yet masculine name for his not-so-boring character, appropriated it. As the New York Times reported, Fleming offered wrote to the real Mr. Bond, allowing him to do the same: “In return, ‘I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.” Bird Bond did not take his name thief up on the offer; there are no known species of horrible birds called Ian Flemings. 

From the Archives: A Squirrely Mission: Not Bond, but nuts.