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Friday, 31 August 2012

The Origin of James Bond 007

 In a couple of months we will have a new James Bond movie, as the film franchise celebrates fifty years, but to get to the real 007 you must return to Ian Fleming's original canon.

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

 They are the opening words from Ian Fleming’s 1953 debut novel, Casino Royale – the book that introduced James Bond 007 to the world. I know this book, so well, have read it so many times that I can write the passage above from memory.

Raymond Benson noted, in his excellent James Bond Bedside Companion (1984) that Bond is entirely humourless in this first novel, and for the most part I would go along with that but I wouldn’t say the character was entirely without humour. There is much resigned wit over being partnered with a woman and Bond even laughs at his own pretentiousness when ordering dinner. And in the latter sections of the book Bond is overly romantic when falling in love with Vesper, but for the most part Bond is a stiff no-nonsense type, which perfectly suits the seriousness of the story. And it is a serious story – Fleming set out to write the best spy thriller possible – and there is no time for frivolity.

A highly ingenious plot sees Bond trying to out gamble Russian agent, Le Chiffre who is trying to win back the funds he has misappropriated from his paymasters in order to finance a string of failed brothels. It is felt that if Le Chiffre fails to recover the monies he has embezzled his ruination will bring about the collapse of a Communist controlled trade union in Alsace, something that would be highly desirable to the British, Americans and French governments.

Fleming’s introduction of Bond at the Casino is masterful and shows him to live the kind of high life that was out of the grasp of most people. During the time the book was written foreign travel was attainable to only the wealthiest and the degree of description the author gives to the locales would have seemed incredibly exotic to the average reader.

 Fleming is heavy on detail – offering the minutiae of food, car engines, locations and weaponry. However the author manages to makes these passages exciting and interesting – he even fills several chapters explaining the rather complicated card game and yet the story moves like an express train. Fleming would pull off similar tricks several times in the series, most notably with the thrilling Golf duel in Goldfinger. Raymond Benson, again in his James Bond Bedside Companion, called this "the Fleming Sweep" and it is a term we will adopt for this article.

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold and then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

Did Fleming consider a series of books when he wrote this one? I feel he did, several passages seem to suggest he is setting up character traits in Bond that will be used later. At one point Bond decides to resign from the service, telling Mathis while lying battered in a hospital bed: “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

To which Mathis replies, “Don’t let me down and become human yourself. We would loose such a wonderful machine.”

Bond, by the point, has had enough – his body has been beaten almost to destruction and his mind has taken a similar treatment. Le Chiffre is dead, killed by a SMERSH assassin, and it all seems to have been so useless to Bond. He contemplates marriage to Vesper and a normal life, the kind of life the average person leads. But all this is not to be and when Vesper is revealed to have been a double agent. His heart hardens and he weeps real tears as he informs his people that she was a traitor – “Yes, dammit, I said, ‘was’. The bitch is dead now.”

Casino Royale is one of the best in the series (personally it’s my favorite) and the book sets up the shadowy world in which James Bond operates. The novel details the first meeting between Bond and Felix Leiter and we are told that Bond uses a .38 Police Positive. With this book Fleming provided wish fulfilment for many people including a soon to be President Kennedy whom it later emerged was a huge fan of Mr Fleming.

Live and Let Die came next and is the most problematic of the novels for the modern reader. I’ve heard people complain that it is racist, largely because of the frequent use of the words, “Nigger”, (one chapter is titled: Nigger Heaven) and, “Negro,” but such charges are ludicrous. Neither word was considered a slur at the time the novel was written and that is the key. The novel is of its time and as such reflects that time. Yes it may read xenophobic by today’s standards but then so would most fiction of this time period.

“It had been a smart and decisive bit of driving, but what had startled Bond was that it had been a negress at the wheel, a fine looking negress in a chauffeur’s uniform.”

The book is set (and was written) in the early 50’s – a time when there was still segregation, particularly in the United States where the novel is set. So charging Fleming with racism is absurd – he was writing fiction set in a contemporary world – his contemporary world and as such he reflects the attitudes and realities of the time.

Nuff said, - on the racism issue, I think, otherwise we are at risk of becoming bogged down with the issue - we will treat the book as an adventure story and not consider how truly dated it has become.

