The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index
2013 An Officer and a Spy

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming (1964)

This is a strange and eerie tale about a ‘Garden of Death’ in remote and exotic Japan, so I liked it more than the straightforward adventure yarn of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, set in France and Switzerland.

As often, Fleming uses a simple but attractive structure for his tale, in this case dividing it into two parts: 1. ‘It is better to travel hopefully…’ 2. ‘… than to arrive.’

Plot summary

If Bond was hacked off in OHMSS (which began with him composing a letter of resignation from the Service), in this one he has lost all interest in not just his job, but life itself. Eight months have passed (p.24) since his wife, Tracy, was shot dead just hours after their marriage, by the dastardly Blofeld, and Bond has gone to pieces. He’s drinking heavily, not sleeping, missing appointments (to the anguished concern of his secretary, Mary Goodnight, and M’s PA, Miss Moneypenny). Bond has (not very believably) been sent on two missions during this period, both of which he’s ballsed up (p.22). Again he says he wants to resign (p.29).

M calls in the latest of umpteen nerve specialists, Sir James Molony (p.20) who says Bond needs to be shocked out of his gloom with a good tough mission, just like the last war forced so many people to stop dwelling on themselves and pitched them into challenging situations, which ‘cured’ them.

Cue M calling Bond in and giving him a rather peculiar mission. Turns out the Japanese secret service have been cracking Russian codes in the East (‘from Vladivostok and Oriental Russia’, p.30) and deciphering vital information about nuclear weapons testing, giving the system the codename MAGIC 44 (p.49). But they only share it with the CIA, not us. Bond’s mission is simple: go meet the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, and do whatever it takes to persuade him to secretly share their deciphered information with us (behind the backs of the CIA; maybe not that difficult as Tanaka is given a page-long speech expressing his dislike of American ‘culture’ and its revoltingly decadent exports, p.59).

Tanaka is a hard man. He gained a First in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics) at Trinity College, Oxford, before the war – and so has a veneer of Western manners – but returned to Japan to join the military, becoming a member of the Kempeitai (‘their wartime Gestapo’), rising to be personal aide to Admiral Ohnishi before training as a a kami-kaze in the closing stages of the war, only saved by the abrupt nuclear end to the war from flying his plane into an American battleship (p.15). Now he has risen to the top of his country’s secret service, the Koan-Chosa-Kyoku and is a canny, sly, ironic operator.

Rather oddly, Bond will be posing as a member of the Australian secret services, under the guidance of the loud, drunk, profane head of Australia’s station in Japan, one Richard ‘Dikko’ Henderson. (‘Henderson looked like a middle-aged prize fighter who has retired and taken to the bottle’, p.37). This leads to a sequence of hard drinking nights in geisha bars, and a lot of background briefing on Japanese culture, politics and society, all presented as drunken rants by the colourful Dikko.

(At one point he makes a typically tipsy and grandiose reference to ‘brother Hemingway’, p.43 – the only use of the ‘brother X’ formula in all the Bond books – and I immediately thought of John le Carré, many of whose self-mythologising, grand-standing characters refer to others in their little circles as ‘brother’ this or that. Also, the hard-drinking, swearing, boorish ex-pat culture which Dikko represents reminded me of The Honourable Schoolboy, the overblown middle novel of le Carré’s ‘Karla’ trilogy, set among Hong Kong’s hard-drinking, boorish, ex-pat community.)

As so often, Fleming uses flashbacks to depict the various scenes outlined above and to give selected highlights of the month or so Bond has spent in Japan, steadily getting to like and respect Tanaka, which are all told from the position of the ‘now’ when the story proper begins.

‘Now’ is a lengthy sake-fuelled session lasting into the early hours, during which Tanaka finally states the terms of his deal. First a little background: He and his superiors have been dismayed by Britain’s decline and fall, by the speed with which she lost an empire and divested herself of her colonies, and then appalled at the fiasco of the Suez Crisis (1956). The long, apparently rambling conversation then wanders round to Japanese national characteristics and to the national fondness for suicide as an ‘honourable’ way out of various problems and of gaining face with family and ancestors. (Some 25,000 Japanese commit suicide every year and Tanaka is lavish in his praise of the rituals of seppuku, pp.70-73 [the current annual rate is 30,000, according to Wikipedia]).

In fact, Tanaka, goes on to explain, over the past year a strange sequence of events has occurred. Nearly a year ago a foreign scientist – Dr Guntram Shatterhand – and his wife, Frau Emmy (p.61) came to Japan, toured the country, then bought a derelict castle in the southern island of Kyūshū. From here they have imported every form of poisonous plant, tree, fish and insect known to man (spiders, scorpions etc) to create a ‘Garden of Death’. They gained permission from the Japanese authorities after promising to ultimately leave the garden to Japanese botanists, as well as to make available various rare poisons which Japanese scientists could use to experiment with cures and serums. (Fleming gives a four-page list of the poisonous species of tree, shrub and bush in the Garden, complete with Latin names and precise properties – pp.66-69).

But news of this intense ‘Garden of Death’ has leaked out to the general Japanese population with the result that depressed, unhappy, shamed or humiliated Japanese have been making their way there to kill themselves – to break into the ‘Garden of Death’, assured of being stung, bitten, grazed, poisoned or infected by any of the poisonous life forms in it. In the past year no fewer than 500 (!) Japanese have died in the Garden, despite Dr Shatterhand’s best attempts to put up security fences, employ security guards from Japan’s notorious Black Dragon Society (p.64), and so on.

The deal

‘So, Bond-san,’ Tanaka says. ‘My government is willing to share the secret Russian information we are intercepting – on condition you show your country still has pride, still has valour and that you enter the Garden of Death, uncover its secrets, render it harmless.’ In other words, kill Dr Shatterhand. No Japanese could do it, because the government would lose face if it failed. If Bond is caught or exposed, the government can claim he was a foreign agent (which he is).

Kill Dr Shatterhand and you get the secret information. Then Tanaka shows Bond photos and maps of Shatterhand’s hide-out on a remote coastal promontory, along with photos of the man himself and his wife. Bond is electrified: it is Blofeld, the wicked evil Blofeld who planned to detonate atom bombs in America in Thunderball and to decimate British agriculture in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and who, along with his squat ugly accomplice, Irma Bunt, shot dead Bond’s newly-wed wife, Tracy on the last page of the previous novel.

Bond had been hesitating before, about the propriety of assassinating a foreign national on foreign soil. Now his heart is set. Now it is personal. It is going to be revenge, pure and simple (p.115).

Turning Japanese

You Only Live Twice often reads like Fleming swallowed a guide book on Japan whole. There’s a friendly amount of cultural background on Jamaica, whenever Bond goes there; Fleming provides 2 or 3 page backgrounders to Saratoga races or Harlem or Las Vegas when Bond visits them in the States; half of From Russia With Love is set in Turkey which gives Fleming plenty of opportunity to describe Istanbul, Turkish food, customs and people: but none of the previous books has been so saturated with local colour as You Only Live Twice, which offers up guidebook facts and schoolboy explanations of Japanese history, customs and language on every page. Among many other things, we learn that:

  • samisen is a three-stringed musical instrument played at geisha parties
  • sake is Japan’s alcoholic spirit, to be drunk warm and, ideally, giving no outward sign that you are getting drunk
  • sumo wrestlers oil and massage their testicles from an early age so that, before a fight, they can retract them into their body cavity
  • bonsan means priest (p.54) so the Japanese can make a pun on Bond’s name, since it is polite to add san to the end of a name, thus Bond-san
  • futon is Japanese for bed
  • gaijin is Japanese for foreigner
  • tanka is a poem with 31 syllables
  • haiku is a poem of three lines and 17 syllables whose master was probably the 17th century poet, Basho (pp.100-101)
  • in Japan they don’t close doors to ensure security, they open all the doors and slender partitions in their houses so they can see that no-one else is eavesdropping
  • light switches go up, taps turn to the left, door handles likewise
  • samsara is a generic phrase for the good life, for wine, women and song
  • ‘All Japanese have permanent ON [a kind of moral/spiritual duty] towards their superiors, their Emperor, their ancestors and the Japanese gods.’ (p.42) The only way to discharge this burden of ON is to do the right thing, to behave ‘honourably’.
  • futsukayoi is an honourable hangover
  • four is an unlucky number in Japanese culture, as unlucky as 13 is for us in the West
  • According to Tanaka, the Japanese have no swearwords, which Bond finds hard to believe and gets him to explain at length (pp.83-84)
  • Food: Bond is astonished when the lobster he’s served begins to move – he is expected to eat it alive (p.89). He is similarly unimpressed at the fine strips of fugu, raw poisonous blowfish he is served later (p.104), or the bland and over-salty seaweed which comes with everything – although the raw beef he eats after meeting a farmer and massaging his cattle (!) does turn out to be the best steak he’s ever tasted (p.93). But he politely refuses a bowl of fresh bull blood when it is offered.

But for all the book’s immersion in Japanese culture, Fleming and Bond are still very sceptical and uneasy about the Japanese and their well-proven taste for the violent and the bizarre.

This suicide business in Japan is nothing more than a form of mass hysteria – an expression of the streak of violence that seems to run all through the history of Japan. (p.71)

It doesn’t change his mind when Tanaka gives a long and moving account of what inspired him to become a kami-kaze pilot on pages 87 to 89 – describing the excitement of dive bombing an American aircraft carrier, with detailed advice on where best to aim the plane (at the deck-top cranes and equipment). Tanaka makes it sound moving and heroic. Even worse is his eye-witness account of watching his boss, Admiral Ohnishi, commit ritual suicide by inserting a dagger in his belly and moving it from left to right and then upward to cut into the breast bone, all without flinching. Ohnishi in fact didn’t die of these self-inflicted wounds, but refused to move from his position and sat expiring for 24 hours. ‘A most sincere gesture of apology to the Emperor’ (p.89), Tanaka remarks.

Bond dislikes ‘the automatic, ant-like subservience to discipline and authority of the Japanese’ (p.152). Even the half-mad Blofeld is made to discuss ‘the profound love of horror and violence of the Japanese’ (p.134).

And the exaggerated politeness and stifling rituals get on his nerves. Bond becomes very exasperated at the never-ending bowing and sibilant hissing all the Japanese make from extreme politeness –

Bond had had about enough for one day. There weren’t many bows and smiles left in him, and he was glad when he was left alone… (p.85)

Bond hates having to sit on the floor in the lotus position until your knees are screaming with pain, and finds it impossible to sleep on an uncomfortable futon.

The isle of Kuro

Tanaka plans the operation with his lieutenants and Bond: the promontory with the Garden of Death is not far from a group of islands inhabited by the Ama, a self-contained tribe of Japanese who make a living diving for pearls in awabi or oysters (p.135). The divers tend to be lithe young women who often dive completely naked. They plan to dye Bond’s hair and skin to give him a Japanese complexion, then embed him in the little fishing village of Kuro, population 200 (p.121).

Travelling south Tiger takes him to visit a training camp for ninjas or ‘stealers-in’ (pp.93-98). Bond will be given a ninja black outfit, climbing rope and knife.

Here, Tanaka smirks broadly, Bond will be helped by the presence of one of the daughters of the community, Kissy Suzuki (p.113), a young girl who was talent spotted by roving Hollywood agents and went all the way to Hollywood to make a feature film, hated it, and has returned to the bosom of her family and community, but with a good working knowledge of English and of the Western mind-set.

So they travel down to the southern island, taking in various tourist sights along the way (the oldest whorehouse in Japan (p.99) taking the Murasaki Maru, a modern ocean liner to cross to Kyūshū (p.100). Here they meet the commissioner for police of Fukuoka, the administrative capital of the island. There are a few incidents along the way, most notable of which is when a stranger jostles Bond in the crowd and picks his pocket. Later they become aware of a motorcyclist who’s following their car. Tanaka orders the driver to ram the biker, who then puts up a fight and is killed. The body is found to have Bond’s wallet on him. Hmm – someone knows who Bond is and is paying hoods to trail his movements. Suspense!

Once again, Fleming gives a very persuasive description of this idyllic place and of his first sight of the simple fisher people. In the midst of this perilous mission and Bond’s personal trauma, Fleming is able to convey the sense that this is a ‘good place’, these are good people. You often come across these persuasive and powerful scenes in Fleming.

Bond is introduced to the smiling sardonic Kissy, her ancient parents and the local priest. For the next few days he goes pearl fishing with her, obviously attracted by her firm sexy body which wears just a g-string while diving, but Fleming also devotes pages explaining the diving technique, the lives and values of this community.

The idyllic setting makes Fleming relaxed and whimsical: he invents a pet for Kissy, a tame cormorant who she keeps tethered to a string, who dives with her and who she calls ‘David’ after the only person she met in Hollywood who respected her, the English actor David Niven.

This sequence climaxes rather beautifully when Kissy takes Bond to see the squat stone statues of the six Jizo guardians, the ‘Kings of Death’, old Buddhist gods who look over the island and its people, also known as ‘the Children of the Sea’ (p.136). Kissy prays devoutly to them for Bond’s safety and Bond finds himself making a prayer and then – in an astonishing moment – thinks he sees the one he prayed to nod its head. Nonsense! Just a trick of the gathering dusk. Pull yourself together man.

The Garden of Death

That night Bond slips into the ninja outfit Tanaka left him and Kissy accompanies him as he swims to the mainland setting of the ‘Garden of Death’ and the ominous, ruined Japanese castle at its centre.

Using his ninja grappling iron, Bond ascends the defensive wall, then steps carefully through the Garden, witnessing two Japanese who are killing themselves – one whose face and hands are hideously swollen by some plant poison and who blunders into the central pond where he is shredded by piranha, another who bows politely and walks down into one of the Garden’s stinking fumaroles or volcanic mudholes, voluntarily incinerating himself with a final shriek of agony (p.147). Bond finds a work shed and hides behind a big pile of sacking, eating and drinking a little, and waiting till dawn.

He is awoken by the sight of Blofeld dressed in medieval chain mail (as protection against all the poison) and Irma Bunt in a rubber suit with a beekeeper’s hat, strolling around their macabre domain. Bond is tempted to attack them there and then but the armour would be difficult to pierce and he has seen members of the violent Black Dragon Society roaming the Garden as security.

Inside the castle

Bond hides until night falls and then breaks into the castle. A couple of tense pages describe his faltering process up dark stone staircases, along deserted corridors etc, all eerily empty. Finally, he enters a corridor he saw a servant just leave and is half way along it when it swivels in the middle and tips him helplessly into a stone oubliette where he cracks his head very badly. He comes to being beaten around the face by some of the Black Dragon goons and then Blofeld intervenes.

