Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Ian Fleming's Bond...James Bond!
Like most men of my generation, I grew up with the James Bond movies. Every few years, we'd get another action epic featuring Ian Fleming's super-spy. But as familiar as I am with the various iterations of the movie Bond, I've never read all of the Fleming novels and never chronologically. It makes a big difference for sure.
This summer I've been rectifying that oversight by finally reading through some novels I purchased some few years ago. Now a few thoughts.
Casino Royale I have read before and this time it didn't disappoint. It's a rapid read introducing most of the key Bond tropes. The gambling is front and center of course as Bond attempts to block a "Redlands" (Soviets specifically SMERSH) agent from getting hold of some needed cash to keep him in good graces with his iron-willed managers. The details of chemin de fer, the game they play bore me a bit, but the notion of two foes battling over the cards does not. The torture Bond endures is pretty basic and powerful, and indicative of the almost sadistic quality of the early Fleming books.
Needless to say Bond's infamous attitude towards women is well on display, and speaks to the fundamentally barbaric nature of this man who functions so well at times in the precise world of manners.
Live and Let Die takes Bond to New York to battle a Harlem-based crime kingpin named Mr.Big. This one features Felix Leiter, Bond's "Man Friday" in many of the stories, who is Bond's guide in the peculiar black underworld of New York. I was sensitive to blunt racism in this one, but Fleming brushes against it time and again, but mostly keeps his footing. He attributes quite a bit of smarts and acumen to the Negro criminals he battles, but nonetheless the very notion of a white man rescuing a lovely white woman from the clutches of a black mobster has a whiff the Klan would be most comfortable with.
Moonraker pits Bond against a hidden colony of Nazis who have infiltrated British society and are plotting to blow up the heart of London in the name of their new world order. The finale of this one is a bit hard to fathom in places and Bond surviving is pretty far-fetched actually. It's got a dandy villain in Sir Hugo Drax, a baddie worthy of the serial movies of old.
Diamonds are Forever takes Bond out of his usual environment and pits him against U.S. gangsters. It's a bit of a stretch and frankly Bond doesn't seem natural in this one. Tiffany Case is the usual damaged Bond femme fatale, but does remain strong through most of this one. The gangsters aren't especially brilliant despite being dubbed "The Spangled Gang".
From Russia With Love is easily the best of the Bond novels, despite the fact Bond himself doesn't show up until the last half. Red Grant is a worthy opponent and in fact in this head-to-head with SMERSH, Bond is battling his main foe and not quibbling with mere hoods. Money ain't the motivation in this one, humiliating Britain's hero spy is the goal, and the plan is a whopper. Kerim Bey is a fantastic helper for Bond, a character worthy of a few stories all his own. The ending is a hoot, and caught me looking.
Dr.No is the Bond novel I'm most familiar with, having read it several times. I really like this adventure and enjoyed it a great deal this time, especially in the context of the other stories. Quarrel who alas meets his maker is a great helper for Bond, but his demise has much more weight knowing that he helped Bond in the earlier case against Mr.Big. As for Honey Ryder, I said a lot about her in this post.
Goldfinger is a great movie, but only a so-so novel. The movie and the novel though both offer up a great villain, the titular "Goldfinger", but both alas share the terrible ending which requires hundreds if not thousands of people to pretend to die. It's somewhat ludicrous that this could be accomplished and seems frankly to be a writer trying to get out of a hole. The novel also has the peculiar lesbian myth that men like Bond can turn such women. It's pretty ludicrous.
For Your Eyes Only is the first Bond short story collection and it's pretty uneven. In "From a View to a Kill" Bond investigates the assassination of a motorcycle dispatch-rider and the theft of his top-secret documents. Pretty standard stuff, though the enemy plot seems a bit overly super-spyish. In "For Your Eyes Only" Bond avenges the murder of a friend of his boss alongside the murdered man's daughter. This one is pretty solid. In "Quantum of Solace" Bond is told a story of a failed marriage with a few twists and turns, but alas this one comes up a bit dry. In "Risico" Bond investigates a drug-smuggling operation run by the Russians and takes steps to stop it. Pretty basic. "The Hildebrand Rarity" deals with a rare fish and the obnoxious man who is seeking it. This one has a real grotesque quality to it, and as a result is pretty memorable.