We discover Bond is still driving the Bentley convertible, the grey 1933 four and a half litre with the Amherst-Villiers supercharger – such an expensive car would have been out of the reach of most readers of the day, still is - and it is details like this that add to Bond’s appeal. He lives a life unattainable to mere mortals but one that we would all like to live if we only had the chance. Bond’s cars are just that little bit larger than life, as are his women, his clothes and his thrilling adventures.

Fleming ties up the loose ends left over from the previous novel in this early section – we learn that Bond has had new skin grafted over the scar on his hand, the mark of a spy, carved there by a SMERSH assassin at the climax of the previous book.

“Morning 007. Let’s have a look at that hand. Not a bad job.”

The meeting between Bond and M doesn’t really flush out M’s character or the relationship between the two men and as in Casino Royale. M’s brief appearance is merely to outline the bones of the plot. Though there is a feeling running between the lines that M holds Bond in high regard but the overall impression of the chief of the service is that he is a cold, aloof and very stern. He holds the utmost authority as suggested when it is revealed Bond wouldn’t dream of smoking in M’s presence unless invited to do so.

Fleming didn’t really describe Bond physically in Casino Royale (a conscious decision to let the reader slip into Bond’s shoes more easily). Other than that comma of hair and those piercing blue-grey eyes we knew very little about 007’s appearance, but this time out the author starts to flesh the character out. For the first time Bond’s face is fully described.

There is also a lot more humour in the writing – one early section takes some good-humoured swipes at the American use of the English language. One section where Bond is being advised on his cover as an American is particularly good.

“He was reminded to ask for the check rather than the bill, to say cab rather than taxi and (this from Leiter) to avoid words of more than two syllables. (You can get through any American conversation, advised Leiter, with yeah, nope and sure.) The English word to be avoided at all costs was, Ectually. Bond assured him it was not in his vocabulary.”

If Fleming impressed with his descriptive powers in Casino Royale, then he astounds with Live and Let Die. By the fourth chapter he has given us a potted history of both Voodoo and piracy on the high seas, he has described in great detail Bond’s clothing and his breakfast menu, and yet the story zings along, not once does it slow down, not even when explaining the background of chief villain, Mr Big – the Fleming sweep is cranked up to full gear and runs like a well oiled machine. That many of Fleming's details are outlandish matters not because they have an air of authenticity even when they are complete inventions.

The plot is suitably, “Boy’s Own”, - Gold coins, believed to be from a seventeenth century pirate horde, have been turning up on the market. The source is thought to be a treasure hidden in Jamaica by the English pirate, Bloody Morgan (although Henry Morgan was in reality Welsh). M believed the gold is being used to finance SMERSH operations on American soil and that Mr Big, the man behind the smuggling, is an agent of the Soviet terror organisation. Bond’s initial investigation takes place in New York where he is re-teamed with Felix Leiter, the CIA operative who had been such a help in Casino Royale, before moving onto Florida, where Felix is mutilated by a shark (a scene used in the movie, Licence to Kill). From there Bond travels onto Jamaica where Fleming pulls off an extraordinary piece of writing – his description of the underwater world in the chapter entitled, Valley of Shadows is so effective that the reader has to come up for air.

“There were no big fish about, but many lobsters were out of their holes looking huge and prehistoric in the magnifying lens of the water. Their stalk like eyes glared redly at him and their foot long spined antennae asked him for the passport.”

Later Bond and heroine, Solitaire are tied together and dragged behind a boat (a scene used in the movie, For Your Eyes Only). It is an effective scene and by the time the story ends the reader is left exhausted. Bond too it seems – he is given compassionate leave which he, understandably spends with the lovely Solitaire. Where sex was only touched on briefly in Casino Royale with Live and Let Die, Fleming is firmly in wish fulfillment territory  and the entire text is dripping with more sexuality than a dozen Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Opposite him, leaning forward with concern on her pretty face, was a sexy little negress with a touch of white blood in her. Her jet-black hair, as sleek as the best permanent wave, framed a sweet almond shaped face with rather slanted eyes under perfectly drawn eyebrows. The deep purple of her parted, sensual lips was thrilling against the bronze skin.”

Fleming was of course inventing the Bond formula as he went along and with this book many of the trademarks of the series were developing – exotic locations, bizarre villains, beautiful women, fast cars, good living, thrilling danger, are all present and correct. Bond is also humanised – no longer the blunt instrument of the previous book and it seems like snobbery is an inherent character trait. Though with Bond it comes across as charmingly eccentric rather than boorish.

