The Spy Who Didn't Suck
Sometimes you need a hero. But most of the time, the world needs an old school, cold-blooded son-of-a-bitch.
I rediscovered some great thrillers this month, quite by accident. I had to get out of town after driving myself crazy for a few weeks and found myself driving full throttle to the airport, not really sure where I was going. Summers are usually full of Bad Weirdness but this one seems to be shaping up to be worse than usual. Someone once told me there are no problems so big that you can’t run away from them. So I did.
It’s wrong, though, to hit an airport without an airport novel, one of those well-thumbed paperbacks bankrupt of literary merit. As I settled onto a redeye flight, I pulled out the battered book I’d absentmindedly grabbed as I left the house.
It’s Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. The first Bond book, written before 007 and James Bond became the shot heard ‘round the world. I’ve written about spy novels before but delving into 007 seemed like a decent antidote to my recent drought of great, grungy thrillers.
I have an ongoing argument with my younger brother and our positions are fiercely defended along generational lines. I think Will Ferrell is a cancer on modern entertainment. Brother of mine thinks he’s a comic genius. And so it goes. His less-than-elegant argument on this particular dispute goes like this:
“Dude, James Bond sucks.”
That’s the short version. The general feeling, especially among those for whom Bond is a purely cinematic creation represented only by Sean Connery’s mushy delivery, is that 007 is an anachronism, a fleeting souvenir of the long-dead Cold War. With his penchant for multiple vices and an almost preening arrogance, it’s difficult to take Bond seriously in an age when magazine-wielding robots like Jason Bourne are kicking ass across a gritty European landscape far different than the sun-kissed scenes in Cubby Broccoli’s movies.
So it was an odd thing to rediscover the world’s most famous spy as a literary entity, spun from thin cloth by Ian Fleming and the other writers lucky enough to take a shot at him. Reading his debut, it was fascinating to remember what a bastard Fleming’s Bond really is. He’s a cold enough fish in the opening chapters of Casino Royale, reeking of smoke and vodka, his dead eyes scanning the baccarat tables. He’s even more brutal on the final page, reporting on the death of Vesper Lynd: “Yes, dammit, I said ‘was.’ The bitch is dead now.” I’m happy to give Sony my money if they make Daniel Craig deliver that line, but I doubt the post-modern world is ready for it.
We’re so used to the tamed down film versions that it’s hard to recall that Fleming, who had a fairly black background in intelligence from his WWII work in the Royal Navy, created the character in 1953. Enjoying Bond is like enjoying Sinatra; your toes might tap but in the back of your mind you realize someone, somewhere, is going to get their legs broken. Fleming himself called Bond “a healthy, violent, non-cerebral man in his middle thirties. I wouldn’t say he was typical of our times, but he is certainly of the times.”
Bond had other roles in the post-WWII world. For many readers, particularly in an economically poor Europe, the travel inherent in 007’s globe-hopping adventures was fascinating. In America, the character became something of a role model for the modern man. Outside of the movies, Fleming’s biggest boost came straight from the White House. John Kennedy, then a young senator, was laid up with a cold in 1957. He called his friend Marion Leiter, whose husband had provided the name for Bond’s fictional CIA counterpart Felix Leiter, and asked for something to read. The future president became a die-hard fan then and there, inspiring his countrymen to do the same.
The early books, especially From Russia With Love and Diamonds Are Forever, are terrific reads even today. Sure there are some missteps – Live and Let Die is flat-out weird, relying entirely too much to Fleming’s interest in voodoo, and the entire Blofeld trilogy that starts with Thunderball is almost unreadable post-Austin Powers -- but there are frequent moments of inspiration. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, translated terribly on film, makes the inspired move of giving Bond a real lover, even a wife, before killing her off. In some alternate version of You Only Live Twice, Fleming supposedly considering finishing off his now-fractured spy. But then we wouldn’t have the outstanding beginning of The Man With the Golden Gun, the final book, where a brainwashed Bond tries to whack M with a cyanide pistol.
