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.
But I don’t hold that position, and so I fall in line with everyone else who writes this off as, “the absolute worst in the Bond series,” a title it holds without any competition. Not even “The Hildbrant Rarity” can touch The Spy Who Loved Me in terms of sheer awfulness. Cataloging the sundry things wrong with this book is a bit of a chore, if for no other reason than it means one must go back and revisit so many unpleasant literary memories. I’ll do my best, but you can probably rest assured that for every negative comment I make about Fleming’s infamous misfire, there’s several more I have neglected to make.
The most obvious of course is that Fleming chooses to write the book from the first-person viewpoint of a twenty-three year old woman. The Spy Who Loved Me was published in 1962. Fleming was, what? Fifty-five? Fifty-six? Give or take a year, but try to imagine a fifty-five year old British man — who also happens to be Ian Fleming, with his own peculiar ideas regarding women — trying to write in the voice of a twenty-three year old girl. It is pulled off about as successfully as you might imagine. Having her refer to recognizing the smell of cordite is just the tip of the iceberg — how many proper British schoolgirls know what cordite is, let alone recognize the smell? I understand, as an artist and fellow writer, that by this point in the series Fleming must have been crawling the walls wanting to try something different. As a reader, I don’t mind and even prefer another well-executed example of the tried and true Bond formula, but as a writer, Fleming must have been terribly bored with James Bond. So he wanted to take a different approach to the same material. Unfortunately, he chose one that was ridiculously outside the scope of his abilities.
The result is a train wreck of a book told from the viewpoint of Vivienne Michel, on the run from her past and seemingly stranded in upstate New York at a motel besieged by a couple rough looking thugs in the middle of a dark and stormy night. The character and even the situation is not without potential, but that’s assuming much of the book deals with this scenario. Instead, we’re treated to exceptionally lengthy and mind-numbingly boring flashbacks that explain how Viv ended up at the motel. And these flashbacks don’t include a run-in with spies or anything. The closest she comes to a fugitive lifestyle is getting busted with her boyfriend fooling around in a movie theater. Her back story is a series of seemingly endless, poorly written, totally generic teen romance encounters, and the dark past that leads her to America and upstate New York ends up being nothing more than, “I got pregnant and had to take off.” Words fail me. I really don’t know how to convey just how profoundly painful it is to read some eighty or so pages of Ian Fleming trying to write turgid teen romance from the viewpoint of a young woman. At some point though, it stops being painful and you just sort of feel sorry for Ian Fleming. He would have gotten better results if he’d just stolen the diary of an actual teenage girl and copied it verbatim.
When the two goons show up to threaten Viv, it’s as much a relief for us as it is a terror for her — at least until Fleming gets going again, and you realize that he writes American toughs with all the aplomb he shows for writing twenty-something girls. Both the thugs — Horror and Sluggsy — were meant to be plucked straight from the pages of old American pulp stories, and while he gets it right to a degree, Fleming still can’t help but end up with a couple American street hoods who sound British and come across about as tough as two members of Eric Von Zipper’s motorcycle gang. Viv’s torment at the hands of Horror and Sluggsy goes on for another twenty pages or so, and it’s mostly just the three of them sitting around in the motel lobby swapping dull barbs. From time to time she’ll throw something at them, but as this nonsense drags on and as you notice that you are fast running out of pages in the book, you might start to wonder where the hell James Bond is. When he does show up, we can share a sigh of relief with Viv in hopes that the story will pick up somewhat now that our man Bond is in the picture. It does to some degree, but it’s a case of drastically too little way too late, culminating in a gun battle as Sluggsy and Horror try to burn down the motel.
The question most people ask as they read this horrible misfire of a novel is, “What the hell was Ian Fleming thinking?” Well, apparently he was thinking that he would write a book that answered much of the criticism aimed at his previous books pertaining to the level of salaciousness and moral degeneracy they promoted on every page. So Fleming hatched the bright idea to write a book not about James Bond, but about a regular person who’s life happens to intersect with James Bond’s, so that the encounter may serve as a cautionary tale about romanticizing the type of man James Bond is (a point which is actually spelled out in excruciating detail by one of the cops who shows up to survey the aftermath of James’ night at the motel). The problems with Fleming’s goal are plentiful. First, who cares about the moral watchdogs? Fleming had come this far with books full of gratuitous sex and violence. Why, all of a sudden, did he feel like he needed to demure to the critics who had been calling for his head since the first book? Second, Fleming’s cautionary tales reeks with disingenuousness. At no point do you ever get the feeling that he believes in the least any of the warnings he purports to be issuing to the younger generation. He’s like a pornographer who ends ninety minutes of debauchery and indulgence with a postscript saying, “But in the end they were all very unhappy and died of diseases, so don’t be like them.” There’s not an honest sentiment in the whole book. And anyway, the last person I need lessons in morality from is Ian Fleming.
Fleming’s personal prose style struggles with the confines into which he tries to force it, and the end result is neither fish nor fowl, and instead ends up a half-assed version of Fleming’s prose mixed with a half-assed attempt to write within the limitations of a shallow twenty-three year old female character. There are moments, such as the description of menacing trees during the storm, when Fleming becomes recognizable, but those are few and far between and hardly recompense enough for the rest of the drivel we must endure. I believe The Spy Who Loved Me also contains Fleming’s most infamous idiotic claim — that “all women like to be semi-raped at some point in their life” — which sounds all the more idiotic coming from the lips of a young woman. That’s Fleming, guardian of the public morality.
What’s most frustrating about this book isn’t just that it’s bad, or even that it’s boring (it is both of these things in great quantity, though); it’s that, as with the short stories in For Your Eyes Only, there is a good idea lost amid the awful writing. The idea of examining the life of a normal person, someone to whom the readers could easily relate and whom they would easily recognize as being like them, and how that life is altered by a chance encounter with James Bond, is an intriguing one. Fleming never delivers on that promise. Instead, we get 2/3 of a book that is tedious teen romance, and a final third that is James Bond dashing about in his jim-jams trying to shoot some guy. The professed goal of highlighting how Bond can alter a normal person’s life remains almost totally unexplored — we have no idea what becomes of Viv after that night, and she hardly seems convinced by the “lesson” she has learned. More than, “Dangerous men destroy lives,” Fleming seems to be saying, “it’s pretty cool.”
I don’t like being totally negative, though, and I really don’t like saying you should give something a pass. Thing is, you could skip reading The Spy Who Loved Me and suffer nary a setback to further exploration of the Bond series. In fact, considering what a huge setback The Spy Who Loved Me itself is to the series, perhaps you would be best skipping it (Fleming recovers spectacularly in time for the next book). But if, like me, you are a completist, then you are going to read it, perhaps even try to finish it, no matter how awful it is. And while I know defenders of this book are few and far between, they do exist, so perhaps you should turn to them, wherever they may be, for a second opinion. In an attempt to leave you with at least some sort of positive comment about this thoroughly unenjoyable book, I will point out the two good things in The Spy Who Loved Me, one from me, the other from my friend Ami who read it along with me.
For me, it made me appreciate the short-stories in For Your Eyes Only a lot more.
For Ami? “Well, at least James Bond saves the Vespa.”