These final scenes feel oddly disconnected: they’re gruesome enough but somehow lack conviction.

First of all it takes Blofeld, dressed incongruously in a silk kimono, a little while to realise that this intruder is in fact James Bond, come to kill him. Blofeld and Bunt take their captive to the ‘Question Room’. This turns out to be a stone throne Blofeld has built over one of the Garden’s many volcanic geysers. Bond is forced to sit on a toilet seat above a little hole up which a spurt of 1,000 degree-hot volcanic mud erupts every fifteen minutes. So Bond sits there as the minutes tick by till the next eruption, his flesh crawling as he imagines the devastating fiery impact incinerating his lower body.

Except that, oddly, Bond isn’t actually tied there and, a minute before the eruption, he simply gets up and strolls over to Blofeld and admits who he is – just as the volcanic mud squirts up the hole. So not that dangerous, really.

Even odder, Blofeld allows Bond to be escorted back to his ‘audience chamber’ and then dismisses his guard, relying on his own skill with a massive, razor-sharp samurai sword to keep Bond in check.

And now, he does what all the baddies do – conducts a long soliloquy in which he justifies all his wicked actions, insofar as they have roundabout beneficent results. And, as usual, this long rant gives Bond the opportunity to scope out the room and make a plan. As it draws to an end (‘and now to finish you for good, Mr Bond’) he makes a leap for a long wooden stave one of the guards had left leaning against a wall.

Bond a) clouts Irma Bunt in the head, knocking her out, then b) embarks on a long and tense fight withg Blofeld, the latter’s razor-sharp sword against Bond’s stave, with Blofeld steadily getting the upper hand, until Bond desperately throws himself at Blofeld, grabbing for his throat and, despite all blows, pummeling and biting, proceeding to strangle Blofeld to death, and to carry on choking and bludgeoning him long after he’s dead in a red mist frenzy.

Balloon escape

Bond comes out of his bloodlust daze and runs into the Question Room, using the machinery he saw to move a lid over the volcanic vent – that should block it up then cause quite an eruption! Back through the audience chamber and out onto the balcony, but it’s a sheer 100 foot drop to the ground, when he sees that a big balloon is tethered to the balcony balustrade. He tethers the loose rope round his body, then undoes the knot and – whoosh – is immediately lifted up into the air and moving away. Only at about this point does he become really bothered by the very painful throbbing in his head from the large bump he picked up when he fell into the oubliette. A few shots from the castle graze him as the Black Dragon goons realise he’s escaping before, suddenly, the entire castle shimmers, shakes and explodes with the force of the mini-volcano he had blocked. Cascades of boiling mud and then flames as various gas pipes etc rupture.

Bond clings to the rope as the balloon flies out over the sea, but the pain in his head is obliterating everything else and he can feel himself getting weaker and then, and then… He feels the rope slipping and passes out as he falls hundreds of feet into the sea below.

Amnesia with Kissy

If certain parts of the previous narrative had seemed disconnected and dreamlike, the final ten pages are unique in the Bond oeuvre for their strange and floaty feel. For Bond has complete amnesia. Impact with the sea completed what the heavy blow to his temple had begun, and he has completely forgotten who he is and what he does. Kissy and Bond had arranged that she would swim out to meet him every night, and so she sees his body fall from the balloon into the sea. But when she gets to him he doesn’t recognise her, doesn’t know what he’s doing in the sea.

Kissy’s heart sings as she realises she can make him hers forever, and she ferries him slowly in the rescue position back across the straight to Kuro, where she calls the village doctor, then fixes up with the village priest to tell the people to keep his presence a secret. While she tends his wounds and nurtures him back to health, the villagers stonewall a succession of visitors from the outside world, first Tiger, then British embassy officials. To all of them the villagers say they saw him depart, then the castle blew up, and they haven’t seen him since.

Far away in London, six months passes and the Service concludes Bond is missing presumed dead. M contributes an official obituary to The Times, in which we get a potted biography of Bond’s life, parents, upbringing and so on. But on the small island Bond is lovingly nurtured to health by Kissy and enjoys the simple healthy life of a pearl diver.

It may be a far-fetched comparison but a lot of this reminded me of Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queene. In each of its six books a knight from the court of King Arthur sets out on a heroic Quest, encountering, battling and overcoming various allegorical figures along the way. By the sixth and final book, though, you can feel Spenser’s tiredness and are not surprised that, when Sir Calidore encounters a rural community living in complete equality, peace and harmony with its rural surroundings, the knight simply abandons his Quest and decides to live with them and enjoy pastoral simplicity and happiness.

In the last ten pages of You Only Live Twice, something similar happens and James Bond, cynical city slicker and worldly secret agent, forsakes his livelihood, forgets his raison d’etre and, tired and ill like his maker (Fleming was a sick man by the time the book was published in 1963), longs to become part of a simpler world, a healthier life, a place without conflict.

But will it last…?


Bond as Saint George

When Tanaka offers him the challenge, he puts it in Arthurian medieval form: ‘you are to enter this Castle of Death and slay the Dragon within.’ (p.78) Similarly, when Bond realises Shatterhand is Blofeld, he not only declares it is now a matter of personal revenge – he says: ‘It was ancient feud’ (p.116). ‘Ancient’? Hardly. His wife was murdered 9 months earlier. Calling it ‘ancient’ is part of the process of giving Bond a mythic, archetypal overtone.

Later Tiger says: ‘Does it not amuse you to think of that foolish dragon dozing all unsuspecting in his castle while St George comes silently riding towards his lair across the waves?’ (p.119)

In The Spy Who Loved Me Fleming had the female lead, Viv Michel, refer to Bond several times as her knight in shining armour, as her Sir Galahad, and Thunderball contained references to St George. It doesn’t especially deepen the pleasure of reading the books, but it is an indicator of the kind of quest-like, rather simple-minded Victorian-medieval hero worship, which is one thread underpinning the texts.

Visions of paradise

It’s only a paragraph or two, but as Bond arrives at the island community of Kuro he is struck by how it seems to be one of the world’s good places.

It was a pretty scene, with the delicate remoteness, the fairyland quality of small fishing communities the world over. Bond took an immediate liking to the place, as if he was arriving at a destination that had been waiting for him and that would be friendly and welcoming. (p.120)

Fleming’s writing conveys a genuine sense of peace and tranquility. It has several times before, especially in Jamaica or when he was in the hotel in Istanbul looking out over the Bosphorus at sunset. But here the setting has the added fairy tale element which threads strongly through the book.

At that moment, it all seemed to Bond as the world, as life, should be, and he felt ashamed of his city-slicker appearance, let alone the black designs it concealed. (p.123)

This ability to perceive and respond to natural beauty, and to find a refreshing innocence and loveliness in it, is one of Fleming’s most appealing features.

Male camaraderie

Bond may be a figure of male fantasy fulfilment in a number of obvious ways (easily available women, fast cars, tough fights which he always wins). One of the under-reported ones is his male friendships.

There’s the deep, abiding warmth of his father-feeling for M (‘James Bond felt a quick warmth of affection for this man who had ordered his destiny for so long’, p.32).

There’s the buddy-buddy act with his CIA pal Felix Leiter, who appears in no fewer than six of the novels and allows Fleming to let rip with pulp American slang and indulge Bond’s boyish bantering side.

There are the one-off friendships, forged in the intense closeness of a dangerous mission would include the elemental life force of Darko Kerim (From Russia With Love), the wise and clever Marc-Ange Draco (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and in this novel, the canny clever ex-kamikaze pilot Tiger Tanaka, owner of a ‘formidable, cruel, samurai face’ (p.14).

All three are elemental figures of masculinity, rooted in foreign cultures untouched by Western norms or political correctness; they have very dubious morals or pasts (Darko involved in various scams against the Russians, Draco the head of the Corsican mafia ie a dyed-in-the-wool criminal, and Tiger with his unapologetic devotion to the kami-kaze ideal); and all three smile big grins every time they explain another outlandish custom, extravagant scam or unacceptable piece of behaviour.

There is an elemental male aspect to their bonding; but there is also naughty schoolboy japery as well.


Credit

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming was published in March 1964 by Jonathan Cape. Fleming died in August the same year.

All quotes and references are to the 1965 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1964

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)

Bond laughed, partly in admiration. ‘You’ve been taking mescalin or something. It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life.’ (p.168)

Shrublands

The tremendous battering Fleming has submitted Bond to over the previous seven novels begins to show, as M – a recent convert to healthy living and wholefood diets – insists he takes a rest cure at a sanatorium in Sussex named ‘Shrublands’. Fleming’s description is amusingly sardonic throughout, from the brylcreemed youth who drives him in a taxi to the spa, through the old health food ‘doctor’ who prescribes his rest cure treatments, to the repellent, fat, old men and women who populate the place.

Bond submits with bad grace to the round of massages, hot baths, and the starvation diet of nut cutlets and dandelion tea, though there are several highlights: 1. He flirts with the unusually pretty, firm-bodied and ‘strict’ health therapist Patricia Fearing until, with dumb inevitability, while she’s massaging him he reaches up and kisses her. For all her flurried objections, Bond knows it is a done deal, and (rather callously) describes bonking her in her little bubble car up on the Sussex Downs.

2. More importantly, someone tries to kill him. He notices a tiny tattoo on the wrist of another ‘guest’, the handsome six-foot Count Lippe, then makes a bad mistake by phoning the Cipher Section of the Service to ask about the tattoo, from a public payphone in the sanatorium’s corridor. Turns out the tattoo is the sign of the Tongs, a secret society based in Macau.

Later the delectable Ms Fearing straps Bond into a complicated spine-stretching apparatus as part of his treatment and leaves the room – only for Lippe to sneak in and turn the machine way up past the danger zone, so that Bond’s body is literally being torn apart. It is only the accidental return of Ms Fearing a bit earlier than scheduled that saves his life. Bond laughs it off as a mishap but plans his revenge and, on the last day of his stay, ambushes Lippe who is sitting in a ‘sweat box’. Bond turns its thermostat up to a scalding 180 degrees.

Bond leaves Shrublands feeling lighter, toned up, fitter and more focused than for years, having bonked a pretty nurse and scored a petty act of revenge.

What he doesn’t realise is that he has impinged on a conspiracy to shake the governments of the world! Chapter five introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the most notorious Bond baddie – giving his full backstory as a gifted Polish engineer who set up a bogus spy ring in pre-war Poland and screwed money out of various buyers, before setting up another ring in Turkey during the war itself, then clearing out to South America. Now he is back and he has invented SPECTRE, SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, as a clearing house for all kinds of criminal activities.

Meeting of SPECTRE

In the next scene we are introduced to a meeting of the top men in SPECTRE at a non-descript house in Paris. They are all allotted numbers, and comprise cells of men recruited from the French and Italian Mafia, SMERSH, American underworld gangs etc. Their undisputed leader is Blofeld. Blofeld reads out the monthly summary of profits from their various criminal activities – then melodramatically moves on to punish one of the members seated round the big table. This man is accused of violating a young girl who had been kidnapped, and SPECTRE had promised to return unharmed. Blofeld announces that SPECTRE returned half the kidnap ransom and now the guilty man is punished by the activation of electric pads in his chair which electrocute and virtually cook him. His smoking body slumps onto the table. The other members take this as due justice. This is SPECTRE. Blofeld’s word is law. They then proceed to discuss ‘the Omega Plan’.

This scene feels every bit as overblown and teenage as the movies.

The letter

Next thing Bond knows he’s called in by M who gives him a letter claiming SPECTRE has hijacked an RAF bomber (the fictional Vindicator) carrying two atomic bombs. The governments of the West have one week to hand over £100,000,000 or they’ll explode one of the bombs at a site worth exactly that amount. Then, a day later, if no money is delivered, they’ll explode the other bomb at a major world city.

Frankly, this threat made me nervous and edgy in light of our current geopolitical situation, and I didn’t enjoy thinking about it. Bond is told that the intelligence forces of the Western world have gone into overdrive, everyone and everything is being thrown at the problem. But M has a hunch: before it disappeared off the radar the hijacked Vindicator descended into the main East-West Atlantic traffic (to conceal itself). A few hours later the American DEW radar system detected a plane making a sharp turn south, just off the US coast. M has a hunch it was the baddy plane, and goes to investigate maps of the region. As a result, M thinks the Bahamas might be a perfect hiding place for the crooks, out of the way but not far from the US mainland, no real military or radar presence – good place to ditch a plane. So he is dispatching Bond to the Bahamas to see what he can see. Bond is disgruntled because he thinks he’s being sent on a wild goose chase.

Capturing the plane

There is then a long sequence which describes, in retrospect, how the Italian ‘observer’ on the hijacked plane, Giuseppe Petacchi a) poisoned the five man crew by opening a cyanide capsule in the cockpit, then b) pulled the bodies out of the way and flew the plane single-handedly down into the busy East-West Atlantic commercial plane traffic, then veered south towards the Caribbean, exactly as M hypothesised. Here, overcoming nerves, he locks onto the radio signal then onto the landing lights put out by SPECTRE and skillfully crash lands the plane on the surface of the sea. Proud and happy he walks along the wing of the slowly settling plane towards the motorboat of SPECTRE men who have come to meet him and the first one aboard casually slips a stiletto up under his jaw and into his brain which kills him immediately. Not very nice people.

We are introduced to Number 1 (SPECTRE numbers rotate on a monthly basis) Emilio Largo, a superbly fit figure of a man, Olympic swimmer, fencer etc (p.126), scion of a noble Roman family, with a hooked nose, the mouth of a satyr and enormous hands. He supervises the concealment of the sunken plane and the retrieval of the two atom bombs – using the facilities of his superb, purpose-built, luxury catamaran, the Disco Volante (Italian for ‘flying saucer’, p.134).

There is a tame nuclear physicist on board the ship and on the payroll, Kotze, who is given a speech explaining how you defuse an atomic bomb, then arm it with a timed fuse so you can drop it somewhere and make your getaway. As he explains all this to Largo (and the reader), Largo is wondering when the moment will be right to ‘eliminate’ him. Not very nice people. The bombs are stashed in a remote coral island, and this phase of the mission is complete.

