It’s become popular in recent years for authors to write stories with the high concept of, “What if James Bond creator Ian Fleming had real-life James Bond adventures?” There have been several books published by several different authors using this as a premise, and two made-for-television movies (the most recent one airing on Sky in the UK and BBCA in the United States in February 2014). Certainly Fleming’s biography lends itself to such supposition. He was, after all, a notorious womanizer and drinker, a gadabout of the first degree from a well-heeled family that circulated in the rarefied airs of British society. And it’s true that he was a member of British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War and rightly earned a reputation for cunning and original planning (but no cunning plans as cunning as a fox that’s just been made professor of cunning at Oxford University).
Oh yeah, I forgot that I never finished reviewing all the Bond books by Ian Fleming. In a way, that in itself is a fitting review of the final of Fleming’s influential adventures starring international pop culture icon James Bond. There is nothing about The Man with the Golden Gun that I would call bad. But there sure is a lot of it — as in all of it — that I would call unmemorable. Fleming was dying (some people say he even died before he finished, and what remained was polished off by his long-time friend Kingsley Amis). He was sick of Bond. But he’d had the bad fortune of ending the previous, and one of the best, Bond books on a cliffhanger, as he had taken to doing with most of the stories once he realized this was going to be his career. Well, this, and spokesman for cigarette holders.
After the critical and popular misfire of The Spy Who Loved Me — A literary experiment that was noble in intention but fell apart in execution — the pressure was on Ian Fleming to deliver a top notch Bond adventure to make up for things. At the same time, it’s obvious that Fleming was beyond the point of wanting to crank out another by the numbers book. He was going to have to find a way to work within the expectations people had of what a James Bond book would deliver to them, but find ways to tweak and alter the formula where he could. The result was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by many — if not, indeed, most — people as the finest Bond adventure Fleming ever wrote. For most of its pages, it is an exceptionally well executed but formulaic Bond adventure. The twist comes near the end, which leaves Bond an emotionally shattered man, cradling the body of his dead wife.
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.
I hope whatever good will was generated for you (provided you liked the book as much as I did) by Thunderball is still fresh in your memory, because you’re going to need to lean heavily upon it if you ever want to make it to the end of Fleming’s next Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s tempting to just skip this one entirely and move immediately on to the next book, so bad is The Spy Who Loved Me and so well documented is the near universal dislike for the book from fans, critics, and Ian Fleming himself. At this point it seems like adding my opinion is just gratuitous piling on, because I’m not going to have all that much to say that’s different from what has previously been written about this book. If I’d read the book and found it to be the “best of the series,” then at least I’d have a more unique position which I could defend.
OK, now this is more like it. After muddling through a series of unsatisfying short stories — some of which were frustrating because they contained the unrealized kernel of a great story, others because they had next to nothing to do with James Bond — Ian Fleming returns to familiar territory with one of my favorite books in the entire series. Thunderball combines the breakneck action of Doctor No with the breezy travelogue spirit of Diamonds are Forever as Fleming proves once again that he is at the time of his game whenever he’s writing a Bond story set in the Caribbean. Thunderball also marks a major development in the series in that it features the debut of the shadowy international criminal organization SPECTRE and its mysterious mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Goldfinger was a decent enough adventure for James Bond, but it also smacked of “going through the motions” and relying on remixing ingredients from previous novels: the card cheat angle from Moonraker, the SMERSH funding angle from Live and Let Die, and a couple other things here and there. The next book in the series is a break from the full-length novels. For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories of wildly varying tone and quality that possess ample ability to entertain yet do almost nothing to advance the world of James Bond. In fact, he’s hardly even in a couple of the stories. Nothing here fits into the larger Bond continuity as established by the novels (this disposability would not hold true for the second collection of short stories), and nothing stands out as spectacular. Still, if you are a Fleming completist you’re going to read this collection anyway, so let’s dig into it shall we?