For Your Eyes Only

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?

The first story in the anthology, “From a View to a Kill,” is a swift-moving and straight-forward story that has nothing in common with the movie by the same title other than it being set in France. When a government courier turns up dead, Bond is sent in to investigate and unearth (quite literally) a rose bush full of spies hidden in the woods. There’s nothing wrong with the story, but there’s also very little to it. It’s a pretty simple and routine case for Bond, and as such, there’s not much in the way of suspense or, frankly, reasons to read the story. It is the very definition of a time waster, but I have certainly wasted my time on worse.

The action, so to speak, continues with “For Your Eyes Only,” which is the best and worst story in the collection. Best because it presents Bond with the sort of moral dilemma and challenges we expect from the novels; and worst because it is so full of potential that it never realizes. Bond is simply not a short story character, and in no place is that more apparent than in “For Your Eyes Only.” When two friends of M are murdered in Jamaica, he asks Bond for a favor: kill the man responsible. This isn’t a government sanctioned job. It’s a vendetta. And it takes Bond out of England and drops him into the wilderness of the U.S. – Canadian border for a story that feels more like something out of a Matt Helm book. I like the change of scenery, and the moral implications of taking the job are intriguing. Unfortunately, in short story form they can’t be fully explored. The end result is a slice that reads like the synopsis of a much better novel. If you were to read any story from this book though, this would be the one I would recommend.

“Quantum of Solace” is the most pointless entry in the entire compilation. I can only assume that someone, at some point, told Ian Fleming a story about a government official with a crappy marriage, and Fleming decided to write it down and throw in a couple sentences that have Bond saying, “Do go on” so Fleming could sell it as a Bond story. While in Jamaica, Bond has dinner at the governor’s mansion, and the governor tells Bond a story about a guy. So not only is Bond not really in the story, but the guy telling the story is barely in the story. It’s really not a bad story mind you, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Bond, and forcing Bond into it quite literally as a character who does nothing more than sit on a couch and listen to another man tell a story, is a cheap way to wring a little extra money out of the name of James Bond. It’s like if Fleming had forced a the line, “As they rattled down the street in their chugging jalopy, they very nearly ran down James Bond,’ into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang then tried to market it as a James Bond novel. I really don’t need Fleming writing down the cocktail party chatter he overheard then selling it to me. As you might guess, I’m not a fan of “Quantum of Solace.” I might pull an Ian Fleming and tell the at my next cocktail party, passing it off as my own.

Bond actually returns for “Risico.” The movie For Your Eyes Only was a blend of the short story with which it shares a title and this story. “For Your Eyes Only” is definitely the better of the two, as “Risico” presents us with the one thing that can sink any thriller: a mystery or twist that is neither a mystery nor a twist. From the beginning we know exactly what to expect, and that’s exactly what Fleming delivers. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing very interesting. M sends Bond to Italy to crack a drug smuggling ring, but upon arriving Bond discovers that the man he was told is responsible for it may in fact be innocent. Like “From a View to a Kill,” this story is a time waster. It’s not so bad to read, but there’s no point, and it won’t be one you’ll remember or want to reread. It’s another story that might have been better if it had become a novel. Instead, it feels once again like we’re reading Fleming’s notes instead of a completed project.

If it’s all been a bit uneven up to this point, nothing can prepare you for the story that brings this disappointing collection to a close. I don’t know what sucker bought “A Quantum of Solace,” but an even bigger sucker must have bought “The Hildebrand Rarity,” another story which seems to be a completely different story that Fleming forced Bond into for marketing reasons. Once again, the hero of the secret service is merely a minor character, an observer. But where the story in “Quantum of Solace” was at least interesting, this story is just irritating, and I spent the entire brief read shouting at the pages in hopes that it would inspire Bond to get up off his ass and give me a reason for reading the story. He didn’t come through.

Bond joins an expedition that is sent out to locate an extremely rare fish. This brings him into contact with an obnoxious American boat captain who whips his wife with a stingray tail. One suffers through page after page of this overblown lout berating and beating the woman, hoping at the end of every sentence that the next one will herald Bond onto the scene to whup some ass. Nope. Instead, Bond shrugs it off and just hangs out in his hammock, taking absolutely no role in the action. It actually makes Bond supremely unlikable for the duration of the story, as his inaction in and flat out absence from the story means he seems like a guy who doesn’t mind an innocent woman getting whipped nearly to death by her drunken husband. It also means that we have to spend the bulk of the story with the abusive husband and his wife engaged in a supremely grating “marriage gone sour” tale. What’s worse is that the comeuppance the story eventually gets around to delivering is weak. It seems like Fleming was just rambling on for a while, repeating the same thing over and over until his deadline hit, and then he threw in an unsatisfying wrap-up out of nowhere so he could call it a day.

If Fleming was bored with Bond, there are plenty of things he could have explored that would have been worth reading; but apparently none of those occurred to him at the time he was writing any of these short stories. For Your Eyes Only is like a CD full of outtakes and demos. It certainly wouldn’t be a good spot to begin one’s education on all things James Bond, nor would it be a decent sampler of Fleming’s talents as a writer. Some men can write a short story, and some can’t. This collection of tales suggests that Fleming was firmly planted among the latter type of men. If I wanted to stretch and try to find something good to say about this collection, I’d go with the somewhat shaky assertion that they are little slices of James Bond’s life during the less spectacular times. They have the potential to flesh Bond out a little by delving into the smaller moments in his life. Unfortunately, except for the unrealized potential of “For Your Eyes Only,” there’s not much in any of the stories that would add anything to Bond’s character. If nothing else, For Your Eyes Only illustrates that you can be a Fleming fan and a Bond fan but not like everything Fleming did in the name of James Bond. Two stories with potential, one that is neither good nor bad, and two that have practically nothing to do with Bond or the Bond universe don’t make for a very satisfying read. As much as I hate to do it, I would tell most people to stay away from this collection. Savor the final page of Goldfinger, then skip directly to Thunderball without getting sidetracked by the disappointing diversion of For Your Eyes Only. If Goldfinger was Fleming surviving on decently-executed formula, then the collection of notes and literary doodles passed off as short stories in For Your Eyes Only represents something much worse: Ian Fleming floundering.