Bond in the Bahamas

Once again Bond is in the sunny Caribbean – in this, as in many other respects, Thunderball feels like a rehash of themes and settings. Bond has quickly latched onto Largo’s mistress, Dominetta ‘Domino’ Vitali, an independent-spirited, beautiful young woman. (The way she is named after a game is reminiscent of Solitaire.) He accidentally on purpose bumps into her in a general store in Nassau and invites himself for a drive in her sporty MG then a drink and get-to-know-you. (We see Bond through her eyes, six foot, black hair, scar on right jaw, cruel smile, confident, p.145).

There is then another flashback, taking us how through Bond got to this point (exactly as the letter from the terrorists was followed by the account of the hijack of the plane which preceded it).

So we learn that Bond arrived in Nassau and went straight to a High Priority meeting with the Governor, Police Commissioner etc. He said he’s looking for a group of 10 or 20 or 30 men, decent and respectable, engaged on a completely innocent purpose, who probably arrived in the fairly recent past. The Police Commissioner mentions the annual Treasure Hunt crew: every year a yacht goes looking for legendary sunken treasure. This year it’s the Disco Volante owned by Emilio Largo, who has been joined by about twenty shareholders in the venture. Bingo!

—This is a really glaring example of the general rule that there is no detection in James Bond. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, they are all identified very early on as the bad guys – the narrative interest comes not from slowly unveiling the truth, but from the elaborate skirting round each other, which leads to the torture scenes and then the final showdown. a) M had a hunch the hijacked plane flew to the Bahamas and, guess what, he’s dead right b) the police suggest the Largo’s treasure hunters are the only group that fit Bond’s bill and, guess what, they’re dead right.

Bond has identified the baddies by page 180 of this 350-page novel, though admittedly he isn’t absolutely certain they are the ones and, as his snooping makes him more and more certain, he still doesn’t know where the bombs are hidden. 170 pages remain of, well, snooping round, getting caught, getting beaten up, chatting up the girl, escaping, probably a climactic shoot-out of some kind…

Felix Leiter

Bond had asked for help from the CIA and goes to the airport to meet the agent who’s flying in with a state-of-the-art Geiger counter. It is – with heavy inevitability – Felix Leiter, his old bosom buddy with the metal hook instead of a hand (the result of being half-eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die). Leiter allows Fleming to really let his hair down and write loads of American pulp dialogue, with Bond joining in; their buddy conversations are always fun to read. But this is all very familiar territory.

Bond tells Leiter everything and invites him to go with him out to the Disco Volante, Bond posing as a rich Londoner who wants to buy the house Largo is currently renting. Largo is hospitality itself and shows them all over the impressive catamaran and promises to get his ‘niece’ (Domino) to show him the beach-front house. Leiter and Bond depart in their rented motorboat debating whether Mr Largo is really as squeaky clean as he seems – he didn’t show them about half the volume of the boat but then it is on a secret treasure hunt so why should he? And they didn’t see any of the ‘shareholders’ but then it was siesta time, maybe they were all napping…

There may be suspense for Bond, but there is none for the reader.

Confirmations

In quick succession:

1. Bond goes to the Nassau casino that evening where he meets Largo and Domino. First – in a scene which echoes the intense card game scenes in Casino Royale or Moonraker, Bond takes on Largo at baccarat and just about wins. He deliberately spooks Largo by mentioning the word ‘spectre’ several times to see what affect it has. Then Largo encourages him to go have a drink with Domino. She tells him her extended fantasy about the man portrayed on the front of packs of Players cigarettes, an entertaining piece of whimsy which reminds us that Fleming was also the author of the smash hit children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For the purposes of the plot, she lets slip that her real family name is Petacchi and that she has a beloved brother who is something in the air force. Like the Italian observer flying in the Vindicator. What a coincidence.

2. Bond borrows a scuba diving kit and swims underwater out to the Disco Volante. He confirms that there is a great seam in the hull which probably opens to allow ingress and egress of possibly naughty machinery. Barely has he done so than he is clobbered by the butt of a compressed gas harpoon and has a vividly described fight with an underwater guard, presumably from the boat which ends when the guard is attacked by a six foot barracuda. Dazed, Bond just about makes it back to shore and the waiting policeman who has accompanied him.

3. Bond and Leiter rent an amphibious plane and go scouting low over the sea, looking for the sunken plane. The odd circling of three sharks prompts Bond to go back to a particular area, land and again scuba dive to the ocean bed where, sure enough, he finds the plane hidden under a large tarpaulin. Fleming again gives a vivid description of the foulness of the water, polluted with the five corpses, and of their wrecked appearance, half eaten by sea creatures. He is particularly memorable on the interior of the plane which is absolutely stuffed with small octopuses which are eating the dead air crew. For the purposes of the plot he discovers a) the atom bombs are not on board – they have been removed, b) the body of Giuseppe Petacchi, and snaps off his identity tag, along with the rest of the crews, before finally escaping the nightmare scene and resurfacing by the flying boat.

While flying around and scouring maps, Leiter and Bond had discussed possible targets for SPECTRE’s attacks. They speculate that the first one might be against the NATO missile-firing base ‘at a place called North-West Cay at the eastern end of the Grand Bahamas’ (p.199). They fly near it, observing the rocket gantries, missile launchers, radar beacons and the rest of the paraphernalia.

Bond and Leiter had been keeping their respective services informed of developments and now are told that senior military men are flying in and Washington has dispatched a nuclear submarine, no less, to Nassau. Bond and Leiter must obey these orders, but have still not located the exact location of the bombs.

Snogging Domino

Back from the flight, and having assimilated the responses of their services, it is still daytime and Bond phones Domino at the house she and Largo are renting and casually asks if she’d like to go swimming. She gives directions to the beach where she’ll be and Bond races there in a Land Rover borrowed from the Governor’s staff. There follows a strange interlude which is meant to be moving: for Bond is affectionate and kind to her, all the time knowing he is about to break the news to her that her brother is dead, and that he was more than likely involved in a massive conspiracy to blackmail the world’s governments.

She emerges from the sea with some bits of black sea urchin in her foot and Bond very gently, very sensuously, sucks them out for her. Then carries her up to the primitive changing rooms and there they make love. And only then, does he tell her the truth. Tears. Recriminations. I hate you. Slowly she recovers as he presses on her the importance of the situation. Eventually he recruits her: will she agree to go on board the Disco Volante with the Geiger counter-disguised-as-a-camera which he will give her and snoop about: if she finds something come on deck; if nothing, remain in her cabin.

Bond leaves her to be collected by the Disco Volante and motors back to the docks to join the police who are now keeping it under surveillance. There is a message to join Leiter for the arrival of the nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarine

The USS Manta arrives and Leiter and Bond go onboard to be greeted by the cheerful, confident commander P. Pedersen. They brief him on the whole situation including the crux that they don’t know where the bombs are. At this point they are all informed the Disco Volante has weighed anchor and steamed off north-west. The girl didn’t come up on deck, the pre-arranged signal that there were no bombs aboard, if she managed to carry out her search and not get caught, that is…

But Bond is still concerned: a) If the sub intercepts the Volante, they still won’t have the bombs and it’s just possible some other team is gathering and deploying them; b) Captain Pedersen informs Bond and Leiter the catamaran can skate easily over the countless reefs and shallows in the area, whereas the Manta can only follow guaranteed deep water channels, so they can’t give close chase to the baddies.

Aboard the Disco Volante

Cut to the interior of the Disco Volante, where Largo has called an emergency meeting of the ‘shareholders’ ie the other SPECTRE crooks. He announces to the shocked meeting that Domino was found snooping round with a camera which, on closer inspection, turned out to a Geiger counter: looks like someone put her up to it, so someone is on to them.

Domino has been detained and will be tortured to find out who commissioned her snooping. Meanwhile, the Omega plan goes ahead. The meeting is disrupted by one of the Russian delegates who sows seeds of doubt, saying while some of them are being frogmen accompanying the bomb to its destination, who’s to say the boat won’t weight anchor and scarper, leaving them in the lurch. Largo replies by shooting the complainer three times. We get the picture: SPECTRE are ruthless people.

Then Largo goes down to the cabin where Domino is tied spread-eagled to a bed, rips off her clothes and leans over her naked vulnerable body with a lighted cigar and a bucket of ice cubes, and starts to torture her. [This feels like it steps over a line: Fleming torturing Bond is one thing, as happens in the earlier novels – Bond is the hero and at least part of the mind of the male reader is experiencing the physical ordeals vicariously and wondering how he would fare. I think this is the first time we’ve seen a woman be tortured, really sadistically, cold-bloodedly tortured, and it’s not only not entertaining, but it feels wrong for Bond’s persona, for the feel of the books.]

Underwater fight

Bond and Leiter are aboard the American sub. The commander is under orders to take their orders, so Bond gives out a plan of battle to the best ten hand-picked men. They will wear skin-diving outfits, use makeshift spears, and attack Largo’s men wherever they find them.

Hours later the sub makes contact with the Wavekrest anchored off North-West Cay, the missile testing base, just as Bond and Leiter had speculated. Bond, Leiter and the ten best men suit up and exit the submarine with their makeshift weapons. They approach in a flanking movement the SPECTRE crew, but Bond immediately realises the odds are against them, as there are many more of the baddies, who have also got little propeller packs on their backs giving them greater mobility. In the middle of his posse sits Largo, riding an underwater sub which is towing the bomb.

A massive fight breaks out, Bond skewers several bad guys, before himself getting cut, cuffed, then saves Leiter’s life as a bad guy is about to shoot him, then escapes the melee to hunt down Largo. Largo is still riding the mini-sub and Bond throws himself onto it, they have a desperate cat-fight, but Bond manages to slip back onto the rudder and twist it so the machine rears up and breaks the surface, throwing them both off.

Exhausted Bond sinks to the bottom, only for Largo, still fighting fit, to approach him spear-gun at the ready. In a typically Flemingesque ghoulish detail, Largo clamps a baby octopus over Bond’s mask then puts his enormous hands round his throat to strangle him (ah, those enormous hands which have been continually referred to) and Bond is passing out, everything is going black, when….

The pressure has gone, Bond wipes the octopus away, Largo is on the ocean bed flailing with a big spear through his neck, and the girl Domino is behind him, harpoon gun in hand, her body covered in ugly red burn marks from the torture. Together, the wounded hero and heroine struggle to the surface.

Bond has been cut by a harpoon, clubbed in the head, exhausted himself fighting the rudder of the min-sub and then nearly strangled to death, all but blacking out before Domino saved him – but this, like many of the other scenes, felt to me rather like going through the motions: Bond has to be beaten to within an inch of his life because this is what happens in all Bond novels – it doesn’t necessarily follow from the actual action.

Certainly it was a tough fight, but doesn’t compare to being nearly incinerated at the climax of Moonraker, tortured to a bloody pulp in Casino Royale, or subjected to the degrading punishment in Dr No. His suffering, like so much else in the novel, feels willed in order to fit a formula.

Epilogue

Bond in hospital, as at the end of so many other adventures. Leiter visits and tells him what happened: CIA, MI6 et al now know all about SPECTRE, have identified Blofeld (who got away), their plan had been to bomb the missile launching base, then make Miami the second target. 10 men from the yacht including Largo were killed, six of the 10 volunteers from the submarine ditto, both bombs were successfully recovered. And, wow! that girl – she escaped by squeezing through a porthole with a diving suit and a harpoon gun, and saved Bond’s life. Totally believable.

Then Leiter’s gone – but all Bond wants to know about is Domino: Is she alive? How is she? Bond’s doctor comes in next and Bond feverishly asks after the girl. After hesitation, the doc tells Bond she’s next door, still in great pain from having been cruelly burned and tortured. Bond staggers into the next room, holds Domino’s hand as she regains consciousness and weakly murmurs to him, then collapses to the floor and passes out. She moves her pillow so she can lie and watch him.

The book may be manipulative, sentimental slop concocted from preposterous escapades and ridiculous escapes, but something in the desperation of their commitment, the fierceness of their ‘love’, made me burst into tears. Maybe all really fierce, heart-breaking loves are emblems of all others.


Co-authorship

By 1960 Fleming was deeply involved in various schemes for turning his creation into TV series or movies. Thunderball the novel itself originated as the screenplay for a movie which was a collaborative effort between Fleming and four others – Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo. After he published the novel, Fleming was sued by two of the collaborators who claimed part authorship of the plot, and the part ownership of the copyright explains why two movie adaptations were subsequently made, by different production companies (Thunderball 1965 and Never Say Never Again 1983 both, rather confusingly, starring Sean Connery.)

I may be influenced by this knowledge, but I think you can feel this troubled origin in the book: in certain turns of phrase which are unusual for Fleming, and in the way the plot – although just as garish and grandiose as other Bond novels – is somehow also very heavy and lumpy. Nuclear weapon threatens major city was the plot of Moonraker; the Caribbean was the setting of Live and Let Die, Dr No, the opening of For Your Eyes Only and tropical diving was the theme of The Hildebrand Rarity.

By this, the ninth book, it feels like the building blocks of a Bond novel have become so well-defined that they are transforming into clichés in front of the reader’s eyes.


Credit

Thunderball by Ian Fleming was published in 1961 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1961

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (1959)

Murder in Mexico

Bond dislikes killing and it gives him a bad conscience. He tries to persuade himself it’s just part of the job, he does it then moves on, but in reality he broods and worries. Thus Goldfinger opens with Bond in the departure lounge of Miami airport, obsessively going over his most recent job in Mexico. Fleming gives a brief description of how an informal heroin smuggling circle was set up by a posh, amateur Brit which led from poppy fields in Mexico via a courier to Victoria Coach Station and then distribution via Soho. Bond tracks the pipeline to its source and blows up the heroin warehouse, but then is approached in the street that night by an assassin hired by the gang, and after a brief intense fight, kills him. But Bond broods.

What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving license. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for a dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico. (p.7)

This passage, especially its portentous final phrase, reminded me of Fleming’s contemporary, Graham Greene (b.1904). (This brooding over the mystery of death, the extinguishing of life, also reminds of the shock Bond feels at the death of Darko Kerim, the one-man life force, in From Russia with Love, p.277.) At the end of the novel Bond will feel the same way about the broken rag-doll body of Tilly Masterton.

Bond stood and looked down at the little empty tangle of limbs and clothes. He saw the bright, proud girl with the spotted handkerchief round her hair in the flying TR3. Now she had gone. (p.205)

Death is the great mystery, the real puzzle, at the heart of these books.

