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.
You Only Live Twice ends with Bond, suffering from amnesia, somehow convincing himself that because he is haunted by a fleeting memory of something important about a place called Russia, that he needs to go to Russia. Thus delivering himself, Russia’s most wanted, directly into their hands, with all his defenses down and no knowledge of who he is or what they might do with or to him.
The Man with the Golden Gun picks up the action some time later. England has hesitantly accepted that Bond must have been killed in the climactic battle against Blofeld in Japan. At least, that’s what they think until the day Bond comes strolling into the office, wondering what the hell is going on. In short order, he finds himself in M’s office, where he promptly attempts to kill his old boss. M escapes, but the Brits soon learn that Bond has been brainwashed into thinking he is a Russian double agent. This part of the book is pretty good, but as with the last book’s “Bond is emotionally shattered by his wife’s murder” angle, Fleming doesn’t really follow through on the potential of the opener.
MI6 does a quick cost benefit analysis of trying to rehab Bond versus just killing him and decide that rehabilitation might work. It does, of course, but the Bond who emerges from the process is not the man he was before. Actually, Bond hasn’t been the man he was since the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Then, it was because he was shattered (at least for a couple of chapters) by his wife’s murder. This time, it’s because he has no confidence that he isn’t still acting under some secret Russian control, that there might not be some hidden impulse that can be triggered, resulting in Bond performing some manner of nefarious deed.As he did last time around, M thinks sending Bond on a mission will be the best way to force the man to rely on himself again. And lucky for Bond, the mission is in one of his favorite locations: Jamaica.
Bond’s target is a hotshot assassin who goes by the name Pistols Scaramanga. After tangling for so many books with villains the caliber of Largo and Blofeld, Scaramanga is a huge step down no matter how many times we’re told how dangerous he is. Fleming isn’t writing a character as cartoonish as the mobsters in Diamonds are Forever, but he’s certainly skating near that edge. Perhaps he would have benefited from being more cartoonish. Scaramanga seems like a real small-time operator, despite what the plot tries to convince us of. This is one of the rare instances where the villain in the Roger Moore movie version (which, as you might guess, bears very little resemblance to the plot of the book) is a considerable improvement over the literary counterpart. Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga was wonderful (even if the film wasn’t) — a confident, slightly cocky artist assassin with great enthusiasm for meeting Bond (whom he considers his equal and his twin in many ways) and, eventually, the same enthusiasm for pitting himself against 007. The book’s Scaramanga never achieves any of that sense of power and prestige. Instead, he seems like a low rent punk.
Pistols may be good at shooting people, but everything about this mission is way to easy to make a book out of it, which means once Fleming has gotten tired of writing about Bond having a beer, we get lots of scenes where Bond has an obvious opportunity to fulfill his assignment and kill Scaramanga, but doesn’t. Had Fleming been on his game instead of his death-bed, he could have worked this into a story about Bond’s shaken confidence in his own abilities. Instead, it’s worked in simply because Fleming had accidentally come up with a really easy assignment for Bond and had to pad the book to make it long enough to get published as anything other than what it should have been: a short story.
Needing to stretch things out, Bond ingratiates himself to the cocky young killer and gets himself hired to be part of an outfit putting together what looks to be… ho-hum. A shady hotel deal. Eventually there will be more to it than that, but for much of the book, it’s like Bond is pitting himself against pushy timeshare salesmen. Things eventually get more complicated, which means Bond gets to meet up with old pal, former CIA agent turned private security man Felix “Why didn’t I think of that, James!” Leiter, as well a romance a fairly uninteresting woman named Mary Goodnight. As far as Bond girls go, she’s pretty bland. I can’t even remember what she contributed to the story, and there’s definitely nothing she does that would make Bond fall for her, though he does because, once again, that’s what the story demanded without ever actually justifying. Certainly she’s no Tracey, no Gala, no Tiffany Case. And I guess Bond has conveniently forgotten that he has a bad-ass ninja-killing Japanese wife after his last adventure. Like the book itself, there’s nothing especially egregious about Mary. There’s nothing especially anything about her. And that goes for the book as a whole.
Had this been a book that fell somewhere in the middle of the series, I don’t think anyone would mind it. It would have been one of those “breather” books that would sometimes pop in between really good books. But as the last book, even if it wasn’t intentionally so, it’s a big fizzle. Reading this, I had an eerie sense of deja vu. It felt a lot like reading Playback, the last of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books and the one he obviously dashed off in an hour on his way to do something else he actually gave a shit about. That was a bum way to end the series, and The Man with the Golden Gun is a bum way to end Ian Fleming’s run of James Bond books — though I will say that The Man with the Golden Gun is still a damn sight better than Playback, at least.