Casino Royale, the story of high-stakes, espionage-infused gambling that introduced the world to James Bond. Fearing that the book might not be a success, Fleming’s friends urged him to begin work on a second novel even before the verdict came back on his first, figuring that after two novels, you’re in the professional writing groove, where as waiting around to have your first novel fail is going to take you out of the game pretty quickly. Fleming and his chums needn’t have worried. Casino Royale did quite well, but the follow-up, the voodoo-tinged spy thriller Live and Let Die, did even better, and was a much better book to boot.
By Moonraker, the third of Fleming’s books detailing the adventures of commander James Bond, he’d really hit his stride. His prose his sharp, his characters well-drawn, and the pace is breathtaking. Fleming continues to explore his main character while, at the same, time forging to of the literary series’ most memorable supporting characters: larger-than-life Hugo Drax and the sharp, capable police woman Gala Brand. This is also the book that gives fans of the movies something they never got from any of the cinematic incarnations of Bond: a look into his daily routine. Based solely on the films, you’d think Bond was forever on flashy, dangerous assignments, a man with no home and no break from his routine of espionage and globe-trotting adventure.
Moonraker, however, opens with Bond dealing with the mundane daily tasks of his job. We find out that he’s really only on book-worthy assignments a few times a year, and the bulk of his time is occupied with reading through dossiers and doing paperwork. Ha! I knew it! Of course, it takes a very clever movie to deal with this reality of the spying game and still make it interesting. Watching your lead character fill out forms and file paperwork isn’t normally thrilling cinema, even if that’s the reality behind much of what goes on. It’s much more fun to watch Sean Connery get a fat man sucked through the window of an airplane, and so far only the Ipcress File starring Michael Caine and produced by Bond producer Harry Saltzman has managed to make the mind-numbing tedium of spying as a day job seem interesting to watch. Saltzman originally made that movie, or so I hear, to give audiences a more down-to-earth version of secret service work than he was dishing out in his Bond films, where he was constantly calling for giant things to explode or that elephants stampede through downtown Bangkok, or whatever crazy idea he’d dreamt up at the time to cause his co-producer, Albert Broccoli, headaches. Although The Ipcress File is adapted from the Harry Palmer stories by Len Deighton, I can’t help but wonder if Fleming’s exploration of Bond’s non-adventure daily routine in Moonraker might have had some influence as well.
We also get a chance to see Bond’s home, which I’m sure wasn’t a big deal at the time, but again, coming from a background in which I was (and still am) more familiar with the movies than the books, it’s novel to glimpse Bond just sitting around at home — or to even hear that he has a home. Now if we can just get a passage where he has to go grocery shopping or cook himself up some beans, he’ll be just as homey as Harry Palmer.
Naturally, these quaint moments of “just another day at the offices of MI6” don’t last long. Bond is soon called in to M’s office for, he soon discovers, a purely personal matter (or so it seems until the very end of the book): M is a member of an exclusive gentleman’s club, back when those were clubs for gentlemen to sit around, smoke, drink, and play cards I a dignified and classy fashion, rather than what they are today, which is a place where loud-mouthed yuppies and arrogant investment bankers go to buy overpriced champagne and look at silicone boobs. I have no problem with nudity, but I can always do without loud-mouthed yuppies and arrogant investment bankers (non-arrogant investment bankers, I assume, will mostly help me plan for the future, which isn’t bad). Also boasting membership at the club, called Blades, is one Sir Hugo Drax, a recent British media darling who is spearheading the Moonraker program that will give England its first long-range missile defense system. Little is known about Drax. He was wounded in the war and suffered amnesia, but eventually managed to rejoin society and make millions by investing in rare metals. Despite his position of respect, however, he is also loud-mouthed and arrogant — so hey I guess those guys have always been in gentlemen’s clubs. And he cheats at cards.
This is what’s causing M some problems. Why would such a wealthy and respected businessman, the hero of England, do something as silly as cheat at cards? M asks Bond, the secret service’s best gambler remember, to help him put an end to Drax’s cheating without actually making it known that Drax is a cheat. They want to avoid besmirching England’s valiant protector, after all, since the Moonraker program is of paramount importance to everyone. Another of Moonraker’s wonderful traits is that M plays a much larger role in the action than simply being “the man behind the desk.” In this, he’s also “the man behind the bridge table” and “the man behind the dinner table” and I think he sits behind a few other surfaces as well. Much is made out of the fact that the Fleming books present a more believable and human Bond. In one sense, this is misleading. I don’t find the character of James Bond himself to be too terribly different than the Bond we’re familiarized with through the portrayals by Sean Connery and George Lazenby (and to some degree Timothy Dalton, though he was too stiff for my taste). Granted there’s very little of the Roger Moore Bond in the books (save perhaps for some of Moore’s work in the film version of Live and let Die — and don’t mistake me. Moore is the Bond with whom I grew up, and though I prefer Connery, I love many of the Moore films and really found his performances to be entertaining, campy though they were), but for the most part, Connery catches the hard-edge and wit and while Lazenby and Dalton both captured some of the underlying pathos and loneliness.