Goldfinger exposed

As he sits worrying, Bond hears the announcement that his flight to New York has been cancelled, and then is approached by a middle-aged American. He introduces himself as Junius Du Pont, one of the couple who were sitting next to Bond during his climactic card game which forms the centrepiece of Casino Royale. Briefly, he is a millionaire but has a problem: he’s been playing canasta with a fellow millionaire, strange guy called Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger, and has consistently lost, far more than the odds would predict, losing some $25,000. Having seen Bond in action and knowing him for an expert, he invites Bond to stay over in Miami a night, all expenses paid, then pose as a businessman come to visit Du Pont and in reality figure out how Goldfinger is cheating.

Excellent! This is just the kind of relaxing, easy, no pressure break Bond needs to take his mind off death and destruction. He goes with Du Pont in his chauffeur-driven car to a luxury hotel and has the best meal of his life: crab in melted butter with toast, washed down by pint mugs of pink champagne.

So Bond goes along next day to the poolside table where Du Pont plays and meets Goldfinger. As with all the Bond villains he is distinctively misshapen and ugly, really a kind of cartoon. Goldfinger is just five foot tall, tubby, with no neck and an enormous round moon-shaped head, topped by a crew cut of bright red hair. He is very rich and very cool. Bond is introduced and sits idly reading his paper and half watching the game. He watches Goldfinger win hand after hand of canasta, fleecing Du Pont, and eliminates all the usual card sharping tricks. When Goldfinger says he never moves from his chair because he doesn’t like the view over the sea, it gives him agoraphobia, Bond gets a clue. He realises Du Pont is sitting with his back to the hotel so someone in an apartment could, in theory, look over his shoulder and see his cards.

He gets a camera from his apartment and the well-connected Du Pont gets a pass key from the hotel manager. Then, during the afternoon game, while Goldfinger is fleecing Du Pont again, Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s room to discover a beautiful posh English woman wearing only bra and panties (p.34, and is first seen from the back, just like Tiffany Case in Diamonds). She is looking through binoculars down at Du Pont’s hand and giving Goldfinger detailed instructions. This is how he wins so consistently.

Bond startles the girl by taking a flashlight photo of the set-up, then chatting to the (obviously) alarmed and scared woman, who gives her name as Jill Masterton (p.39). She is Goldfinger’s private secretary. As they chat, and Bond explains he’s working for Du Pont and simply wanted to discover the scam, she relaxes and even begins to warm to Bond. Having not told him the winning cards for quite a few moments, Goldfinger has begun to lose. Now Bond decides to put the finishing touches: he takes the radio microphone from Jill, and dictates his terms to Goldfinger: he will send the photo and full details of his scam to the police and FBI unless Goldfinger a) admits to Du Pont he’s been cheating b) writes and gives him a check for $50,000, including all the money he’s won off him as well as a tidy fee for Bond. And then, to rub it in, Bond insists Goldfinger pays for a luxury train sleeper compartment for him and Jill to New York. Reluctantly, Goldfinger agrees and does these things.

Bond gets effusive thanks from Du Pont, then takes the sleeper to New York (all told in retrospect) where he makes passionate love to Masterton, five times, apparently (p.43 – almost as soon as they met, she was looking at him with a look of submissiveness and longing, and later says she will do anything if Bond doesn’t hurt Goldfinger: ie she is much more quickly submissive than either the feisty Tiffany Case or distant Gala Brand, falling more into the ‘immediately seduced’ category of Solitaire, who fancied him straight off). But when they get to New York, Jill insists on going back to Goldfinger, despite both their misgivings about how he might react to having been so systematically humiliated…

Back in London

Cut to Bond back in the Secret Service building overlooking Regent’s Park, where he has been assigned night duty and is logging calls from stations round the world. Fleming has just explained how much he actually enjoys being up through the night, when he is called in for a breakfast meeting with M. Surprise surprise, it concerns the man he just happens to have met on Miami, one Auric Goldfinger who, M tells him, is the richest man in England. (It has rather the same effect as the way Sir Hugo Drax is introduced in Moonraker as the most popular man in England.)

The Bank of England

His name is mentioned as M describes having dinner with the Governor of the Bank of England the previous night and listening to his concerns about the drain of gold from England. A certain Colonel Smithers is Head of the Bank’s research department and an expert on the subject. ‘Go and meet him 007.’ So off Bond goes and submits to a long, detailed history of gold, its use, importance and why the Bank is concerned it is being drained out of the country. Smithers gives us the backstory to Goldfinger: refugee from Riga before the war, set up a chain of pawn shops which now operates round the country, paying cash for small gold trinkets; these are melted down in his smelting works / factory near Reculver in Kent, which also deals in fertiliser and other chemical works. Goldfinger had been exporting fertiliser to India for years but when one of his ships was wrecked off Goodwin Sands, scientists found traces of gold in a chemically treated form had soaked into the hold. Smithers deduced Goldfinger has been converting the gold into a brown powder which passes customs as fertiliser, then having it restored to gold and selling at a big profit in India.

Bond reports back to M at 6 that evening, where M has more to tell him. They know Goldfinger marks his ingots (out of vanity) with a tiny incised ‘Z’. The most recent ingots the Service has come across thus marked have all been recovered from SMERSH operatives! Yes! From being some cheating millionaire, Goldfinger has suddenly been revealed as SMERSH’s banker! Bond is ordered to find him, confirm his activities and stop him, so he motors down to Kent in a work DB III, along the way filling in Goldfinger’s backstory, mainly from speculation: trained and briefed by SMERSH, despatched to Britain in 1937, told to lie low and set up a network of pawnbrokers as a front; while all the time he was given greater and greater responsibility as SMERSH’s overseas banker. Who knows how many deaths, assassinations and terror attacks he has helped organise and fund (pp.62-64).

As Umberto Eco points out, unlike Sherlock Holmes, Bond rarely has to detect anything and certainly never discovers a baddie behind a criminal activity: the baddies are always identified early on in the text, Le Chiffre, Mr Big, the Spangled Mob etc, the only interest is what form the confrontation and final struggle will take. (In this respect, From Russia With Love is an exception, since Bond is unaware of the conspiracy to entrap him and doesn’t know who his opponents are – Klebb and Grant – until very near the end: maybe it’s this element of genuine puzzlement and revelation (for Bond) which explains why many people think Russia is the best Bond book.)

A game of golf

In Miami, during the open social chitter chatter, Goldfinger and Bond had both admitted a fondness for golf, and even promised to play each other one day. Now Bond drives down to Goldfinger’s house in Kent and on to the famous golf course of Royal St Marks. Says hello to his old caddie and trainer, Blacking, and we learn that the teenage Bond was a golf prodigy who his trainer thought could have gone professional. While they’re chatting Goldfinger’s immense canary-yellow car comes rolling up the gravel drive, driven by the striking figure of a bowler-hatted Korean chauffeur. Bond makes like them bumping into each other is a happy accident and after some banter, Goldfinger challenges him to a round, with the stakes being the $10,000 he took off him in Miami.

Chapters eight and nine contain a very detailed description of each of the eighteen holes the two men play during the ensuing game of golf. Goldfinger has a good game so that it is very close, plus he cheats by a) putting Bond off his stroke b) tamping down the ground around his ball to make his shots easier. Eventually Bond and his caddy decide to cheat back and swap Goldfinger’s ball for a different make on the last hole. Thus at the moment that Goldfinger wins the round, Bond is able to reveal it is with the wrong ball thus, technically, losing the match. Goldfinger sputters with fury, almost declares Bond guilty of cheating, then contains his anger, and invites Bond to dinner at his house that evening.

Dinner at the Grange

1. Goldfinger welcomes Bond, but says he unfortunately just has to pop out to sort out some trouble one of his servants has got to in Thanet; back in 30 minutes. Bond sees this as a transparent invitation to go snooping round Goldfinger’s house. A doorway takes him into the overseer’s office of the factory, from where he looks down into a workshop and sees men fiddling with the door of Goldfinger’s Rolls. Back in the house he pokes around in the upper floors, coming across a male bedroom, all the way followed by a friendly ginger cat. Everything in the bedroom is pure and clean until he follows a whining sound to discover cine-camera film from three concealed cameras whirring round their spools in a concealed closet: obviously turned on when Goldfinger left, to monitor Bond’s movements. Bond deliberately exposes the film strips all to the light, then puts the cat into the container where the film had been spooled, as a feeble attempt to explain his sabotage.

2. Goldfinger returns and treats Bond to a quality dinner: curried shrimp and rice, with a Moselle, the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen ’53; roast duckling with Mouton Rothschild 1947; cheese soufflé and coffee.

3. Throughout the book there has been mention of Goldfinger’s Korean servants: he employs five of them. Now he gets his personal servant, Oddjob, to demonstrate his skills, and Oddjob proceeds to: slice through the wooden banister on the stairs with his bare hand; create a divot in the mantelpiece with a flying kick; destroy a wall fixture with his steel-rimmed bowler hat, thrown as a weapon.

Goldfinger explains that all five are Karate experts, Oddjob being one of the only three karate black belts in the world. (It is striking that Fleming feels he has to explain from scratch what karate is and give its history.) Goldfinger claims the Koreans are ‘the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world’. The cat which Bond left in the cinefilm basket? Goldfinger hands it to Oddjob and tells him he can eat it for his dinner.

Throughout there is the strong sense of menace and threat, while Bond plays his role of pretending he is fed up with Universal Exports and wants a way out, a way to make easy money. He even retells the story of the heroin business he foiled in the opening chapter, but casting himself as one of its organisers. Goldfinger listens impassively and hints that he may have a role for Bond in his organisation.

Across France

Goldfinger had mentioned that he was flying out of Lydd airport the next day, with his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Bond gets the Service to book him a ticket on the next flight following. He drives up to the airport before Goldfinger is due and tells the Customs people he’s with Scotland Yard. They let him inspect the Silver Shadow after Goldfinger and Oddjob have boarded the plane, giving Bond the opportunity to insert a primitive homing device into it.

Two hours later Bond’s flight carries him and his DB III over to Le Touquet where he picks up the trail of the Silver Ghost. There follows a long knowledgeable tour across northern France, down to the Loire and then East heading towards Switzerland. Fleming knows his French Routes Nationales and shows off his acquaintance with the best hotels and Michelin restaurants along the route. On the first night Goldfinger stops at Orleans where Bond checks into the Station Hotel and enjoys ‘one of his favourite meals’: two oeufs cocotte à la crème, a large seule meunière and an ‘adequate’ Camembert.

Next day Bond tracks Goldfinger south and east along the N73 when he stumbles across the car pulled over for a picnic by a river. Bond just has time to drive off down a cart track and isn’t noticed, but after Goldfinger and Oddjob finish their picnic and drive on, Bond goes to investigate and discovers, under some freshly disturbed turf, a big gold ingot (with the tell-tale ‘Z’ scratched into it). He takes it with him a) causing Goldfinger and SMERSH inconvenience b) maybe saving lives in whatever schemes it would have financed.

Slowly he realises that another car is tailing Goldfinger, a nifty little Triumph driven by a pretty woman wearing a pink head scarf. Now he thinks about it he realises the same car was at Lydd airport. In the busy streets of Mâcon he sees it behind him and deliberately reverses into it, writing off the bonnet and fan belt. He apologises profusely while the pretty woman gets out and is livid, saying she must get to Geneva to play in some golf tournament. Bond discovers her name – Tilly Masterton – aha! she is the sister of Jill Masterton, Goldfinger’s confidential secretary. Bond offers her a lift and so they share the rest of the journey to Geneva.

Bond drops her at a hotel on the outskirts of Geneva, then trails Goldfinger’s Silver Ghost to a large mansion behind high railings, with a sign reading ‘Enterprises Auric A.G.’. He parks in nearby woods and doubles back to a vantage point where he sees technicians come out of a factory-like building and start to disassemble Goldfinger’s car. Then he drives on into Geneva and contacts the Service’s man there. 1. He hands over the gold bar and tells him to send it with a message confirming Goldfinger’s role as SMERSH banker, back to London. 2. The Service man knows about Auric Enterprises: it makes metal-work products, most notably chairs for Mecca Charter Airways planes, a company Goldfinger part owns and which flies to India. Aha.

Everything clicks into place. After his boat was wrecked and investigated off the Kent coast, Goldfinger abandoned gold smuggling by sea: now he fits his ‘armour-plated’ Rolls Royce with gold panels, drives it across France to his factory in Switzerland, where the panels are extracted from the car, and remoulded, with alloy, as airplane seats, installed in planes which are flown to India, there melted back to gold and sold at a terrific profit.

Captured

That night, after checking into a Geneva hotel etc, Bond drives back out to the woods above the Goldfinger mansion. He is creeping towards a good vantage point when he sees a slender figure in black lying by a tree ahead of him: it is Tilly. He jumps her from behind, putting his hand over her mouth, then slowly freeing her once she knows it is him. Furious she tells him her story: Jill Masterton returned to Goldfinger after her train trip of passion with Bond in the early chapters, and Goldfinger killed her, in a typically macabre Fleming way: he had her body painted with gold paint all over so her pores couldn’t breathe, evacuate sweat etc, poisoning her. (Fleming adds the gruesome detail that Goldfinger likes sex once a month with prostitutes who Oddjob paints with gold, but leaving their backs free to ‘breathe’ before the furious animal act. Then Oddjob sluices them down in a chemical shower to retrieve the gold.)

Well, Tilly is Jill’s sister; so she has come here with a rifle to take revenge. While they’re still squabbling about who is getting in whose way a crossbow bolt thwacks into the tree above them. Oddjob and some other Korean guards. Bond tries to make light of it, claiming Tilly is his girlfriend and they’ll call in on Goldfinger tomorrow, but the Koreans shepherd them down through the fence and towards the house, through the front door and into the main room where Goldfinger is waiting. Now Goldfinger knows Bond is an enemy agent and spy, and after a bit of banter, orders him to be taken to ‘the Pressure Room’.

Bond throws himself across the table, head butting Goldfinger in the chest, and gets as far as throttling him with his bare hands, when Oddjob hits him very hard and the lights go out.

