After a worthwhile idea (exploring the effect on a normal person’s life when they come into contact with James Bond) that turned into the savagely crummy The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming had a lot to make up for. The trick for the author was finding something unique to do with the long-lived character of James Bond while still fulfilling the basic expectations of the Bond formula. Unfortunately for Fleming, as with many authors, musicians, and movie makers, when you strike upon a successful franchise you either make more or less the same thing over or over — variations upon a theme — and have people talk about how your work has become stale and formulaic or you make a radical change in the work and listen to people complain about how things changed and the author has turned his back on the essence of what made the series successful. After the dismal The Spy Who Loved Me, it would have been fair to write Fleming and Bond off as having dried up. No one could have expected that Fleming would bounce back with the best book in the series.
With Bond, and especially after a critical and fan misfire like The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming had to find a way to return to the formula, fulfill all the basic expectations of the Bond checklist, but still make it different enough that people wouldn’t criticize him of rehashing the same old ingredients and calling it something new. The result of Fleming’s artistic struggle with his character is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, pegged by many as the apex of the series and one of the greatest adventure thrillers of all time. I’m not one to argue. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a fabulous story, fully realizing the potential of Bond and the Bond universe in a way that Fleming had never quite achieved before, even in the best of the Bond stories prior. Fleming manages to turn over-familiarity with the Bond formula into a way to hone it to perfection, and he throws just enough of a twist in to shock and enthrall readers without alienating them the way he had with the previous novel, which was placed too far outside the scope of the established Bond universe to ever feel like anything more than a poorly written place-holder. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service operates well within the confines of the Bond universe, but it does so in a way that mines that universe for every ounce of unrealized potential. Fleming populates the book with a strong cast of supporting characters while still managing to keep Bond at the center of attention (as opposed to books like From Russia With Love, where Bond is little more than a sightseer along for the ride while interesting supporting characters become the focus of the book).
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service begins on a melancholy note, as we find Bond once again at the Casino Royale, somewhat haunted by memories of Vesper Lynd and the events that transformed him into the man we know as James Bond. When he stumbles upon a suicidal woman on the beach, it would seem that Bond’s luck with women at this particular location has run out. He manages to prevent her death, but in so doing suddenly finds himself set upon by a gang of goons who shanghai Bond and the girl and take them to meet a big time Corsican gangster by the name of Draco — who turns out to be the girl’s father. Bond instantly takes to the man despite the criminal nature of Draco’s business, most likely because Bond has never disliked a man with a “warm, dry handshake.” Draco has a proposition for Bond — become the guardian of Tracy, Draco’s troubled, out-of-control daughter. Bond suggests that maybe what she really needs is a therapist. Then he decides he could have worse times than hanging around with the gorgeous but crazy countess daughter of France’s most powerful crime boss, but romantic development is short-circuited when Bond is called in to work a new case. Or rather, to work an old case. Blofeld, the shadowy mastermind of the nefarious plot to hold the world ransom in Thunderball, has resurfaced.
Or so the Secret Service thinks. A man that might be the same Blofeld has applied to a royal genealogical society to have his family tree, and thus his counthood, verified. Bond thinks it unlikely that a villain as crafty as Blofeld would make such a move, but it turns out the allure of prestige and respect can undo even the most careful of criminal masterminds. Disguised as a representative of the genealogical society, Bond travels to Blofeld’s remote Swiss chalet, where he quickly discovers that Blofeld is up to yet another horrible plot, this one somehow involving a clinic full of hot young women and the agriculture of England.
Fleming strikes the perfect balance between action and romance this time around, and readers finally see the return of an admirable female lead that makes a good match for Bond. Although Fleming’s series has boasted a few memorable, strongly realized female characters — Gala Brandt and Tiffany Case, primarily — there were certainly far more paper-thin female characters. Fleming seemed to be on the right path again with Domino in Thunderball, then derailed things completely with the horrible character of Vivienne Michel in The Spy Who Loved Me. Tracey is a return to fine female form, possessed of all the strength and fire of Tiffany and Gala, but with an added emotional depth that sets her above the rest. With much of the story hanging on Bond finally finding “The One,” it was imperative that Fleming create a woman that would be believable as such. He gets about 90% there, which is, I think, the best we can expect from a crusty old British guy.
Romantic interludes come in between a number of action passages, written with a breathless sense of wonder and excitement that we haven’t seen from Fleming in a while. Maybe it’s the crisp Alpine air that seems to make everything that much more exhilarating. Bond gets to have a ski chase (they would become a staple of the Bond movie franchise after the adaptation of this novel), car chases, bobsled chases, and gets to go ice skating, among other things, before joint leading a commando raid on Blofeld’s compound with Draco. The action really crackles this time around, probably because it’s buoyed by a strong emotional story simmering in the background and coming to a shocking boil on the final page of the novel. Fleming has never captured this degree of emotion in any of his stories, not even in the melancholy final moments of Casino Royale.
In some ways, this is Casino Royale redux, with the benefit of years of writing experience now under Fleming’s belt. The Bond series maintained continuity fairly well throughout its run, but here we see something really come full circle in a way no one would have expected. Casino Royale is a young, brash, and emotional Bond who is gutted by the betrayal of a woman he was prepared to marry. In the next couple of books, we see what’s left of that romantic idealist vanish. Bond muses on the idea of marrying Gala Brandt, but that doesn’t work out. Ditto Tiffany Case. And by the middle of the series, Fleming doesn’t even make an effort to explain the disappearance of the woman from the last book. Bond has become the hard-lovin’ playboy. It’s fitting that his “romantic rehabilitation’ begins where it ended, at the Casino Royale. And once again, Bond has the emotional rug pulled out from under his feet, albeit in a very different fashion and with drastically different results.
A well-written Bond and Tracey are key components of the success of this novel, but it wouldn’t have gone anywhere without an equally strong villain. Fleming had been floundering for a decent villain for a while, relying largely on a cast of increasingly outrageous comic book villains until he struck gold with Emilio Largo, a villain with a believable yet still larger-than-life personality that made him every bit the match for Bond. It’s probably no accident that the book that introduces us to Largo also introduces us to Blofeld, the controller of a terrorist network known as SPECTRE. Blofeld was little more than a shady presence in Thunderball; it’s in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that he comes into his own and becomes the defining villain of the entire Bond series. He’s cunning, intelligent, cautious, just a bit mad, and has one fatal flaw (his vanity and the subsequent thirst for a royal title) that Bond is able to exploit — buy only briefly, as Blofeld is never fully convinced that bond isn’t an enemy agent. Blofeld’s scheme this time around — basically a version of biological warfare — is fairly believable and well thought-out as far as these schemes go. Although Largo will remain my favorite villain, Blofeld emerges as a strong antagonist that pushes Bond first to the limit, then sends him free-falling right over the edge.