Live and Let die, though not as tight as Casino Royale, is a fast and fun read. It’s more violent than most of the other books in the series, but there are many light moments and the suspense level is cranked up high in several sections. There is also something of a supernatural feel to the voodoo scenes, which conjure up a feeling of genuine unease in the reader. It’s no fluke that James Bond is the massive franchise he is today. Sure the success of the movies is most to do with the enduring appeal, but it all started with Fleming’s pen. Those exotic images and fantastic plots that have made the movies so successful come from the imagination of Ian Fleming and there is only one place to find the real James Bond and that’s in these books.

Moonraker came next and although an improvement on Live and Let Die, and an easier read today, it is further away from the formula that would eventually be set in stone than the previous book. It's still a spy thriller but the driving force is that of a detective story, with Bond cast in the role of investigator.

It’s a much slower, more thoughtful novel than the previous two and it’s nothing at all to do with cool looking laser guns and bad guys in one piece yellow suits. After two largely fantastical novels Fleming brings the series down to earth (ironically given the movie this would become) with Moonraker – the reader learns more about Bond in this novel that they did in the previous books and Fleming takes great care to put meat on the bones and give Bond a reality that had previously been lacking.

We learn a lot more about Bond in this novel - we discover his age as it is said that he's got eight years to go before he is retired as a 00 agent. Agents are retired at 45. We discover that he lives in a flat just off King's Road and that he has a beloved housekeeper named, May.

He had a small but comfortable flat off King’s Road, an elderly Scottish housekeeper – a treasure called May – and a 1930 supercharged four and a half litre Bentley, which he expertly tuned so that he could do a hundred when he wanted to."

The following novel, With Diamonds are Forever, would see Fleming perfecting the formula that would become so familiar, and for the first time we have what could be called, “a teaser scene.” – a vividly drawn section which places the reader as voyeur as we witness a deadly scorpion emerge from its lair to kill and feast on a beetle. Shortly afterwards the scorpion is in turn killed by a dentist cum diamond smuggler with a large rock. There is a message there that is not lost on the reader as we follow the man as he hands his latest batch of smuggled diamonds to the pick-up man. He dares to complain that things are getting harder and that next time he wants an increase in his cut. The pick up man says he will pass on his message but warns him there could be consequences. There is the sense that whatever unseen organization is behind this they are big, ruthless and all-powerful.

Mortality is a theme that runs through the entire narrative. For every predator there is an even bigger predator and James Bond may be the biggest predator of all.

‘This day-dream of male prepotence is written in a most suave and civilized prose, carries not an ounce of conviction and is extremely readable.’ THE NEW STATESMAN

With the previous novel Fleming began to develop the relationship between 007 and M and he further builds the relationship here – the scene with Bond and M discussing the illicit diamond trade is very effective and would provide a template used over and over throughout the series, both in the book and the movies. Bond’s task this time out is to impersonate a diamond smuggler carrying a selection is smuggled stones from London to New York, once there Bond must follow the diamond pipeline to the people at the very top. Fleming again uses the American setting to their full advantage and even though a high level of suspense is maintained throughout the book, the scenes where Bond infiltrates the gangster network are great fun. Bond looks on these people as comical though dangerous goons and the elaborate way in which Bond is paid for his services are clever and give the story a reason for jumping from location to location.

“You will be paid in full, Mr Bond,” the high voice was precise and businesslike. “And you may get more than $5000. But the method of payment will be devised as much for your protection as ours. There will be no direct payment.”

Fleming was highly skilled when describing cultures alien to his own – It’s as if the author’s outsider’s-eye picks out details that would otherwise go missed. 

 Raymond Chandler praised Fleming’s bringing to life of America and said that the book rings true, better than most written by Americans. Maybe we never really see what is around us and it is only the interloper who can pick out interest in the commonplace. It also helps the Fleming was deeply knowledgeable about Diamond Smuggling (read his non fiction, The Diamond Smugglers) and this results in the plot reading true, even the more outlandish elements come across with a certain authority.

The gangsters are wonderfully drawn and although critics have pointed out that they are too lightweight for true Bond villains, which is true in the sense of these men work their evil solely for financial gain rather than megalomania, but at the same time Fleming was innovating and changing the formula in order to keep things interesting. Which to my mind is an odd thing to criticise any writer for. The book may not be as good as Moonraker, its immediate predecessor, but it is in no way a weak entry in the series. The villains may not be as strongly realized as some of the others but Ms. Tiffany Case was the best Bond girl up to that point. She is a tough resourceful character and most definitely no shrinking violet.