Sawn in half

Bond awakes to find himself tied to a large table with a circular saw designed to cut right across it, up between his legs and carve him in half. ‘Talk,’ says Goldfinger, ‘or you’ll be sawn in two; and then the girl will be handed over to the Koreans for their sport.’ Bond swears (he’s taken to swearing four letter words a lot in the last few books –  e.g. ‘You can go —— yourself’, p.149). As if the saw wasn’t enough, Bond is worked over by Oddjob who knows exactly how to hurt him very much. Fleming, as so often, takes us into Bond’s mind as he tries to master the pain, control the pain, rise above his body…

Next thing we know it’s a new chapter and Bond thinks he’s died and gone to heaven, complete with white lights, nice music, warm woozy feelings. Slowly he interprets the succession of lights and faces to mean he’s been doped up and flown somewhere, the American accents suggesting the USA. Eventually he regains consciousness in some kind of sealed accommodation, in a bed in a room with his clothes and case all carefully returned. Goldfinger enters with a handgun and explains: he was on the verge of wiping Bond out when he realised he may actually be of some small use in his next and final crime. Like all Bond villains Goldfinger has to unburden himself of his plans and so tells Bond that he plans to go down in history for pulling the biggest crime ever, and stealing the entire American supply of gold from Fort Knox! —Fleming always thinks with a kind of cartoon, bravura excess, egged on by his uninhibited villains.

The preparation

Briefly, Bond and Tilly have been kept alive to act as secretaries to the organisation of the job. The building they’re in is some kind of warehouse near the river in New York. At Goldfinger’s instruction, Bond types out and copies the agenda for a meeting with the six biggest organised crime gangs in America. When they arrive they are a suitably florid and ugly bunch, but the stand-out member is one Pussy Galore, leader of a lesbian gang in New York.

Goldfinger gives these men and Pussy a detailed explanation of  his plan: to slip sleeping powder into the water supply of Fort Knox; to put the word out that there’s been some kind of attack or medical emergency; to organise a special medical emergency train to go into the danger zone, staffed by his own Korean and German guards along with selected members from each gang; to secure the perimeter of the Knox building, then to blow open the stainless steel doors of the vault with a small nuclear device!

Nuclear device!!

At this point Bond realises Goldfinger is a megalomaniac genius, and the reader realises how preposterous the entire scheme is. This warhead has been bought through bribery and corruption from the US Army in Germany, and is – allegedly – one of a new generation of fallout-free weapons. Yes. So the first men in will need radiation suits but will be able to pass the gold safely out to the gangsters waiting in their long lines of lorries to take their share of the gold wherever they want to.

Five of the gangsters sign up for the deal on the spot. The fifth says he’s not interested and leaves. Moments later Goldfinger tells the assembled hoods, the leaver has met with an unfortunate accident, fallen down some stairs and is dead.

After the hoods have gone, Goldfinger reveals that a) it is not going to be sleeping chemicals his men slip into the dam, but a deadly nerve gas which will kill the entire 60,000 population of Fort Knox, b) he is in fact going to take his $5 billion of gold to the coast where it will ship onboard a Russian submarine. The money will be used to fund SMERSH operations for decades. (For some reason, for the first time, the way everything comes back to SMERSH seemed silly to me, and also very small-minded: oh it’s another SMERSH operation.)

Next day Goldfinger, Oddjob, Tilly, Bond and others take a charter jet to fly over Fort Knox and check everything is as per the detailed map he had displayed at the meeting. In fact this is a plot device to allow Bond to scrawl a very long detailed account of the plan, roll it into a tight tube, write a warning message on the outside, that anyone taking this document to Felix Leiter at the Pinkerton Agency in new York will get a reward of $5,000 on the spot, and sellotape it to the underside of the toilet seat.

For the rest of the flight, and then for the next few days, Bond is in an agony of uncertainty, not knowing whether the message will be found at all, whether it will be acted on, or whether it’ll be found by Goldfinger’s people and he can expect a bullet in the neck at any point.

D-Day

In the event, on D-Day, the poison is put into the drinking water, news gets out and Goldfinger and his team man the rescue train into stricken zone posing as medical emergency team. As it enters Fort Knox they see cars which have crashed, people fallen across their lawns and washing lines, prone bodies everywhere, even with pinkish foam at the lips. Bond’s heart sinks. My God he is responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people; he should have murdered Goldfinger before this, even at the cost of his own life, done anything. (Bond is prone to a lot of self-doubt and worry and even guilt, throughout the books.)

The bluff

But it’s an immense con trick. A maroon warning flare is shot into the sky and thousands of people, including a lot of US Army troops spring to their feet and begin a terrific firefight with Goldfinger’s people and the assembled crooks. Bond jumps off the cab of the train which he had been viewing everything from, along with Tilly but they’re immediately pursued by Oddjob who has been tasked with keeping tabs on Bond throughout. Tilly turns to run back to Pussy but is immediately killed by Oddjob using his steel-rimmed bowler hat, and then throws himself into a flying karate kick at Bond, knocking him to the floor. He is moving in for what will no doubt be the kill when the train starts to pull out and Oddjob runs and jumps on to it. At that very moment Bond’s old pal Felix Leiter emerges with half a dozen soldiers and a bazooka which Bond seizes and fires at the escaping train, damaging the rear engine but not the front one and it steams over a river bridge and is gone.

Bond walks back down the track and looks down at the poor, huddled rags of the dead Tilly.

On the plane

Days later, after a full debriefing over the phone to M, then the FBI and then an embarrassing 15 minutes of thanks from the President himself (!), after a lot of joshing and ragging with Leiter, Bond is dropped at the BOAC terminal outside New York, checks in his bag etc but is then told he has to have a vaccination jab (!). No sooner is he injected than he passes out. When he awakes it is tied by the wrists and arms to the seat of an airliner which is airbound and next to the ever-vigilant Oddjob. Goldfinger comes strolling down the aisle: ‘Well, Mr Bond, I underestimated you’ etc.

Bond asks to be served Bourbon and ice to free his hands. To his surprise the coaster the drink arrives on has a message from Pussy reading ‘I’m on your side’. This gives him the courage for a desperate plan. He pretends to drowse and nod of and slowly Oddjob eases his supervision so that, with a sudden lunge, Bond leans across him and stabs the dagger concealed in the heel of his trick shoe, through the perspex window. It shatters and all hell breaks loose, the cabin depressurising, the plane going into a nose dive and Oddjob, sitting next to the window, is very gruesomely sucked into it and then squeezed through it like toothpaste.

When the plane has levelled out Bond undoes his seat belt and encounters Goldfinger in the aisle, for once in his life going into a complete berserker frenzy and strangling him to death in a hard-fought physical battle. He takes Goldfinger’s gun into the cabin of frightened pilots, gets the radio, establishes they don’t have enough fuel to get to any dry land, and contacts a radio ship in the north Atlantic, asking it to put out a flare landing path (?). It does this and an hour later the airliner hits the choppy sea, almost immediately breaks up, Bond and Pussy just having time to escape through an emergency exit with a life raft. The plane, with its cargo of $5 billion, and the crew, breaks up and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

An hour later, picked up by the crew of the radio ship, Bond and Pussy are clean and in spare clothes. Pussy comes into his cabin wearing only a fisherman’s sweater. Get into bed, he orders, and she is meek and compliant. She explains she was a lesbian all her life because she was raped and abused by an uncle in the Deep South. Bond explains that all she needs is TLC (it is interesting that he has to explain that this stands for Tender Loving Care) and he commences his version of it by slipping his hand up over her flat belly to feel the curve of her breast and its hard nipple, then kissing her hard.

Lesbianism and lameness

Thus the novel ends on the ‘curing’ of Pussy’s lesbianism. Obviously, this is insulting to real life lesbians, then again Pussy is as realistic a character as Goldfinger, ie the entire thing is a preposterous fantasy. Nevertheless, even in its own terms, I think it is a shallow, lame ending.

You could possibly draw a graph showing the number of hours Bond puts into a relationship before he sleeps with a woman, in each of the novels. Thus Casino Royale invests a huge amount of time and energy in the relationship with Vesper Lynd which, unfortunately, ends up so tragically. We are in the company of Solitaire, Gala Brand or Tatiana Romanova for long stretches of their respective novels and we get to know them and share Bond’s thoughts and developing feeling for them over many chapters, before he gets anywhere near taking them to bed.

Goldfinger feels like the first novel which reflects the ‘easy-lay’ philosophy of the movies. Bond’s whirlwind romance with Jill Masterton feels shallow and porny, the way that, just five minutes after Bond bursts into her hotel bedroom to find her wearing only pants and bra, she is looking at him with need in her eyes, and offers to do anything for him – this insults, I think, both the reader and Bond as a character, when he is at his best and most feeling.

But the way a supposedly confirmed, hardened, man-hating lesbian crime leader like Pussy can – over the course of just half a dozen casual bantering exchanges in rooms full of other mobsters or Goldfinger and his gang – abruptly realise that Bond is ‘the first real man’ she’s met in her life, and therefore end up presenting herself on a plate for Bond and the reader’s pleasure, seems to me a forced and superficial ending to this book.

This is the first Bond novel which failed to convince me, even on its own pulp, comic-book level. For me the realistic descriptions of Jamaica, of meals and showers and scenery and settings, the prosaic details of Bond’s day-to-day living, along with a lot of his thought processes, in the earlier books, outweighed the silliness of the plots. This is the first one where the balance shifted and the preposterous, cartoon, wish-fulfilment elements outweighed the interesting and good descriptions.

And the ‘curing’ of Pussy stands as a fitting emblem of this tipping-over into the absurd.


Comments

Timeframe

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, taking a supposed saying of Goldfinger’s as an organising principle: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action’ – and so the three parts are named Happenstance, Coincidence and Enemy Action, as Bond encounters Goldfinger three times, with mounting antagonism.

None of this is earth-shattering, but I admire Fleming’s restless drive to vary the format and structure of his fictions: sure, the fundamental narrative arc remains remarkably samey (baddie, girl, fight), but that makes it all the more interesting to note the themes and variations he plays on it.

Food

  • Du Pont treats Bond to the most delicious meal he’s ever eaten (p.22): fresh stone crabs with melted butter and thick toast, washed down with two pints of pink champagne (Pommery 1950) served in silver tankards.
  • Next day for lunch Bond and Du Pont have shrimp cocktail, native snapper with tartare sauce, roast prime ribs of beef au jus, and pineapple surprise. (p.32)

Personification

A new element enters Fleming’s writing in this book, the use of personification ie giving inanimate objects intention and agency. As Colonel Smithers warms up to deliver his lecture about gold,

Bond felt boredom gathering in the corners of the room. (p.50)

In general Fleming’s style is blunt and factual. I think it works best this way though, of course, he has been criticised for this as for just about everything else in the books. For example, back in London after the Mexico trip, Bond is on night duty:

Bond stood at the open window of the seventh-floor office of the tall building in Regent’s Park that is the headquarters of the Secret Service. London lay asleep under a full moon that rode over the town through a shoal of herring-bone clouds. Big Ben sounded three. One of the telephones rang in the dark room. (p.40)

Admittedly this passage personifies London, but in a traditional way most readers don’t register. What counts is the diminuendo towards the short factual sentences, which mimic Bond’s cold, calculating decisive actions, when he is on his mettle. Compared with all that, the half dozen personifications in Goldfinger strike a new, almost Dickensian, note.

Bond got slowly out of the car and stood looking at the house. Its blank, well-washed eyes stared back at him. The house had a background noise, a heavy rhythmic pant like a huge animal with a rather quick pulse… The quiet watchful facade of the house seemed to be waiting for Bond to do something, make some offensive move to which there would be a quick reply… The silence, helped by the slow iron tick of a massively decorated grandfather clock, gathered and crept nearer. (pp.96-97

Bond facts

M wears a stiff white collar and a loosely-tied spotted bow tie (p.46).

The Secret Service employs 2,000 staff (p.54).

For the first time Bond drives a Service Aston Martin DB III. For the first time in the series there are gadgets: the front and back lights can change colour and appearance; reinforced steel bumpers in case of ramming; a long-barreled Colt .45 in a secret compartment; and plenty of concealed space (p.62).

Bond is bored so he is working on a book to be titled Stay Alive! about all the known methods of unarmed combat from around the world (p.42) though, interestingly, he is sickened by some of the things he reads, especially in the Russian manuals.


Credit

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming was published in 1959 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1961 Pan paperback, 1964 edition (price: 3/6).

Related links

Other thrillers from 1959

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)

Bond put the thought of his dead youth out of his mind. Never job backwards. What-might-have-been was a waste of time. Follow your fate and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-hand motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist pickled in gin or nicotine, or a cripple – or dead. (p.148)

28 chapters divided into two parts: 1. The Planning 2. The Execution.

Part one – The Planning (chapters 1 – 10)

The opening chapters introduce us to Donovan Grant, ‘Red’ Grant, a psychopath who loves killing. He discovered this as a violent young man in the countryside of Northern Ireland, graduating from going out at full moon to kill animals, to slitting the throats of tramps and vagrants, and then being employed for nefarious purposes by the local Sinn Fein.

Grant was sent off to do his National Service in Germany, where he promptly defected to the Russians who realised his special value, selected and trained him intensively to become a perfect killing machine, in fact Chief Executioner, for Bond’s nemesis, SMERSH, the execution department of what he calls the MGB (P.36). Now he is called Krassno Granitski, code name ‘Granit’.

Cut to the head of the SMERSH (Colonel General Grubozaboyschikov), known as ‘G’, P.39), the Head of Army Intelligence and a few other Soviet high-ups having a major conference. The Politburo is unhappy that Soviet intelligence has suffered recent setbacks (they mention a few recent examples, eg the unmasking of the atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs). The Politburo has decided they must strike a decisive counter-blow against Western Intelligence. One by one, they go through the NATO countries, assessing their intelligence services, until they come to England.

Here there is some shameless jingoism as Fleming has Soviet Intelligence marvelling at how the English secret service punches so much above its weight, with operatives who are paid a pittance and get no special privileges.

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

Very reassuring. And comments which link Bond effortlessly back to the Public School adventurism of Kipling, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.

So they agree to mount a high-profile attack on English Intelligence. But targeting who? Its head (M)? The public has never heard of him, he is secretive and well-protected, so it wouldn’t have much propaganda value. Well, what about his agent called Bond? Yes, he caused them a lot of trouble in the Le Chiffre affair, and breaking up the Mr Big network in America, and foiling the Drax plan. Yes. They will assassinate Bond to demoralise and humiliate Western intelligence.

The Head of the MGB calls in the head of SMERSH’s Directorate II (Operations and Executions) who turns out to be Rosa Klebb, a dumpy, frog-like woman (so memorably played by Lotte Lenya in the movie) and briefs her. We see her consulting with World Chess Champion and SMERSH strategist, Kronsteen (Head of the Planning Section of SMERSH, p.77), who is introduced to us in a taut scene at the climax of a major international chess game.

