Greenwich novelist echoes Ian Fleming in thriller series

Readers looking for an heir to Ian Fleming can find one in Ted Bell.

The Greenwich writer’s series of novels about British Lord and superspy Alex Hawke serve up a James Bond-style mix of over-the-top action, black comedy and a political scene that is only a slight distortion of the real world. And, yes, there are plenty of sexy and smart women in the stories.

The tenth novel in the series, “Overkill” (William Morrow), was published last month, and it is as audacious as it is entertaining.

In the early chapters, Vladimir Putin’s rule collapses under pressure from the oligarchs who want to take power. The Russian president decides he might be better off dead than alive and stages his own demise.

“At least when you’re dead, people stop trying to kill you,” the deposed leader tells one of his few trusted associates.

Putin goes on the run in Europe, taking refuge in a Provence farmhouse, where he plots his return to power with a private army funded by gold taken from Swiss banks. Meanwhile, our hero, Alex Hawke, is horrified when his son, Alexei, is kidnapped during a Christmas vacation at a ski resort. He wonders if old enemy Putin might be behind the crime.

The suspense builds to a climax set in and around an enormous Swiss mountain lair — built by Albert Speer for Adolf Hitler but never used — that Putin buys for a half billion dollars. (Somewhere, the Bond villains Dr. No and Ernst Stavros Blofed are green with envy.)

This isn’t the first time Bell has used the president in one of his novels, but “Overkill” places him front and center with all of the cunning and clout of a classic Bond baddie. Think Goldfinger but on a much grander scale. One of the more amusing touches in “Overkill” is Putin’s pet dog named “Blofeld.”

“It is a lot of fun to write (him),” Bell says about claiming a real-world politician as a character. Putin was introduced in the fifth Hawke novel, “Tsar.”

“I have heard from semi-reliable sources that he reads the books,” the writer adds, chuckling and imagining Putin sitting down to check out “Overkill” and the “arch villain” he plays in this story.

Bell is flattered by the comparisons with Fleming, because the work of the British writer was a major inspiration for the series.

“I discovered Fleming the summmer I was 13, and I read every one of the books three times. I became as interested in Fleming as I was in Bond,” the writer says of the author who held down a series of jobs — including a stint as a stockbroker — before he created Agent 007 in his 40s.

Although Bell says “I was born to write — I can’t not do it,” it wasn’t until after he achieved great success in the world of advertising that he turned to novel writing full time. At the time of his career transition, Bell was vice chairman of the board and world-wide creative director of Young & Rubicam, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world.

“When I wrote (the first) Hawke (book) I had no idea if it would be published. I just wrote it,” the novelist recalls. “I gave it to my then-agent in New York, who told me to go away for three weeks and not to call back, because it would take that long for someone to get back to us. The next morning my agent called and said ‘Are you sitting down?’ — ‘I can be’ — ‘Simon and Schuster just bought the book.’ ” Bell has since switched publishers.

When he decided to write international thrillers, Bell wanted to include the exotic settings that added so much spice to the Bond books that many readers enjoyed the stories as armchair travel adventures as well as espionage tales.

But the writer has steered away from the Middle Eastern backdrops so popular in other contemporary spy stories. “I don’t like the desert. I prefer Paris and Bermuda,” the writer says, laughing.

Bell’s career in international advertising has come in handy in terms of the novel’s plush backdrops. “I was lucky to have 31 years in a fairly high-profile advertising career. That was 30 years of going to great places and staying in great hotels.”

Since he began the series, Bell has run into real-life intelligence officers who have endorsed his work. One high-level British MI6 official made it possible for Bell to be writer-in-residence at Cambridge University.

Hollywood has come calling with an offer to make a series of Alex Hawke movies starting next year.

“We are in negotiations with Paramount and my guy at CAA,” Bell says of the movie talent agency.

The role of a strikingly handsome British Lord who can outwit and outfight the world’s worst villains could do for the actor who plays Alex Hawke what James Bond did for the career of the young Sean Connery.

“Chris Hemsworth is one of our two prime picks,” Bell reports, adding that the other actor at the top of the list is Tom Hardy.; Twitter: @joesview