Where the books succeed at creating a more human Bond is in their effectiveness at creating a more human world for him to inhabit. Rather than a jet-setting superman with no home and nary a dull moment, the books give us a Bond who sits around at home and does paperwork at the office. And it gives us supporting characters that actually play roles beyond those prescribed by their jobs. M does more than sit behind a desk and dole out assignments, and these are the touches, the attention to supporting detail, that make the books “more human” in my opinion.
Three books in, and readers will be aware of the fact that Fleming enjoys spending several pages expounding on weird bits of esoterica. Some of it may be things with which he’s been familiar with for years; others may be recently learned things that he found so intriguing that he decided to throw them into the book. In Casino Royale, he goes on for pages about everything from the finer points of baccarat to a detailed analysis of Bond’s roulette system. In Live and Let Die he indulges in lengthy descriptions of voodoo’s history and rituals. For Moonraker he’s back to rambling on about gambling, and Moonraker may represent the first and possibly only instance in literature that can boast a truly gripping bridge-playing scene.
Now like many people, I know bridge primarily as the game my grandmother and her friends used to play when they got tired of playing bunko (don’t know if Bond has ever engaged in a showdown with a crafty enemy agent over a thrilling game of bunko). It’s not really, in my mind, fodder for an interesting couple of chapters. But Fleming — and this is a testament to how far along his writing had come by Moonraker — not only makes it interesting, but also makes it one of the tensest showdowns in the whole book — even better than Bond’s baccarat duel against Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, just as Fleming’s exploration of the minutiae of the game is presented in a more engaging fashion than his ruminations on gambling from the first book, which often came across as a little long-winded and textbookish. Casino Royale makes you want to go out and play a high-stakes game of baccarat or roulette, but that’s not so impressive, because those games have always seemed cool. That Moonraker can make me forget my grandmother and her friends and think to myself, “Yeah, I should learn to play a little bridge,” is really something else. Too bad Fleming wasn’t as charitable with shuffleboard in Live and Let Die.
Predictably, though still exciting, Bond bests Drax at the table and send the message that the outlandish character best retire from the practice of scamming his fellow Blades members. But this hardly ends his involvement with Drax. When a murder-suicide results in the death of the head of security for the Moonraker project, Bond is called in to replace him, and along with undercover policewoman Gala Brand, Bond must unravel a conspiracy to sabotage the Moonraker program, which is staffed largely by German rocket scientists with funny moustaches. Or so the case first appears. That the entire story is set in England is another unique aspect of the book — Fleming points out that, like the American CIA, Bond’s organization is not sanctioned to operate on their home soil. That he is given special permission to operate in England is a sign of the Moonraker program’s importance.
Knowing what we do with hindsight, of course, the twist that reveals more about Drax isn’t much a surprise, but that doesn’t hinder the book in any way. Ian Fleming has crafted a nearly flawless adventure here. Drax is cartoonish but not so over-the-top that he becomes difficult to swallow. Bond is in top form. Sure, he gets tricked, and he gets tied to a chair, and a cliff falls on him, but that’s just par for the course. Bond has been tied to a chair in every book so far. I think he might have been tied to a chair on four or five separate occasions in Live and Let Die alone. But his character is really coming along well in this book. And Gala Brand is one of the best female characters in any of the books. She defers to Bond eventually, needless to say, but she’s also written very smart, brave, and competent. She’s the one that discovers the true purpose of the Moonraker project and the true nature of Drax’s character. And when Bond figures that he’s going to have to blow himself up to save England, Gala’s the one who comes up with the better plan. And perhaps most delicious of all, she represents the one who gets away. Bond gets a kiss from her, but that’s it, much to his disappointment on a final page that, without being at all obvious about it, does a lot to highlight the cord of loneliness and melancholy that runs beneath Bond’s bravado and playboy visage and keeps him firmly attached to the classic noir literature protagonists who were Fleming’s inspiration.
But my favorite part of the whole book — and in case it’s not clear, I absolutely loved this book — comes during the final meeting between Bond and M, in which Bond reflects on the bizarre series of circumstances that lead to his becoming involved with stopping Drax and saving London. Fleming handles this bit wonderfully. Of course, tremendously fortuitous coincidences and strokes of luck are the stock and trade of Bond, and we simply role with them because what they lead to is usually so much fun. But in a few paragraphs of thought, and without ever stating it outright, Fleming leads Bond and the reader to think that maybe M was interested in more than convincing Drax to stop cheating at cards, that perhaps he already harbored suspicions that Drax was up to something, and that it was Drax, not unknown saboteurs, who posed the real threat to England. And, as I said, Fleming communicates this all with wonderful subtlety, and without ever stating it outright. It’s one more example of the attention he’s giving to supporting characters, but it’s also a testament to how clever and sharp his writing has become by Moonraker.