Then there is the scene where Klebb calls in Comrade Corporal Romanova, the stunningly beautiful and naive MGB operative who they are going to set up as the ‘honey trap’ for the well-known womaniser, Bond. In a gruesome twist, after Klebb has terrified the rather simple Romanova into submission, and instructed her for her mission, Klebb pops out of the room and reappears in ‘something more comfortable’, namely a see-through nighty, and lies on a couch, dimming the lights, expecting to seduce Romanova. Who obediently turns off the mina light, but then runs out the door and down the corridor.

In the final chapter of Part One, we see Klebb restored to full uniform and complete control, sparring with Kronsteen in SMERSH headquarters as they put the finishing touches to their plan. They choose Turkey as the location, since it is so close to the East, Bulgaria in particular. The girl will lure Bond with the promise of one of the Russians’ top secret Spektor coding machines. Grant will be despatched to carry out the assassination. They will have cameramen and writers ready to capture Bond’s humiliation and death, content they can then distribute via communist-controlled media (especially in France).

Part two – The Execution (chapters 11 – 28)

Bond is bored. It’s a year since his last assignment (Diamonds Are Forever).  It’s August in London, hot and muggy and half the office is on holiday. And, we learn, his romance with Tiffany Case has collapsed – she fell in love with an American Marine and went back to the States, leaving Bond to brood.

This allows Fleming to show us Bond at his most domestic, waking naked in bed, doing his morning exercises and, above all, having breakfast! It consists of: two large cups of very strong black coffee, no sugar, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex coffee-maker; a single egg, boiled for three and a third minutes, served in a dark blue egg cup with a gold ring at the top. It must be a fresh, speckled egg from the French Marans hens owned by a friend of his housekeeper, May’s, in the country. Two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter, and three jars of jam: Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade, Norwegian Heather honey from Fortnum’s. The coffee pot and the silver on the tray are Queen Anne. The china is the same dark blue and gold as the egg cup. (p.127)

Could anything be cosier?

The housekeeper who attends on him at the pull of the bell rope, the fussy breakfast, the morning paper just so – this snug and cosy portrait of moneyed bachelordom takes us back to the Edwardian age or before, to the reassuring Baker Street rooms of Holmes and Watson and their ever-loyal housekeeper, Mrs Hudson.

M briefs Bond: Head of the Turkey station, Darko Kerim, has received the strangest approach from ‘the other side’. One Corporal Tatiana Romanova of the Russian Security Service made an appointment to meet him on the Bosphorus ferry and explained that she has fallen in love with Bond on the basis of his photos alone and wants to defect with a brand-new top-secret Spektor machine – but only on condition that Bond in person receives her. It’s so crazy it might actually be true, and so Bond packs his bags and takes a flight to Istanbul.

Flying to Istanbul

Just like previous plane journeys (from Florida to Jamaica in Live, across the Atlantic, then into Las Vegas in Diamonds) so Fleming gives a very detailed account of the whole procedure, the make of plane, the sound of the jets, the view out the window etc. And, just as in Live, the plane hits turbulence and Bond is genuinely afraid – his hands gripping the arm rests, his palms wet with fear (p.150).

Darko Kerim

After checking into an uncharacteristically seedy hotel in Istanbul, Bond is taken to meet the head of Station T, Darko Kerim, who he immediately warms to.

It was a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel, debauched, but what one noticed more than its drama was that it radiated life. Bond thought he had never seen so much vitality and warmth in a human face. (p.160)

Kerim briefs him on the girl, the offer of the Spektor machine, and the general situation in Turkey. The ‘other side’ are up to something, but he can’t put his finger on what. Kerim tells him about his life, raised one of 15 children in a harem of women kept by the biggest strongest fisherman on the Black Sea. A spell as a circus strong man, when his father was contacted and paid by the English Head of Station T to report on Russian comings and goings. Darko was taken on the payroll and, with his extensive family and connections, ended up its head. Bond warms to him and his simple, unashamed enjoyment of life in primal, Balkan passions.

Spying on the Russians

Kerim takes Bond up a secret passageway, a huge water pipe built by the Byzantines, filled with thousands of rats and bats, along to beneath the Russian Embassy. Here his people have fixed up a submarine periscope which allows them to see into the main meeting room of the Russian Embassy though not, alas, to hear anything. Bond watches some obviously senior Soviets meeting and then the arrival of Tatiana Romanova, a tall, elegant, obviously ballet-trained blonde girl, who looks strikingly like Greta Garbo. The men look at her oddly, as if she is a prostitute. We know this is because they all know the plan, for her to lure Bond into a ‘honeypot’ trap, with her body. But Bond doesn’t know this; he thinks she is concealing the fact that she wants to defect and so is puzzled by the mingled lasciviousness and contempt he sees in the Russians’ faces.

Catfight at the gypsies’

That night Darko’s Rolls Royce collects Bond from his hotel and they motor to the outskirts of Istanbul, to a dingy open air cafe by a big walled orchard. This is the base of the gypsies who work for Darko. Bond is introduced as a friend to the leader, Vavra, given pride of place at the head of the table and forced to eat along with the others part of their feast, a very hot stew, to be eaten by hand, with bread to mop up and raki to wash down.

Turns out they’ve arrived at a bad moment: two young women have declared they’re in love with Vavra’s son, and will kill their rival. The son has been sent to the hills and now, after the group feast, bolts are drawn back and Bond gets to watch along with the others a ferocious, vicious catfight between two gypsy women, Zora and Vida, who start off only wearing rags, and soon tear these off to emerge naked, sweat gleaming on their breasts and rumps. Fleming knows how to write good pulp fiction.

Shootout at the gypsies’

And as if to prove it, right in the middle of the fight there’s a bang as a group pf Bulgarian assassins blow up the perimeter wall of the gypsies’ orchard and come streaming in, guns blazing. The women and children retreat into the trees while the men spring into action, Bond among them, saving Darko’s life at least twice, shooting dead several attackers in the massive fight, until a figure by the wall, their leader Krilencu, blows and whistle and calls a retreat. They hop onto the scooters they arrived on and are gone into the darkness.

The gypsies tend to their wounded, the women return. Darko thanks Bond who sweeps aside his gratitude and wants to know why they were attacked. The gypsies are torturing one of the surviving attackers, who said they had orders to kill Darko but very specifically leave Bond alone. He has the feeling he is a pawn in a bigger game. They make their thanks and apologies to Vavra and leave but not before the proud, stern-faced gypsy says that, by killing so well, he can have final decision about which one of the wildcat women lives and which one dies. Sickened by the slaughter, Bond insists they both survive, throwing in as primitive reasoning, that Vavra will need them to breed new sons for the tribe. Vavra is visibly displeased. Bond couldn’t care less.

The assassination of Krilencu

Immediately following the gypsy shooutout, Darko has Bond accompany him in his chauffeur-driven Rolls to another part of Istanbul, where they know they’ll find Krilencu at the apartment of his mistress. He’ll send in some of his sons masquerading as police and flush Krilencu out the secret escape hatch which he doesn’t know that Darko knows about. With added pulp macabre-ness, it is a vertical trap door in the side of a hoarding used for advertisements. As Darko positions himself and assembles his lightweight rifle, Bond tries to make sense of the events of the evening. At a signal Darko’s sons go into the building; a minute later the trapdoor in the wall opens and a figure drops to the sidewalk, crouches, turns to run and… Darko shoots him dead with one bullet. They pack the rifle away, and Darko drops Bond back at his hotel where, characteristically, he has a long shower to wash off the blood and horror of the day.

Tatiana Romanova

It is only as he approaches the bed that he realises someone is in it and hears a girlish giggle. It is the Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova, wearing only a black velvet choker. Fleming knows his S&M accessories. What is interesting in this scene – as in the one where Rosa Klebb briefed her – is Fleming’s attempts to see things through Tatiana’s eyes: we are privy to her thoughts as she struggles to follow her simple instructions (seduce Bond and persuade him to take the Orient Express back to London), with the ironic knowledge that she is only being used as a pawn to get Bond into a situation where he can be murdered by Red Grant.

It’s not exactly James Joyce or Virginia Woolf; but it’s the mere fact that Fleming’s trying to reproduce the girl’s consciousness (as he did, to some extent, with Tiffany Case in Diamonds) that is interesting.

While she tries to remember her lines, he tries to focus on the plausibility of her story and the feasibility of her plan to a) flee with the Spektor machine this very evening and b) flee aboard the Orient Express. The reader knows full well it is a trap; it’s pretty thick of Bond not to realise it, but then there would be no story.

Bond gets into bed with her, clasping her breast with its hard nipple, slipping his hand down over her tummy and watching her eyes flutter under the closed eyelids. The next morning Bond wonders whether he was too rough with her, bringing out the latent S&M feel of his sensualism. (There is a striking moment a few pages later, where he leans down to Tatiana in bed, seizes her by the hair and pulls her head fiercely back before kissing her ‘long and cruelly’ on the mouth, p.199). Meanwhile, as they move and writhe, Russian MGB operatives are filming it all on cine cameras pointing down through the two way mirror in this, the ‘honeymoon’, suite.

I am still liking Umberto Eco’s point about Fleming writing to the endoxa or received opinions of his readers. And thus Fleming goes the extra mile to make the men filming Bond make love not just clinical operatives, but dirty voyeuristic perverts, noting how:

the breath rasped out of the open mouths of the two men and the sweat of excitement trickled down their bulging faces into their cheap collars. (p.186)

The Orient Express

It is the evening of the next day. We learn that Bond made love to Tatiana again, that morning, before she went off to work at the Embassy. Now he is in the Istanbul railway station waiting for her by the Orient Express, as she requested. Exactly as it begins to move she calls out from a window and he leaps aboard. Here a) he again tries to figure out whether Tatiana is telling the truth and b) we see inside Tatiana’s mind as she continues to parrot the lies she was instructed in by her SMERSH masters.

Kerim is on the train, waiting outside their sleeper compartment and they share a cigarette while Kerim points out three SMERSH agents are aboard the train. He says he’ll look after them, not killing them, but getting them thrown off. By bribing the conductor, he gets two thrown off the train but not the evil-looking ‘Herr Benz’. Kerim and Bond have further talks about the girl and pondering what’s really going on, the conversation which expands on the various types of ‘game’ they are playing, or which the narrative engages in (see note below).

Bond toys with getting off the train, with the girl and the Spektor machine but decides – dilettantishly, in Kerim’s view – to ‘play the game out to the end’. He is woken in the early hours by an alarmed conductor and taken to Kerim’s compartment. There is his friend, stabbed to death by ‘Benz’, but in his death throes, himself managing to clasp to his own body and stab his assassin. The two men’s bodies are interlocked in a gruesome death embrace.

At Thessaloniki, one of Kerim’s son’s greets them only to be told the horrible truth. There is an 8 hour waitover, so the son takes them to his flat, invites them to eat and drink the provisions laid on for them, while he makes sundry phone calls, and Bond looks out the window, smoking, full of remorse at getting his new-found friend into this plight and then killed, and still wondering whether to abandon the train.

He doesn’t and as they get back on the train at the crowded station he sees an obvious Englishman making for the train among the thronging crowds. It must be the ‘back-up’ M had suggested sending to help out, when Bond spoke to him on the phone from Kerim’s son’s apartment.

The over-dressed Englishman introduces himself as Norman Nash but we know it is Red Grant, the SMERSH assassin. He knows the correct passwords and has Service paraphernalia, but everything about him is fake and wrong. Bond wonders if he’s actually mad. He makes himself useful, is introduced to Tatiana, joins them for dinner, all as if acting a part, clumsily (which he, of course is).

At dinner he slips a sleeping draught into Tatiania’s wine, then, as she passes out, helps Bond get her back to the sleeper compartment. He says he’ll stay and keep first watch and Bond lies back on the lower bunk to sleep. In the middle of the night Grant kicks him awake with a new tone of authority in his voice. He announces he is a SMERSH agent, tasked with killing him. They’ll make it look like he murdered Tatiana, because she was blackmailing him with the tapes of them having sex, to take her to England – then killed himself. Left wing journalists in France will give the story front page coverage, causing maximum embarrassment to his Service and country. Also the Spektor device is booby-trapped to kill Service scientists. Quite a tidy little package, eh, old man. All the time Bond has been desperately cooking up a plan, asking to be allowed to smoke a cigarette then concealing the cigarette case inside the cover of his (Eric Ambler) paperback so that – when the climactic moment comes, just as the train enters the Simplon Tunnel, Bond moves the book and case over his heart just as Grant fires.

He falls to the floor of the compartment as if shot, close to the case he’s carried all over Europe, complete with a few fancy tricks supplied by Q Department, including razor sharp knives which can be extracted from its base. He waits till Grant has both feet on the bunk above him, and is preparing to shoot the sleeping Tatiania, when Bond suddenly corkscrews upwards, plunging the dagger deep into Grant’s groin then pushing more. But Grant in his death throes falls, grabs Bond’s ankles and starts pulling him off the bunk preparatory to strangling him. Desperately Bond scrabbles for Grant’s gun, turns it towards him and fires the gun five times. There is a horrible gurgling noise then Grant’s body collapses to the floor.

After some time to recover, Bond sets about tidying up the compartment using his sheets to soak up the blood which covers it like an abattoir. He finally wakes Tatiania in time for Dijon, where they finally leave the train, after four nightmare-ish days putting his feet on blessedly solid unmoving ground.

Coda

Grant had mentioned  his rendezvous with the mastermind of the conspiracy, Rosa Klebb, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris the next day. Instead – having contacted his friend Mathis from the French Deuxième Bureau to a) look after Tatiana b) despatch the booby-trapped Spektor case to London – Bond keeps the appointment.

Klebb is disguised as a wizened old crone, clacking away at her knitting in a luxury suite. She keeps up the pretence while Bond declares who he is. Her hand goes to a bell pull and only some instinct makes Bond leap sideways out of the chair as a hidden gun shoots holes in the chair. And then she is on him with the knitting needles which, Bond realises, have poisoned tips. He kicks one out of her hands then grabs a luxury Empire-era chair and corrals her body in it pushing it back up against the wall. At which point Mathis enters with two assistants carrying a large laundry basket. Klebb will be drugged and flown to England and interrogated. But just as Bond slackens the chair to let the men get to her she lashes out with the poisoned tip of her shoe and stabs Bond in the calf. The poison works in seconds, Bond going numb and cold from the legs up, before crashing unconscious onto the rich, red, carpeted floor.


Good food

Bond/Fleming loves his food and conveys his enjoyment and relish very vividly.

