Thursday, August 14, 2008

James Bond: a reader's guide

May 16, 2008
James Bond: a reader's guide
Movies have made Bond a global brand, but the books came first. Ian Fleming expert Henry Chancellor gives the low-down on the entire canon

ON FEBRUARY 17, 1952, Ian Fleming sat down at his desk at Goldeneye, his house in Jamaica, and gazed out at the unbroken Caribbean Sea. He was a 43-year-old journalist, and he was trying hard to take his mind off his imminent wedding. Putting a fresh sheet of paper in the battered Royal portable in front of him, using six fingers he typed out a sentence. He crossed it out and tried again. Discarding that too, he finally came up with “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning”.

Suddenly he was off, writing in a fast, uninhibited manner and by lunch he had already typed 2,000 words. These were pulled straight from his memory and imagination, he had no notes, no plan of where he was going. Fleming claimed he had even found the name of his hero by chance: A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, by a certain James Bond, was sitting on his bookshelf.

Every morning for a month he stuck to this iron regime, until he hammered out the final bitter sentence: “The bitch is dead now.” Casino Royale, his first novel, was finished, and the phenomenon of James Bond was born.

For the next dozen years Fleming would repeat the pattern of writing a new Bond novel between January and March at Goldeneye, to be published in the spring of the following year. What he had begun “chiefly for pleasure, and then money”, quickly developed into a long-running saga, in which each book picked up where the last one left off, and Fleming occasionally felt obliged to tie up some of the loose ends of the previous adventure (particularly what happens to the girls) before sending Bond off on his next assignment.

“Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” Fleming once said, and this is true not only of his fantastic plots and locations but also of his alter ego, 007. The James Bond series is not only the continuing story of the world's most famous secret agent, it is also a direct reflection of the lives and loves of Ian Fleming himself.


The first James Bond novel is a brief, airless affair, set in the French gambling resort of Royale Les Eaux. Here Bond, the best card player in the British Secret Service, takes on the villain, Le Chiffre, at baccarat. Le Chiffre is working for the Soviet spy-hunting organisation SMERSH (meaning roughly “Death to Spies”), and has misappropriated its funds. Bond's task is to bankrupt him to bring him into disrepute.

Fleming claimed that “there are three strong incidents in the book which carry it along and they are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.”

Fleming's life looms large in Casino Royale. Vesper Lynd, the beautiful raven-haired double agent bears a strong resemblance to Christine Glanville, the real-life spy with whom Fleming had an affair. Like Bond, Fleming was a lifelong gambler, and even claimed to have taken on Nazi agents at chemin de fer in Lisbon in 1941. Unfortunately, this story wasn't true, but Casino Royale's memorable torture scene was. In it, Bond's naked genitals are thrashed while he is strapped to a bottomless chair. The combination of high living and violence caught the public's mood: Casino Royale was, according to the Times Literary Supplement, “exciting and extremely civilised”.


Bond, now fully recovered from his lashing by Le Chiffre, is sent to New York to investigate Mr Big, a voodoo baron and unlikely SMERSH agent, whom M suspects is behind a smuggling operation that is funding Soviet agents in America. Seventeenth-century gold coins have been turning up in Harlem and Florida, and M believes that these are part of a larger hoard buried in Jamaica by the Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan.

Bond goes up to Harlem, only to be captured by Mr Big, and interrogated by his mind-reading girlfriend Solitaire. When the story reaches the Caribbean Fleming pitches in all the local colour he can think of: buried treasure, underwater swimming, voodoo.

“It is an unashamed thriller and its only merit is that it makes no demands on the mind of the reader,” Fleming declared in a letter to Winston Churchill, sending him a copy of the book. “How wincingly well Mr Fleming writes,” The Sunday Times drooled.


Unlike the previous two novels, Moonraker is set entirely in England. Bond, still sunburnt from his “passionate leave” with Solitaire, is asked by M to solve a problem. Sir Hugo Drax, a successful stockbroker and national hero, who has offered to donate his £10 million rocket The Moonraker to the defence of Britain, has been discovered cheating at cards. Fleming was fascinated by cheats, and it was inevitable that his beloved London clubland would make an entrance in his “autobiography”, as he teasingly referred to the Bond novels.

He spent a lot of time working out the crucial bridge hand, and a full 18 pages describing it. From Blades Club, Bond is sent to Kent to investigate the Moonraker rocket himself; he discovers that Drax is a Nazi and that the Moonraker is targeted on London. Fleming was loath to let anything go unused: Moonraker is really two stories; it began life as a film idea about an intercontinental missile, on to which Fleming admitted he had to graft the Blades club scenario, “to bring it up to the necessary length”.

Fleming received many complaints that Kent, even on the most glorious English summer's day, did not compare with the tropical heat of the Caribbean. “We want taking out of ourselves,” declared one elderly couple, who read Bond novels to each other aloud, “not sitting on a beach in Dover.”