Diamonds are Forever then is a great thriller and a welcome part of the canon – it’s a different kind of adventure for 007 and that’s something to be applauded. Ian Fleming can be accused of many things but not of writing the same book over and over.

From Russia with Love was the  book with which Fleming began to set the James Bond formula in stone - previous to the publication of this one the series was selling reasonably well. However when President Kennedy listed it amongst his favourite titles for holiday reading sales went into the stratosphere. 

But before looking at the book I would like to point out that the film version of this was the last of the Bond's movies Fleming would see prior to his untimely death.

Back to the book - faced with a four hour round trip I opted to listen to this one on audio-book, rather than re-reading the book. It is one of my favorites of the Fleming works and I've read it several times and sometimes it's nice to sit back, avoid the numerous speed cameras up and down the British roads and let the story wash over you.

Read by Robert Whitfield - it's an excellent reading that catches the nuances of what is a deeply detailed novel.

"The naked man who lay by the pool might have been dead. He might have been drowned and fished out of the pool and laid out on the grass to dry while the police or the next of kin were notified. Even the little pile of objects in the grass besides his head might have been his personal effects, meticulously assembled in full view so that no one should think that something had been stolen by his rescuers.'

That first sentence introduces us to Red Grant, the chief executioner of SMERSH, the murder apparent of the KGB, an organisation which Fleming informs us in his foreword is very real and not just a figment of his vivid imagination. The inner workings of the organisation are detailed in meticulous fashion as we are introduced to other characters, chiefly the harridan Rosa Klebb as the latest scheme against the west is outlined. Fleming takes great care over this first quarter of the book with Bond not coming into the story until chapter eleven. When we first meet Bond we discover he is suffering from the effects of being underemployed for far too long.

"The blubbery arms of the soft life had Bond round the neck and they were slowly strangling him. He was a man of war and when, for a long period, there was no war, his spirits went into decline."

Thankfully for the Bond's sanity he is soon sucked into a clever plot, designed to both eliminate the agent and embarrass the organisation for which he works. Of course both Bond and M realise that the plot which offers the British a sought after Spektor Coding Machine is an obvious trap. But both Bond and his superior feel it is worth the risk.

We also learn much more about Bond's personal life this time out - we discover that he performs twenty push ups immediately after waking each morning . The scene between M and Bond is the best yet to appear in a Bond novel with the old man of the service as it irascible best. The book is also notable for introducing gadgets into the mix when the armourer gives Bond an attache case with some hidden extras. The introduction of the case is perfectly natural and it is a shame that the gadgets would be overused, particularly in the films and in some of the non-Fleming continuation novels.

For anyone new to the Fleming novels, From Russia with Love is a good place to start - out of all the early novels the character of Bond is more recognizable here as the character of the movies, particularly those made before the mid-70's. And it's also a thrilling espionage story in its own right.

There is also a cliffhanger ending, the first time Fleming had used such a device in the Bond novels. SPOILER ALERT - in fact Bond is left seemingly dead at the end of the novel. Had Fleming, I wonder grown tired of his creation? Did he like Conan Doyle before him plan to kill of the golden goose only to be forced to bring him back?

"Bond felt his knees begin to buckle. He said, or thought he said, 'I've already got the loveliest...' Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed head-long to the wine red floor."

I suspect that Fleming did intend for this to be the end - interviews he gave at the time certainly suggest that he was eager to explore new avenues but thankfully 007's demise, if that's what it was, was left open ended and the author was able to resurrect the character for the even better, Dr No. 

However  Bond is revived for Dr No, the sixth book, in the series. The book starts in the by now usual fashion with a teaser sequence that sets up the feel of the novel to come. The first chapter sees the death of Strangways and this immediately followed by the Bond/M scene.

"No stopping power, sir. But it' easy to operate. A bit fancy looking too. Appeals to the ladies."

The armourer is talking about Bond's beloved Beretta which is taken away from him, to be replaced by the now iconic Walther PPK and a Smith and Wesson. Bond is not happy with this but M points out that it is not debatable and so Bond is kitted out with the new equipment for what is seen as an easy mission, a bit of a rest. Of course in the world of James Bond there is no such thing as an easy mission.