  • In his hotel in Istanbul, looking out over one of the most famous views in the world: thick creamy yoghurt in a blue china bowl, ripe, ready-peeled green figs and jet black Turkish coffee (p.157).
  • With Kerim in the market: sardines en papillote and raki (p.136), followed by kebab tasting of smoked bacon fat and onions along with Kavaklidere, a rich coarse Balkan red wine (p.180). Bond, for once, is not impressed.
  • At the gypsy camp Bond eats along with everyone else a greasy ragout with bread and raki. Peasant food.

The Turks

Bond is surprisingly dismissive of the Turkish people.

So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibiliants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. They were bright, angry, cruel eyes that had only lately come down from the mountains. Bond thought he knew the history of those eyes. they were eyes that had been trained for centuries to watch over sheep and decipher small movements on far horizons. They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant’s fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn’t take to them. (p.153)

He has Darko, son of a Turkish fisherman and an English mother, be very dismissive of his fellow Turks in a whole stream of comments condemning their dirtiness and their poor, peasant cuisine. As soon as his hoteliers discover Bond is a guest of Effendi Kerim they pack his things and move him into the best room in the place – the so-called ‘Honeymoon suite’ – bending low and apologising. Bond is sickened by their grovelling subservience (p.171). The more he sees of the generality of Turks, the more he thinks of them as ‘this country of furtive, stunted little men’ (p.173).

Later, as he accompanies Darko to the alley where they will assassinate Krilencu, Bond is overcome by repulsion at Istanbul.

From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were the only population. His instinct told him, as it has told other travellers, that Istanbul was a town he would be glad to get out of alive. (p.220)

Even as they prepare to catch the Orient Express out of town, Fleming has time to say how much he dislikes the main Istanbul railway station.

The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul’s main station. (p.241)

Finally, as the Orient Express enters italy with the promise of France ahead, Bond is hugely relieved to be ‘among friendly people, away from the furtive lands’ (p.283).

Everyone and their cat can accuse Fleming of sexism, racism and the other -isms, nothing easier. Odd that you don’t often read about the pretty solid anti-Turkism which runs throughout this book.

Naked

Bond routinely is naked, highlighting his sensuous self-awareness. He gets out of bed naked (p.123); on returning from the trip through the sewers to spy on the Russians Bond returns to his hotel, has a hot bath and a cold shower and sits naked sipping a vodka and tonic and enjoying sunset over the Bosphorus (p.193); at the end of the adventurous night with the gypsies Bond returns to the hotel room and enjoys the feel of the night breeze on his naked body (p.229).

Gadgets

The movies make ‘Q’ into a character, a grump old grey-haired inventor who provides Bond with nifty gadgets. In the books there is no ‘Q’, there is a Q branch which manages technical matters, for example they supervie the skin graft on Bond’s right hand which takes place between Casino Royale and Live and Let Die. This is the first book where they provide anything like a gadget, namely a hand-carried attaché case which contains: two flat rows of 25 bullets packed between lining and case; in each side a flat throwing knife made by Wilkinson; a hidden compartment in the handle which, at the press of a button, would deliver a cyanide pill into Bond’s hand; containing a thick tube of Palmolive shaving cream which unscrews to reveal the silencer for his Beretta hand-gun; and a belt of 50 gold sovereigns slipped into the upper lining (p.145).

Play the game

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

According to tradition, the Public School ethos taught its pupils to ‘play up, play up, and play the game.’ As we all know, the rivalry between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in central Asia in the last decades of the 19th century was known as The Great Game. It was the background to Rudyard Kipling’s most successful novel, Kim set in India. And throughout the Great War and then all the Imperial conflicts of the 1920s, 30s and the second war, upper class Brits were taught to ‘play the game’, the archetypal Imperial game, of course, being cricket.

It comes as no great surprise, then, to report the importance of ‘the game’, of ‘game playing’, in the Bond books. It could hardly be more obvious when the first novel in the series entirely rotates around a complicated card game, which requires the author to explain its rules in great detail along with the odds and how to gamble on it. Similarly, Moonraker‘s first part is devoted to a long and detailed exposition of a game of bridge which Bond rigs to win and humiliate his opponent, Hugo Drax. Similarly, Live and Let Die features a short but powerful scene at a gambling table in Las Vegas which again requires the author giving a detailed explanation of the game and its rules.

So it is blindingly obvious that games are central to the Bond novels. And it is only a small step up to notice that Bond conceives of each assignment as a ‘game’. When the downmarket hotel he’s checked into unexpectedly bump him up to the best room in the place, Bond reflects they might be deferring to his acquaintance with Darko Kerim. Or maybe there’s something more behind it.

Bond decided not to care if there was. The game, whatever it was, had to be played out. If the change of rooms had been the opening gambit, so much the better. The game had to begin somewhere. (p.173)

And so, 70 pages later, once Tatiana has persuaded him to take her aboard the Orient Express but Bond is trying to assess whether she’s telling the truth or not,

Bond calmly admitted to himself that he had an insane desire to play the game out and see what it was all about. (p.258)

It is this devil-may-care whimsicality, this seeing the whole Cold War struggle as a kind of extended game of cricket, which sets the British apart from the Americans or the Russians, making them sometimes – in the spy novels of Le Carré or Deighton – seem laughable and absurdly amateurish; but in the Jingoistic lineage of John Buchan or James Bond, it is what gives our playboy heroes their effortless superiority.

He reflected briefly on the way the Russians ran their centres – with all the money and equipment in the world, while the Secret Service put against them a handful of adventurers, underpaid men, like this one, with his second-hand Rolls and his children to help him. (p.198)

The game-playing rhetoric becomes a little more interesting in chapter 23 in an extended conversation with Kerim. Kerim points out the way M and Bond are both alike in being gamblers; they are taking a risk on the girl and her story and are interested to find out what the game is about. Kerim contrasts their English adventurism with the Russian game, chess, which the Russians play with ruthless professionalism:

These Russians are great chess players. When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for. They are foreseen and countered. (p.271)

This of course reminds us of the scenes in Part One featuring Kronsteen, Russian world champion chess player who is also head of planning for SMERSH, and who we see planning with Rosa Klebb every detail of the conspiracy to murder Bond. Bond says: ‘All I ask is to go on with the game until we find out.’ But Kerim counters with his own position. ‘I was not brought up “to be a sport”‘, he says sarcastically about the well-known English addiction to playing with a straight bat etc.

‘This is not a game to me. This is business.’ (p.273)

And we have seen how well-organised Kerim’s operation, and how it extends to sons and nephews; it really is a business. Now he makes a further analogy. Bond is playing the game as if it was a game of billiards. He has hit the white ball with perfect accuracy at the red which will, with complete inevitability, go into the pocket. But what if an airplace crashes on the billiard hall or a gas main blows it up. All the rules of billiards continue to be true, but they are destroyed by the broader context. Thus Bond’s silly game playing – his childish wish to play things out and see what happens – is trumped by the complexity of the real world – by the infinite multiplicity of other games which overlap, impinge on and trump the small, neat, logical one Bond thinks he’s playing.


Bond biographical details

Each book tells us a little more. Bond is six feet tall (p.159). We learn that Bond’s flat is not just off the King’s Road, it is in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road (p.123). His Scottish housekeeper, May, can never bring herself to say ‘sir’, but sometimes adds an ‘s’ to the end of her sentences. The only newspaper Bond reads is The Times. (p.124)

The early section has the MGB officials reading out Bond’s full file, which includes the facts that he commenced work with the Service in 1938 and was awarded the CMG in 1953 (p.68).

In Diamonds Bond told Tiffany he was in effect ‘married’ to his boss, M. Here, he sits in M’s office and looks across ‘at the tranquil, lined sailor’s face that he loved, honoured and obeyed’ (p.134).

Interestingly, on the flight to Istanbul Bond reads The Mask of Dimitrios, often thought of as the best of Eric Ambler’s pre-war thrillers (p.144 and p.302) and which is set, or at least starts off, in Turkey.

We learn that the Service debriefs enemy agents at a secluded house nicknamed ‘the Cage’, near Guildford (p.269).


Credit

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming was published in 1957 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1957

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Moonraker by Ian Fleming (1955)

Moonraker is divided into 25 chapters, themselves grouped into three fast-moving parts:

  1. Monday (chapters 1 – 7)
  2. Tuesday-Wednesday (chapters 8-17)
  3. Thursday-Friday (chapters 18-25)

The tight time-frame and the solely English locations (London, the Drax rocket firing complex on the Kent coast, and the roads between) make this feel like a very domestic adventure. Fleming’s Othello.

Sir Hugo Drax

Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Mr Big in Live and Let Die, now Hugo Drax – in each novel Bond is up against an evil criminal mastermind. More interestingly, each one traces their origins to the Second World War: Le Chiffre was an unnamed inmate of Dachau Displaced Persons camp at the end of the war; Mr Big served with US Special Forces during the war; Drax was one among many men injured in the blowing-up of an Allied hospital by German commandos in 1945. Amnesiac, he responded to the name Hugo Drax when shown it, and has officially used that name since.

So, all three are baddies with made-up names. And like the other two, Drax is also physically big, with exceptionally broad shoulders, big hands, a prognathous jaw with protruding teeth, and one eye larger than the other as a result of imperfect plastic surgery after the wartime bomb. Like the others, physically intimidating, and mishapenly ugly. ‘A bullying, boorish, loud-mouthed vulgarian’ (p.32)

Drax’s rise has been phenomenal. In just five years he made himself a multi-millionaire by cornering the market in various rare metals and commodities. Then returned to London in 1950 and began leading a high-profile playboy lifestyle, combining clubs, cards, horses, gambling, with charitable donations to hospitals, orphanages etc. Not a week went by without him appearing in the tabloids and he has become the People’s Darling, ‘Hugger’ Drax. In his most recent coup, he wrote to the new Queen (crowned in 1953) directly, offering the funding to design and build an atomic-powered missile which would secure Britain’s defences. Now, a year later, it is built and ready to be tested, the so-called ‘Moonraker’ rocket.

Part 1. Monday

But M plays cards with Drax at his very exclusive London club, Blades, and has noticed that Drax cheats at bridge. Would Bond mind coming along today, Monday, night, to have a first class dinner then make a pair to play Drax and his partner, Meyer, to confirm whether he is cheating, and maybe somehow warn him off. ‘We don’t want a scene, old boy; just to persuade him to be sensible.’

So we are treated to a luxurious description of Bond a) showering and preparing for a smart night out b) driving in his Bentley to Blades in St James’s c) joining M for dinner, and then i) Bond’s impression of meeting Drax in the flesh – described as a big, hairy, powerful, intimidating, bantering monster ii) of Bond watching Drax play bridge and realising how he is cheating – by dealing over his shiny silver cigarette case in whose reflection he momentarily sees each card he is dealing.

M explains the technique to the chairman of Blades, Lord Basildon, who is appalled at the scene and possible law suits which will follow any formal reprimand. Bond promises to save the day by beating Drax at his own game. Cue a sophisticated and amusing game of bridge, during which Bond pretends to get drunker and drunker before pulling his coup – namely using a sleight-of-hand to replace an entire deck of cards, just before it is due to be dealt, with one he has carefully prepared beforehand. This doctored set makes that Drax think he has an unbeatable hand lures him into gambling massive stakes, which Bond doubles and redoubles. (The novel includes a diagram of the four hands held by all the players and carefully explains how the deceit works.) Drax is humiliatingly defeated, left owing some £15,000 (p.57) – a colossal sum in 1955 – and furiously storms out of the club.

M and Basildon congratulate Bond who is exhilirated (and pleased to be suddenly fabulously rich) but eventually comes down off his benzedrine high, heading home to pass out.

Part 2. Tuesday-Wednesday

The next morning Bond has barely sloped into the office at the regulation hour of 10am (!) before M calls him upstairs. During their game last night, there was trouble at the Drax rocket complex near Dover. At the pub the workers are allowed to frequent, one of them drew a pistol, accused the Ministry of Supply’s security man at the complex – Major Tallon – of seducing his girlfriend, shot him dead, then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

M has pulled a lot of strings to have Bond himself recommended as the replacement security man at the complex. The reader just has to swallow the massive improbability:

a) that Bond could be deployed even though MI6 have no jurisdiction within the UK and so, apparently, deploying Bond internally had to be signed off in person by the Prime Minister (p.100)
b) that Special Branch or MI5 would accept this
c) that Drax himself, humiliated beyond belief in front of London society just a few hours previously, would accept his humiliator into his operation as a key member of personnel

Bond is briefed by Assistant Commissioner Vallant of Scotland Yard on what happened in the pub, along with profiles of the murdered security man and the murderer/suicide, as well as a profile of Vallant’s operative at the base, a woman agent called Gala Brand, a Special Branch officer working undercover as Drax’s personal assistant. This is followed by a crash course on rocket engineering from Professor Train, ‘one of the greatest experts on guided missiles in the world’ (p.71), all gyroscopes, telemetry and Kepler ellipses.

So Bond motors down to the complex on the Kent coast, meets Drax and both of them agree to forget about the previous night while Drax gives him (and the reader) an extended tour of the facilities. We meet the 50 or so all-German rocket specialists, note along with Bond that they all have shaven heads but sport individual and odd moustaches (p.88) We meet Drax’s chief scientist, Dr Walter, along with his creepy ADC, Willy Krebs (p.79) – caricatures of a mad scientist and Peter Lorre, standing next to the red-haired ogre-ish figure of Drax.

And we meet the beautiful (and bosomy) Gala Brand, all tight lips and professionalism (p.81). The reader wonders how long that will last. Then we stand in the rocket silo looking at the immense fifty-yard-tall sleek silver Moonraker rocket, the rocket which will ensure ‘peace in our time’ by providing Britain with a perfect defence system.

In the early hours Bond breaks into the filing cabinet in the dead Major Tallon’s rooms and discovers security files on all 50 of the complex’s staff. a) They are all German b) they all have perfect records, far too clean and impeccable. He also finds an Admiralty map of the sea around Dover, with lines pressed into it converging on a point not very far offshore, and Tallon’s binoculars on the window ledge. Did Tallon climb up on the roof to get a sight of something unexplained offshore? What?

Next morning Drax suggests Bond and Gala go along the shoreline to check the exhaust vents for security. (The Moonraker rocket has been assembled in an underground silo built next to the white cliffs a little north of Dover. The idea is that, when it takes off, the flame from the rockets will thrust down into the silo, and be vented sideways through exhaust holes built into the side of the cliffs.) Bond and Gala take what is in effect a holiday stroll along the pebbles and sand at the foot of the cliffs, with the tide out, on a lovely sunny May day. So much so that Bond persuades her to strip off to her underwear (p.116) and they go skinny-dipping in the sea (God, it must have been freeeezing cold!).