As if in response to disgruntled readers craving the exotic, the plot of Diamonds Are Forever delivers something of a geography lesson. It begins beside a scrubby road in French Guinea, at one end of a diamond smuggling pipeline, then proceeds at breakneck pace to Hatton Garden in London, New York, Saratoga, Las Vegas, Spectreville and Los Angeles.

The villains are Jack and Serrifimo Spang and their unpleasant sidekicks, Wint and Kidd. Diamonds, like gold, fascinated Fleming, and through some old school connections he found an entrée into the closed world of diamond trading.


“Personally, I think From Russia with Love was, in many respects, my best book.” So said Ian Fleming, and many critics agreed. John F. Kennedy even included it in his top ten books of all time. The story is of SMERSH'S attempt to lure Bond to Istanbul then kill him on the Orient Express, “with ignominy”.

Rosa Klebb, a SMERSH colonel, proves a suitably extraordinary villain.

The biggest surprise is reserved for the final scene. Bond confronts Klebb and she lashes out at him with her boot, which conceals a poison-tipped steel knife. Bond crashes to the floor...

DR NO 1958

Rosa Klebb's kick had injected 007 with Tetrodoxin, a nasty poison extracted from the unlikely source of the sex glands of the Japanese globe- fish. After an extended leave, Bond returns to be punished by M for failing to kill Klebb (his trusty Beretta jammed - so Bond is issued with a Walther PPK), and he is then given a dead-end assignment in Jamaica. This leads 007 to Crab Key, a private island owed by a mysterious Chinaman, Dr Julius No.

Where From Russia with Love was rich in Cold War detail, in Dr No Fleming allows his imagination to run riot. The book teems with exotic wildlife, some friendly, most not, and No himself is a huge, worm-like man with steel claws, whose home is a “mink-lined prison” built inside a guano-spattered mountain and extending beneath the sea.

Fleming's inspiration for Crab Key was Great Inagua, the southernmost island in the Bahamas, a harsh tropical swamp he visited as part of an expedition to count the flamingos nesting there. He was particularly taken with the Land Rover mounted with huge tyres used to ride through the swamps, and this vehicle, to which he added a flame thrower, became Dr No's “dragon”.


Goldfinger is the longest and most dense of all the 007 novels. Bond is sent to investigate the richest man in England, Auric Goldfinger, whom he discovers is smuggling gold out of the country. Goldfinger's method is ingenious; his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is made of gold. Bond finds himself working for Goldfinger in his bold attempt to steal $15 billion of gold bullion from Fort Knox. As well as weaving in the impossibly named “Pussy Galore and the Cement Mixers” - a tough lesbian gang from Harlem - Fleming manages to include two of his lifelong obsessions, gold and golf. Fleming had a gold typewriter (that he didn't use), collected gold cobs and reals, and even had a gold top made for his Bic Biro. As for golf, Fleming played almost every weekend of the year, and the three-chapter scene between Bond and Goldfinger was Fleming's homage to a place (the Royal St George's at Sandwich) and a game he loved. Bond, like Fleming, played off a handicap of nine, and his weakness - a flat swing “like a housemaid sweeping the floor” - was exactly Fleming's own.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY 1960 (subtitled Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond)

By the time Fleming wrote this collection of short stories he was beginning to tire of “Bond and blondes and bombs”, and he wanted to try something different. Though short, these stories are essentially Bond novels compressed, as is The Hildebrand Rarity, a story inspired by Fleming's trip to the Seychelles but set in familiar territory, involving a millionaire, a yacht, a girl and a fish. Here Fleming's ecological awareness of marine life is to the fore, and he writes with anger about the poisoning of an entire reef to obtain the solitary fish of the title.

The story that really departs from the formula is Quantum of Solace, which is not a secret service adventure, but an anecdote about love and emotional cruelty, set in the claustrophobic world of Caribbean expat society. The tale is told to Bond by the rather stiff British Governor of Nassau, and it is based on a true story that Fleming heard from Blanche Blackwell, his neighbour and lover in Jamaica. He gave her a slim Cartier wristwatch in return.


Like Moonraker, Thunderball began life as a film idea, with the added complication that the original was not entirely Fleming's own work, and the wrangling over Thunderball's ownership would last another 37 years. By now Fleming's 60-a-day habit and relentless drinking were having a serious effect on his health, and Bond's medical record, read out by M at the beginning of the book, is a slightly modified version of Fleming's own. Thunderball is the Bond novel that above all others takes place underwater, and again Fleming drew on real wartime exploits for inspiration, particularly the Italian Gamma Group frogmen, who, “in the greatest piece of effrontery of the underwater war”, cut a trapdoor beneath the waterline of a rusting hulk in Algeciras harbour, which they used as a secret base to raid British shipping. Thunderball also marks the first appearance of Ernst Blofeld and SPECTRE, his international criminal gang, who would become his main adversary from now on.