Bond is ordered to investigate the disappearance of Strangways, a agent working of the Jamaica branch of the service - and so Bond he picks up on the trail that will eventually lead him to Dr Julius No - the novel is far more action orientated than From Russia with Love and the plot is also far more fantastical, almost science fiction. The book can also boast one of the most successful female leads in the child-like Honey Rider.

From Russia with Love's plot was relatively serious but Doctor No is the complete opposite with a plot that foresakes credibility and goes all out for thrills. Fleming's talents had progressed by this period and for the time spent between the covers, Dr No seems very real indeed. The violence is also cranked up considerably and the author manages to create a true sensation of fear and revulsion in the reader. Quarrel's death for instance is especially nasty and described in nauseating detail. And later in the book we follow Bond through an obstacle course that is truly thrilling with each blow 007 sustains felt by the reader.

Bond stood and waited for his unspeakable end. He looked into the blue jaws of death and saw the glowing red filament of the firer deep inside the big tube. He thought of  Quarrel's body - there was no time to think of Quarrel - and imagined the blackened, smoking figure laying in the melted sand. Soon he, too, would flame like a torch.

Dr No is a very effective thriller - M is at his most tyrannical in the book and Bond is much more fatalistic and reflects on his own mortality at several key points in the narrative. The last quarter of the book is pure, "Boy's Own"

Goldfinger, the seventh in Ian Fleming's series builds on the  thread of fatalism running through the series. Bond is depressed at the start of the book, contemplating his most recent case which left a nasty taste in his mouth and death-watch beetle in his soul.

"What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one."

This first chapter goes into great detail to outline Bond's involvement breaking a drug smuggling ring. Heroin has recently been made illegal in Britain which results in a booming illicit trade. Prohibition, Fleming points out, is the trigger of crime. Bond perks up slightly when he meets up with Junius Du Pont, a minor character from Casino Royale, who remembers Bond as a superb card player. Du Pont is convinced he is being cheated by a man called Auric Goldfinger, but he can't for the life of him figure out how the man is performing his slight of hand. Cards are, of course, a passion with Bond and so the agent agrees to look into the matter. Fleming's ability to turn something like a card game into a suspenseful tour de force is amazing; later he will perform the same trick with a game of golf.

Like Moonraker before it, Goldfinger is something of a slower paced Bond adventure but great care is taken over characterisation, which results in a compelling read . Much more of Bond's little character traits are brought out - for instance he hates tea and considers it partly responsible for the decline of the British Empire. Bond refers to the drink as a cup of mud and would much prefer coffee. It is little inconsequential things like this that make Fleming such a joy to read.

Fleming's next Bond was a  short story collection entitled, For Your Eyes Only.

The first story was A View to a Kill - The title of this story was used for the 1985 James Bond movie, but other than sharing a title there are no similarities between them. Fleming's sweeping style is very much evident here and the author works well with the brevity of a short story - From A view to a kill, opens with a dispatch rider burning up the road on his BSA M20, but all is not what it seems with the rider, for although he is dressed in the uniform of  The Royal Corps of Signals he has a Lugar strapped to his fuel tank. He approaches another dispatch rider and coldly guns his down and then vanished but not before stealing the dead man's wallet in order to make this look like a robbery.

When we first come upon Bond he is in Paris, torturing himself with alcohol and dark thoughts after a failed mission in Hungry - we learn that he doesn't like to think of his childhood and dislikes Pernod because its liquorice taste reminds him of those days.

"It had been a question of getting a certain Hungarian out. Bond had been sent by London specifically to direct the operation over the head of Station V. This had been unpopular with the Vienna Station. There had been misunderstandings - wilful ones."

Bond doesn't like failure and he intends on getting drunk and finding himself a girl - however this is not to be when Bond is called back to duty to investigate the death of the dispatch rider.

From a view to a kill is more a novella than a short story and it is structured much the same as the full length novels. And zings along at great speed - can be read in one sitting and leaves the reader satisfied. And this is, I suppose, what it is intended to do.

The next James Bond novel, Thunderball came from an original idea for a movie script which Fleming worked on with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham prior to Dr No becoming the first Bond movie. When the project fell through, Fleming retained the novelization rights to the story and was thus able to develop Thunderball from the original project.

