When last we saw James Bond, in 1984’s Role of Honour, we did not part on good terms. It was an awful book in my opinion, with clumsy romance and a tremendously dull plot full of James Bond flipping through manuals about the COBOL programming language before finally ending in an idiotic blimp finale, the culmination of a plot that could have easily been foiled a dozen times before it ever got off the ground. That aspect of the storytelling — a central plot that could easily been defeated with minimal risk in the early chapters of the book but is allowed to continue because “foiling it now is exactly what they’d expect us to do!” — will typify the next couple 007 adventures, although for the most part, they are more enjoyably dumb than tediously dumb.
Over on Bond Vivant, I’m writing about The Alexander, a cocktail used as a signal between 007 and his contact in the short story Risico. I write about its origin at the bawdy early 20th century lobster palace Rector’s and the fact that the drink was adored by the only villains James Bond hated more than SPECTRE.
Owing to his tendency to wear bland trousers, a bland blazer, and a bland, too-billowy white shirt with no tie, I have often referred to Timothy Dalton’s two turns as James Bond as “the Casual Friday Bond.” Because Roger Moore explored the questionable sartorial indulgences of the 1970s, he is often cited as one of the worst-dressed Bonds, but at least his safari suits and flairs had a certain memorable boldness to them which, if not the equal of Connery’s timeless style, at least stood out from the crowd without looking like a clown (relative to the style around him). Dalton’s Bond — as well as Brosnan’s — commits the sin of being terribly, terribly boring in his dress. I would not have wanted James Bond to indulge the extremes of 80s fashion — no one needs James Bond to don a pastel t-shirt and parachute pants — but I do want him to look like something other than a mid-level bank manager on casual Friday.
In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. It was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels before the rose-tinting set in after his death), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis writing down. So on and so forth. Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name — Robert Markham — never came to fruition.
When Ian Fleming passed away in August of 1964 after suffering a heart attack, his reported final words — said to the crew of the ambulance that was rushing him to the hospital — were “I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.” His untimely passing left in doubt the future of his most enduring creation: James Bond. While the movies had taken on a life of their own, the novels were very much of Ian Fleming, and without him, it didn’t seem like there was any way they would continue. His final book in the series, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published posthumously and against Fleming’s desire. He had just finished the first draft before his death, and he felt the entire thing was rather a mess and wanted to redo it. His publisher, perhaps feeling that any Bond was bankable Bond, insisted that the book was perfectly fine.
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.