Here is an oddity in the Fleming canon. It is a Bond novel told from a female perspective, in the first person, by Vivienne Michel, the Bond girl. Fleming justified this unusual approach in a letter to his editor, explaining that he was “surprised” that his adult thrillers were being read in schools, and that “young people were making a hero out of James Bond”. He wanted to write a cautionary tale about 007, “from the other end of the gun barrel, so to speak”. He also claimed that this exercise in ventriloquism was the easiest book he ever wrote. It was also the shortest - which was probably just as well, given its reception. The Spy who Loved Me was a disaster. “Just one thing - you oughtna done it,” wrote one irate fan, who spoke for many: “This book does not belong in a public library any more than a packet of garbage does.” Certainly Fleming's descriptions of Vivienne's sexual awakening go farther than in any other book, but that was only part of the problem. Readers had to wait until chapter ten, two thirds of the way through, for Bond to appear.


This is a complex novel, involving two plots and the second appearance of Bond's enemy from Thunderball, Ernst Blofeld. Bond has spent the last year chasing Blofeld around the globe, and he is on the point of handing in his resignation when his nemesis turns up, posing as one “Comte de Bleuville”. Blofeld has contacted the College of Arms to authenticate his claim, and Bond follows this lead, making his way to Blofeld's Alpine hideaway in Switzerland. An unusual ending: not only does Bond marry the Bond girl, but she is then assassinated by Blofeld hours later.

As with golf and gambling, it was inevitable that at some point Fleming would draw upon his love of the Alps and use them as a backdrop for a book. Fleming had skied enthusiastically since the 1920s, and on one memorable occasion he was pursued then engulfed by an avalanche, which directly inspired Bond's own escapade in this book. The College of Arms was another closed world which, like the diamond trade, Fleming enjoyed prising open. He delighted in the serendipitous discovery that the coat of arms for the Bonds of Peckham bore the legend: “The world is not enough”.


This is the 12th and last novel Fleming managed to complete before his untimely death aged 56 in 1964, after a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. The mood is dark and claustrophobic, and in it Bond finally comes to grips with Ernst Blofeld. The beginning finds Bond depressed and withdrawn after the death of his bride, Tracy. Given Bond's mental state, M revokes his licence to kill and sends him on a mission to Japan, where he encounters a mysterious Westerner within a forbidding castle.“Dr Shatterhand” is, of course, Ernst Blofeld in disguise, and after the usual capture and torture Bond succeeds in strangling his arch- enemy. Fleming was enchanted by Japan, and travelled the length and breadth of the country to collect the raw material for this novel. He drank sake and turtle blood, composed haiku with geishas, sought out curious eastern aphrodisiacs, and had a massage from a Bridget Bardot lookalike named Kissy.


This was painful for Fleming to write, and it shows. He managed to complete the first draft months before his death in 1964, and the manuscript was then polished by Kingsley Amis and others before it was published posthumously in 1965. The story is weak, the characters sketchy, and the villain is not a brilliant megalomaniac with dark designs on the planet, but a mere three-nippled pistoleer named Scaramanga.

Apart from a few scenes, Golden Gun is an unfinished muddle, but it begins well. Bond returns to London from Vladivostock, having been brainwashed by the Russians, and his first act is to attempt to kill M. In this he fails, and after six months of “de-brainwashing”, Bond is back in Jamaica on the trail of “Pistols” Scaramanga (whose name, like Blofeld's, was inspired by a boy Fleming had disliked at Eton).

There are far more gadgets in this than in previous novels. These range from the “Fluoroscope” that takes a surreptitious X-ray of Bond as he walks down a corridor in the secret service, to 007's poison spray gun; a real assassin's tool that Fleming appropriated from Bogdan Stashinsky, a Soviet secret agent who had killed two men with it.


This is a posthumous collection of short stories in which Octopussy and The Living Daylights are the main attractions. Written in the 1950s, in Octopussy, like Quantum of Solace, Bond is merely the catalyst for a tale of deceit. He arrives unannounced at the home of Major Dexter Smythe, an overweight ex-commando officer living on the north coast of Jamaica, who spends his days paddling around the reef and feeding his “pet” octopus, Octopussy (named after Fleming's coracle).

The Living Daylights is another taut tale. Bond - the best marksman in the service - is given the unenviable task of assassinating an assassin in Berlin. Fleming had visited the city a year earlier in the company of a spy, and he was fascinated by the skulduggery employed by both sides in this divided city.

He was also pleased to discover that Russian women excelled at rifle shooting. His cello-playing assassin, the golden-haired Trigger, is recognisably Amaryllis Fleming, Ian's ebullient half-sister, a concert cellist.

1 comment:

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