As such Thunderball is technically the first novelization of a screenplay even if the resulting movie hadn't been produced when the book first saw print. Ironic then that Fleming based the novel on a screenplay because it is one of the most full and detailed novels in the entire series. The book, often called the first in the Blofeld trilogy, also marks the theme of mortality, particularly Bond's own, that runs through the later novels.

"To begin with he (Bond) was ashamed of himself- a rare state of mind. He had a hangover, a bad one, with an aching head and stiff joints. When he coughed - smoking too much goes with drinking too much and doubles the hangover - a cloud of small luminous black spots swam across his mind like amoebae in pond water."

Bond is ordered by M to the Shrublands Health clinic because the agent's fitness level has been sloppy of late. Bond is not happy with this but if he wants to return to active service he has little choice but to obey. However the clinic proves far from the restful experience expected and whilst there Bond encounters one Count Lippe and starts unraveling a series of clues that will lead the agent to the vast criminal organisation led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. And of course there is the matter of a pair of stolen atomic bombs which sees Bond placed back onto active service.

The book is terrifically well written and Fleming's journalistic eye for detail is much evident, particularly in the underwater sequences in which the author brings the almost alien landscape to life for the reader. Felix Leiter is also used well in this novel and as much more to do than usual and does not merely serve as a foil for James Bond, nor merely as a plot device.

The growing sense of urgency is highlighted as Bond struggles to find the stolen atomic bombs before the deadline. And the gambling motif is continued throughout the book with all of Bond's successes resulting from him playing hunches.

Thunderball may have started out as a collaborative effort but in the final analysis it is one hundred per-cent Ian Fleming.

Thunderball ranks among the best in the literary series.

And then came the Bond book that divides fans more than any other - some consider it a brave attempt at working outside the formula, while others see it as an abomination in the series, the result of a moment of madness from Fleming. I must say that I belong to the former camp and indeed I rate The Spy Who Loved Me very highly - it is known that Fleming was a friend and admirer of Raymond Chandler and in places Fleming seems to be reaching for Chandleresque moments in the first person narrative from Vivienne Michael.

And it is very much Vivienne's story, her book and Bond becomes a supporting player in his own series, indeed he doesn't even come into the story until more or less the final quarter. Fleming shouldn't be criticised for this experiment and by using a woman as the main character and spinning the tale from her POV, the author has created his most feminist work within the most male chauvinistic of series. But panic not because Bond is his usual self and Vivienne certainly knows her place when it comes to the bedroom. Hey, this is 1960's male wish fulfilment so give Fleming a break here!

"I had no regrets or shame. There might be many consequences for me - not least that I may now be dissatisfied with other men." Vivienne Michael after sleeping with Mr Bonkbuster

A benefit from Fleming's experiment here is that the reader gets a female perspective of James Bond which adds much to our understanding of this amazing fictional character. And from this female viewpoint Bond comes across as a caring and warm man, a million miles away from the cold-hearted assassin we have come to know and love.

The Spy Who Loved Me then is a great addition to the series - it's certainly the odd one out and does not work as a first novel for someone new to the series. But once readers have gotten a few of the more conventional 007 thrillers under their belt, then TSWLM should prove an enjoyable and refreshing change of pace and style.

Fleming deserved kudos for attempting something new from what was (is) a hugely successful and established formula.

And then Fleming took us back to basics for the second in the Blofeld trilogy. The book is one of Fleming's most descriptive and epic in terms of storyline. It is also one of the longest books and uses a split narrative technique to tell two supposedly unrelated stories. However the author skilfully brings both strands together at the end which leads us into one of the most downbeat endings in the entire canon.

It seems that after the poor critical response to the experiment that was, The Spy Who Loved me, that Fleming decided to get back to roots and give the reader more of what made Bond so compelling a series in the first place. It does all that and it does it well, but the book contains an added dimension with Bond falling in love and the result is the most rounded James Bond since Casino Royale.

Fleming's powers of momentum and description are at an all time high here and the ski chase is thrillingly written - in prose Fleming somehow manages to create more excitement and tension in this thrilling scene than anything the movies ever managed. It is difficult to think of another writer who could do this and the reader flies through almost two chapters with their mouth hanging open.  For most writers one such set piece would be enough but Fleming also gives us the excellent bob-sleigh sequence towards the end of the book.

And what an ending - Bond cradles his dead wife's head, telling her, 'We have all the time in the world.'