Seventy cigarettes and a bottle of gin a day's work for Bond. They didn’t work for Fleming, who died of a heart attack in Canterbury at the age of 56. Unfortunately, the post-Fleming Bond novels are an even more mixed bag than the canonical series. I have a beaten 1968 British copy of Colonel Sun by Robert Markham, a pseudonym for the English novelist Kingsley Amis, who’s widely rumored to have finished The Man With the Golden Gun after Fleming’s death. His book is ripe for film, taking Bond from Greece to the Middle East, where his task is to thwart a Chinese agent’s plan to sabotage a peace conference.
There’s even a “lost” book, which fits nicely into my fascination with missing, mythical novels.Per Fine Ounce is an unpublished book completed in 1966 by Geoffrey Jenkins, working from a plot that Fleming had originated around 1957. There’s a copy in the archives of Ian Fleming Publications but whether it will ever see the light of day is anybody’s guess. There’s also a mysterious, probably illegal 1986 entry called The Killing Zone, which is available in its entirety online. It was written by an otherwise unknown writer named Jim Hatfield, who died of a drug overdose in 2001 and, er, “borrows” heavily from John Gardner, the next official writer of Bond’s adventures.
The Gardner books made a valiant attempt to update Bond for the new world in the 1980s, and they’re not bad but they’re not truly inspiring either. They merge Gardner’s old-school, Le Carre-esque thinking with lots of gadgets and explosions obviously encouraged by the films. On the bright side, there are 14 of the shiny books starting with License Renewed, so they take nearly as long to finish as the Fleming series.
Raymond Benson, a writer with exhaustive Bond trivia at hand, took over the series in 1997, dropping Gardner’s contributions entirely. Apart from the author’s slight Americanization of Bond, they’re certainly a decent set of airplane novels and finally do take Bond out of the Cold War, pitting him against a terrorist organization called “The Union,” and putting him into more unusual locations, like the mountaintop threats of High Time To Kill. Unfortunately, Benson dropped the series entirely in 2002 only to show up soon after with a pair of mediocre Splinter Cell novels, based on a videogame spy that bears some resemblance to 007.
It seems like Ian Fleming Publications is understandably touchy about the franchise but they’ve been doing it justice, in an odd way. When I was asked to review Silverfin, billed as a “Young Bond” novel, I was quite prepared to rake it over the coals. Blame its author, British comedy writer Charlie Higson, for my surprise. It turned out that while retooling James for the Harry Potter set might be nefarious in a corporate sense, the literary results are actually very readable. Higson places the orphaned Bond at the exclusive British prep school Eton and largely succeeds, creating a strange mix of 007 mythology and a quaint Hardy Boys flavor. The second in the series, Blood Fever, came out just last month in the States.
Still starved for all things Bond? Try the espionage novels by Quinn Fawcett (in reality written by two writers, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett) that imagine Ian Fleming still performing “wet work” in the early 1950s, based from the Jamacian retreat he called Goldeneye. Titles include Death to Spies and Honor Among Spies. It’s certainly a different slice of the spy life, but one authorized series is The Moneypenney Diaries, a planned trilogy of novels that postulate the private life of M’s secretary, written by Samantha Weinberg under a pseudonym, Kate Westbrook. The first two, Guardian Angel and the wordy Intended For Her Eyes Only, are out already in the UK; a new book, Secret Servant is expected in November. If you keep your eyes open, you can also sometimes find a used copy of James Bond: The Authorized Biography by John Pearson, an odd little life story that proposes that Bond was a real person.
Hell, I even like the unauthorized parody novels by Mabel Maney -- Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy and The Girl With the Golden Bouffant. When James has a breakdown, the secret service has to call in his lesbian twin sister, Jane Bond, to impersonate him. While they don’t reach the dizzying comedic heights of Austin Powers, they’re good fun, anyway.
The estate has reportedly authorized a new Bond book to celebrate Fleming’s 100th birthday in 2008. It should be interesting to see who they pick as the scribe, especially in the wake of Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale. They say the book, composed by a pro, will mark a return to the dark, complex character of the early novels.
Maybe James Bond does still matter. Like Superman or Robin Hood, James Bond potentially means something to everybody but he’s a different breed, too. How often do we root for a killer, anyway? Let’s see if there’s any life left in the old man before we bury him.
“I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.” - Ian Fleming