Thunderball begins the high-voltage Bond adventures and the is the first of what is dubbed the Blofeld trilogy. The plot is pretty well known as the movie does a first rate job of translating it pretty completely. This one began life as a movie script and shows it. This first SPECTRE story is a cracking good super-spy adventure.
The Spy Who Loved Me is a very peculiar Bond novel told from the point of view of a young woman who has had several dalliances but is seeking a new life when she gets essentially shanghaied into an insurance swindle to burn down a motel. Bond shows up to save the day and eventually follow through on the title's promise. It's pretty tepid until the last half which gets decent. The perspective is different and that's flavorful to say the least.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service pits Bond again against his arch-enemy Blofeld, this time the fiend is trying to poison the livestock and crops of England. It's a pretty out-sized plot and the action is pretty extreme. Along for the ride is the woman who becomes the love of Bond's life and briefly his wife.
You Only Live Twice is the final of the Blofeld stories and the most outlandish. Bond ends up in Japan for other reasons, becomes a faux-Japanese only to discover that his enemy is on the spot. The coincidence hurts this story a lot, but the action is so over the top that it's hard not to be sucked in. The Garden of Death is a lurid and fascinating invention. The ending is a hoot and a half. The Japanese culture comes in for a lot of knocks, and I can't imagine they feel very warm to this presentation.
The Man With the Golden Gun brings Bond back for one final bow, and this time he has to try and find and kill Scaramanga, an assassin for the other side. It's another jaunt into the Caribbean, clearly Fleming's favorite location for a wild adventure which doesn't make sense all the time alas, but is a lot of fun.
Octopussy and The Living Daylights close out the saga with a quartet of adventures. "Octopussy" is the story of a WWII British vet who has a golden secret to hide and who is found out. The end is garish to say the least. "The Property of a Lady" is a neat little spy tale about Fabrege jewelry and double agents. "The Living Daylights" reveals that Bond's cold-blooded nature is challenged when the target is a beautiful woman, one he has fantasized about to boot. Finally there's the offbeat story titled "007 in New York" which is exactly what it says and no more alas.
Quantum of Solace is a collection of all the short stories mentioned above which was issued when the movie of the same title hit the theaters. Nothing new to see, save for the rather neat cover.
All in all, I'd have to say the James Bond of the these stories is a much more fallible man than the super-spy we're accustomed to from the flicks. He doubts his ability to kill, even though he's done it many times. Bond's misogynistic attitudes are much more disturbing here as we get to listen into his thoughts. He treats women poorly in the movies often, but in the books it's clear he feels badly about them too. "Bitch" is a word used frequently right from the beginning.
I surprised at the way Felix Leiter kept showing up in the stories. Aside from "M" and Miss Moneypenny he's the most common character and has much more to do than they have. He suffers mightily from his association with Bond, losing a hand, part of leg, and other bits here and there as the saga unfolds. He always though Bond's chipper American amigo, the partner he seeks but cannot seem to find elsewhere.
There's a lot of easy racism in these novels, especially I noticed in the later ones. Whole peoples would be stereotyped in a classic pulp fiction sort of way. The "Chigroes" of Dr.No are an especially egregious lot, as they are almost described as an innately vexious variation of human being. It's a common enough sin in such fictions, but there's quite a bit of it in Fleming's stories unfortunately.
Ian Fleming's James Bond is fundamentally a much less attractive man than the charming wit who skitters across the silver screen. He's more troubled, more wounded, less honorable, and alas very nasty at times. But intriguing, very intriguing.