On Her Majesty's Secret Service may even be the best of the Bond books - sometimes I certainly think of it as such, but then so many of Fleming's original Bond novels are without peer, for whilst Fleming may not have invented the espionage genre he certainly gave us a unique take on the subject.

Next we had You Only Live Twice,  the penultimate novel in the original Fleming canon and the last 007 novel published during his lifetime. The book, being the third in the Blofeld cycle, neatly bookends into the events in the previous novel, OHMSS. It also marks another experimental phase for the series with Fleming, bringing in allegory.

I like the book very much and feel that Fleming hadn't taken as much care in creating mood in a long while. It is enticing to look at the final few Bond books, discounting The Man with the Golden Gun which was left unfinished when Fleming died, and speculate on where the series might have gone had Fleming lived longer. All three of the Blofeld books are excellent and Fleming's writing is cast iron solid in his later books, he has also opened up to experimentation and the character of Bond was becoming less of a cypher and more of a flesh and blood man.

You Only Live Twice, starts with Bond depressed at the death of his wife in the previous book. M is worried about him and decides to give Bond an impossible assignment, something to snap him out of his maudlin condition. M strips Bond of his 00 status and promotes him to the diplomatic division.

"There's nothing the matter with you. You've been through a bad time. You've had good reason to be a bit under the weather. As for the last two assignments, anyone can make mistakes. But I can't have idle hands around the place, so I'm taking you out of the Double-O section."
Bond is sent to Japan with orders to persuade Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, to share the new ciphering method called Magic 44. However things do not go as planned and soon Bond find himself once again on the trail of Blofeld, although the agent is initially ignorant of the fact that it is his old enemy Blofeld who he is investigating.

You only live twice,
Once when you are born,
Once when you look death in the face

 The last section of the book sees Fleming do something he's never done before - he depicts Bond as a St. George like figure while Blofeld is depicted as the dragon. The analogy is brought to the fore and much of the narrative is dreamlike, almost surreal. The author is clearly thinking in the style of the old epics of literature and he does set Bond an almost Herculean task. You Only Live Twice, is an excellent addition to the Bond canon - it's bitter sweet, though...knowing that Fleming would never fully complete another Bond novel, doubly so in that this book marks what might have been an whole new avenue for the Bond adventures.

Ian Fleming, arguably the greatest pure-thriller writer the UK has ever produced, died before completing his next novel. His creation James Bond had been left amnesic and floundering in Russia. However  there was still one more Bond novel to go but the problem was Fleming had left it unfinished when he passed away. The book was apparently mostly complete but had not been revised and polished to Fleming's high standards. The executors brought in a ghost writer (still rumoured to have been Kingsley Amis) to finish the book and it was eventually published in 1965.

The novel is generally considered Fleming's weakest - I'm not so sure of that though. Each time I've read it I've become engrossed in the story and although it's not as detailed as some of the books, I think that on time it makes the story move faster. I've always thought of this book as the most pulpish in style of all Fleming's books.

There are several high points in the novel - Bond's attempted assassination of M for one thing. And of course it does tie up all the plot points left open after the previous novel. By the end of the book, Bond seems to be his old self again.

"James Bond,in the full possession of his senses, with his eyes wide open, his feet flat on the linoleum floor, stuck his head blithely between the mink-lined jaws of the trap. He said, and meant it, 'You're an Angel,'

At the same time he knew deep down that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him. It would be like taking 'a room with a view'. For James Bond, the same view would always pall."

Fleming went all out for boy's own style action, adventure with this book - in one section he has Mary Goodnight tied, virtually naked, to a railway track. There is a chilling moment when Scaramanga, Fleming giving a nod to his childhood favourite Dr Fu Manchu, announces to everyone on the train that the woman up ahead is Mary Goodnight.

Good, bad or indifferent - make of this book what you will. I, myself, am of the opinion that it is a damn good thriller and whilst not the best of the series, I do not think it is the worse. In fact there's not a truly bad book in the entire series, and I'd take Man with the Golden Gun over any of the short stories Fleming wrote about Bond.
And so there we have it - a series of books that continue to be mined for gold by filmmakers and authors alike - Bond lives on in continuation novels, next year will see yet another Bond novel and later this year Daniel Craig will play the character for the third time in Skyfall. James Bond is now an iconic character, one who takes up a prominent place in pop culture, and it was in these books by Ian Fleming that it all started.

Ian Fleming's lasting legacy is well worth discovering, or indeed rediscovering.


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