He cheekily surges up out of the water to put his arms round her and kiss her, much to her mixed feelings, before scooting off to scan the defences from seaward, thinking seriously about security, and then finding a lobster in a shallow pool, which he shows her. Eventually they end up, salty and happy, lying against the foot of the cliffs. Which is when there is a detonation and a huge slab of the top of the cliffs come plummeting down on top of them. When Bond regains consciousness he is lying on top of Gala – who he had moved quickly to cover and protect with his own body – badly cut and bruised but still alive, and just about able to move his right arm, everything else pinned under fallen rock. With this he eventually makes a breathing space and then an escape hole and, after some time, scoops and burrows and tunnels their way free. They were saved by being so close to the cliff bottom. The really big blocks of chalk which would have squashed them flat fell further out; they were just pinned by smaller rubble.

Dazed, cut and bleeding and bruised, they both throw up, then bathe in the sea, struggle back into the clothes they’d left further down the beach, back up paths to the cliff-top and motor to a nearby pub where they freshen up and eat. Later that night, when they arrive back at the complex, flash their security passes, park the Bentley, then enter the main house in the complex, they find Drax, Krebs and Walter merrily laughing and drinking over dinner. There is a cartoon moment of astonishment as they walk in, all three baddies pausing with forks half way to their mouths. Then Drax is on his feet and full of concern. Amazingly, there is still doubt in Bond’s mind about whether they are trying to kill him, but he goes to bed (after a long bath and self-treatment with antiseptics for the cuts) realising that Drax’s table was only set for three. They weren’t expecting them. Drax tried to kill them. But why? He is the nation’s saviour, a patriotic hero. He is clearly utterly devoted to the Moonraker project. And Bond is on his side. So what possible threat can he be?

Part 3. Thursday-Friday

The threat becomes shockingly clear the next day when Drax drives up to London with Gala and Krebs; he has to make a final presentation to Government Ministers before the launch on Friday. All this time Gala has been instructed to take a daily record of the firing figures, ranges and aims, to pass on to Drax. She has become aware that soon after she does this, Krebs goes into a private meeting with Drax and discusses a completely different set of figures. On the car journey up to London, Gala in the passenger seat casually plumps her overcoat down next to Drax, and waits for the right moment to pick his pocket of the notebook which he is never without. She then makes a girly plea to stop at the nearest pub so she can have a pee. In the ladies’ room she reads Drax’s notebook and the horrible truth dawns.

All the trajectories and figures have been altered by 90 degrees, making the target zone for the Moonraker’s first flight from Dover, not the wide open wastes of the North Sea, but…. London! In a flash she realises the entire Moonraker is a dastardly enemy plan to bomb London and with a nose not full of measuring instruments but… an atomic bomb! In a horrible vision she sees London reduced to an atomic waste and herself just one of many million blackened charred potato crisps which used to be human beings (p.137).

Back in the car she tries to slip the notebook back into Drax’s pocket but is caught by Krebs, who has been watching from the back seat. He shows Drax what she has been doing. Well, well, well. They knock her unconscious and drive on to London. Here they park at Drax’s flat in Ebury Street, just west of Buckingham Palace. When Gala regains consciousness it is in a room full of radio transmitters and generators. She realises with horror that this is the homing signal the Moonraker will be aimed at. An atomic bomb going off here, in the heart of London, the casualties will be in the millions! Drax is out meeting British officials which gives Krebs the opportunity to interrogate her, then unbutton her blouse and torture her in undescribed but typically sadistic Fleming style.

Meanwhile, Bond has also motored back to London to report to M, and then await Gala for dinner in Regents Street. When she doesn’t appear, he rings Vallance who says she has also failed to appear for her meeting with him. Worried, Bond motors over to Blades, to find Drax’s Mercedes parked outside. Soon Drax gets into it and Bond tails him back to the house in Ebury Street, parks, walks round the corner in time to see the two men carrying an unconscious-looking body into the Mercedes. So he jumps back into the Bentley and there begins a car chase from Ebury Street, London, to Dover, down empty night-time A roads. Fleming lets rip with his fondness for fast cars and the sheer pleasure of driving very fast. Both cars seem to hit 90 miles an hour; weren’t there speed limits in those days?

Outside Maidstone, a fast sports car – an Alfa-Romeo supercharged straight-eight – comes up outside Bond with his lights off as a kind of joke. Bond watches the prankster drive by him and pull the same trick on Drax. Only Krebs has realised that they are being followed and told Drax, and when a fast car with bright lights appears just by them, Drax rams it off the road where it goes flying and spinning and Bond watches the driver – no seatbelt or other protection – hurtled spread-eagled to his death (p.149). Now Bond (rather late in the day, you might think) is confirmed in his enmity. He is dealing with a killer.

Bond is still in hot pursuit as Drax comes up behind one of Bowaters’ huge eight-wheeled AEC Diesel carriers carrying 14 tons of rolled newsprint. In a daring stunt Drax pulls up alongside it while his creature, Krebs, jumps onto the back and uses a knife to cut through the restraining ropes. Enormous rolls of paper as huge and hard as boulders roll off the back and fill the A road just as Bond turns the corner. Crash. Drax drives back to recover Bond’s body, thrown clear, bloodied but unconscious. (His Bentley comes in for nearly as much punishment as Bond, having been written off in Casino Royale and now again, here.)

They chuck Bond in the back with the girl and drive on to the complex, where Krebs takes them at gunpoint into Drax’s office. Here they are both tied securely to chairs with copper wire. (Bond was tied to a chair and tortured in Casino Royale, then tied to a chair and tortured – had his little finger deliberately broken – in Live and Let Die.) Now Krebs lights a blowtorch and comes to sit very close to Gala, as Drax begins his interrogation. Wisely, Bond tells him everything and a disappointed Krebs puts the blowtorch back on the table.

In chapter 22 Drax does what all cartoon baddies want to do, which is explain his complete life story and motivation to Bond. Yes, he is a German, a fanatical Nazi. He and his team had planted a bomb at the Allied hospital in captured British Army uniforms when he was strafed by an aircraft from his own side, picked up and taken to the hospital for treatment which promptly blew up. In the rubble he agreed his identity was this ‘Hugo Drax’ and allowed himself to be healed and processed by the Allies just as the war ended. Returning to England he murdered a Jew and used his money to start trading in rare commodities abroad. After making a fortune he returned to England and deluded the poor, stupid, snobbish British into believing he was a world-beating patriot. Then came the idea of building a rocket to destroy London; he was helped by Allies who were employing German scientists in West Germany, and building the missile was fairly easy. But – he reveals – the nuclear warhead was supplied by the Russians who delivered it by submarine to the complex’s channel jetty. This is what Tallon saw, which is why he had to be eliminated.

And now he is poised on the edge of triumph and huge revenge for the Reich and his fallen Fatherland. Bond goads him into a fury and Drax beats him almost unconscious before leaving, announcing that this office and they will be incinerated tomorrow (Friday) when the Moonraker is launched. Bond provoked him because he wanted him to forget about his cigarette lighter. In a precarious feat, Bond inches his chair over to the table, pumps the blowtorch handle with his teeth, then picks up the lighter with his teeth, rasps the flint and ignites the blowtorch. Not without burning his nose and forehead. Again using his teeth he directs it at the copper wire restraining Gala’s hands, unavoidably burning her, too (p.166). But once she is free, she releases them both and they have a shower in the bathroom adjoining Drax’s office.

What now? Bond can see no other way than that he should somehow ignite the fuel in the rocket and blow it up. And himself. But Gala has a better plan. She has been taking down the gyro readings and map bearings for a year. Why not switch the gyro bearings on the Moonraker back to make it actually fly towards its intended destination in the middle of the North Sea?

Agreed. But first they must hide from Drax’s goons. They make a fake rope and dangle it down one of the escape chutes, but then climb up into one of the 50 or so air vents. (The exact layout of the missile silo and adjoining office is quite hard to visualise). Hours later Drax, Walter and Krebs appear to make the final corrections to the missile and suddenly notice Bond and Gala’s absence.

Much shouting and ordering of search parties, then Drax tells his men to use the steam pump to scour each of the vents. Gala and Bond brace themselves, covering as much of their skin as possible, using shirts and clothing, and they hear it getting closer and closer until a burst of scalding steam floods them for a few agonising seconds, then moves on to the next vent, leaving their bodies tingling in agony and blisters beginning to form all over their skin (p.174).

Soon the men have gone because the time for the historic launch is coming and Drax must go to meet government officials. A huge crowd of adoring public has turned out and the BBC are broadcasting live. Bond and Gala slip back down the concrete exhaust vent (further cutting themselves on exposed steel rods). Now comes the heroic part. Bond climbs up the gantry to the nose cone of the rocket and redirects its gyros and technical gismos so it will not target London but fly into the North Sea. He re-attaches all the wires, reseals the nose cone -shinnies down – patience, patience – then joins Gala in Drax’s stainless steel, sealed office. Here they lock all the doors and themselves in the shower and turn the water on and block their ears with soap against the blast, but the narrative very excitingly gives us the countdown from Ten, while Bond and Gala try to control their fear and panic. Then there is the loudest explosion ever, a devastating roar, the shower water turns burning hot, the world shakes and they pass out.

Moments later they regain consciousness on the floor – they are still alive! – and then scrabble for the radio. It is via the radio – in best rattling yarn style – that they hear the BBC announcer describe the lift-off of the Moonraker and its rapid disappearance into the clear blue sky. To everyone’s surprise a submarine has surfaced by the jetty and is taking the German workers on board, presumably to take them to the target sight (we know it is the Russian submarine come to take away the Germans) and Drax – after a violent and vengeful speech which confuses the BBC man, also takes the lift to the jetty and boards the submarine.

Cut to another BBC announcer near the test site who describes a) the approach of the submarine, whose presence has got the Royal Navy puzzled, it seems to be steaming directly into the target area (we know this is because Drax thinks this is the safest place to be); and b) then describes the instantaneous arrival of the Moonraker missile and a colossal explosion at the test site, causing the beginning of a mushroom cloud and an enormous tidal wave which rushes towards him, ‘Oh my God!’ and – … the transmission is cut off (p.181).

Epilogue

Chapter 25 cuts to Bond, heavily bandaged, using a cane and in great pain, back in M’s office where this whole affair began so innocently just 5 days earlier. The Russian sub carrying the Germans and Drax was vaporised. But so were several Royal Navy ships, and the BBC announcer’s vessel, and the coastal defences of Holland were breached. M explains there will be the mother of all cover-ups, and we and Bond listen as he works through the improbable details. Then M takes a phone call in his office and Bond listens while he says Yes sir, No sir, Thank you very much sir etc. It is, of course, the Prime Minister phoning in person to thank him and convey his thanks to Bond.

M then tells Bond he and Gala are to get out of the country for at least a month, so they’re not linked to the calamity and help the Press put two and two together. Down on the eighth floor, in his office, is the present of a new Beretta pistol and the keys to a brand new 1953 Bentley Mark VI. Bond tells the test driver to have it delivered to the Dover docks where he’ll collect it. His next appointment is to meet Gala in St James’s Park. He is already imagining in detail the romantic trip he’ll take with her from Calais down to the Loire and then heading south, exploring beautiful little French villages during the day and each others’ bodies at night.

However, she turns up at the rendezvous (opposite the island in St James’s Park) with her fiancé. They’re getting married tomorrow. Bond forces a smile, congratulates her, shakes her hand. Then walks away with no smile in his cold grey-blue eyes.


Thoughts

The first two novels had pulp elements but there was lots in them which felt authentic, had grit and traction – the epic game of baccarat, swimming off the coast of France, Vesper’s tragic dilemma; the New York skyscape, the clubs of Harlem, the scenery of Jamaica, the underwater odyssey out to Surprise Isle.

From start to finish Moonraker feels more preposterous than its predecessors. The whole one-man-builds-a-ballistic-missile-for-a-grateful-nation storyline doesn’t persuade. The entire scientific staff made up of Germans with silly moustaches is, well, silly. The ogre Drax, with his henchman Warner and the repellent creature Krebs are – as Fleming himself acknowledges – caricatures. The schoolboy mentality comes out in an overt comment Bond makes to Gala as they discuss his plan to ignite the rocket in the silo, thus saving London but himself being blown to smithereens.

‘The boy stood on the burning deck. I’ve wanted to copy him since I was five.’ Bond (p.169)

The combination of absurdly over-the-top stakes (London being obliterated; the Prime Minister giving personal permission and then personal thanks to our hero), along with shiny rockets and secret bases, has more in common with the cartoon tone of the movies, which are on a uniformly dumbed-down, adolescent level, than the sometimes more penetrating texts. It feels like the gateway to stupid.

Almost the only part of the novel which had, I thought, any real feeling, were the last few pages in which Bond sketched out a realistic motoring tour of rural France, and then had his fantasies crushed by the announcement of Gala’s marriage. These had a genuine note of bitterness.


Bond’s biography

Bond’s office is on the 8th floor of the Secret Service building overlooking Regents Park. He has a beautiful secretary, ‘Lil’ (Loelia Ponsonby) a County and Kensington gel. (We learn that her biological clock is ticking and she needs to decide whether to take a Service husband, whether to quit altogether to marry someone in a sensible job, or – as seems to be happening – to stay on, becoming a spinster, ‘married to the job’).

We get a physical overview of Bond in chapter 4:

And what would a casual observer think of him, ‘Commander James Bond, GMG, RNVSR’, also ‘something at the Ministry of Defence’, the rather saturnine young man in his middle thirties sitting opposite the Admiral? Something a bit cold and dangerous in that face. Looks pretty fit. May have been attached to Templer in Malaya. Or Nairobi. Mau Mau work. Tough-looking customer. (p.28)

Later on Fleming takes us inside the mind of Gala Brand as she muses about the arrogant young Secret Service man who’s just arrived at the base. She notes the comma of black hair falling over the right eye, and compares him to the popular entertainer Hoagy Carmichael (p.100), but with a cruel mouth and cold eyes.

We learn that only three men in the Service have earned the double 00 prefix to their Service numbers (‘the only three men in the Service whose duties included assassination’):

  • 008 (‘Bill’), just escaped from the Eastern bloc
  • o11, missing in Singapore

For the first time we hear about the elderly Scottish housekeeper, May, who looks after Bond’s small but comfortable flat off King’s Road, Chelsea (p.10). He tells us that agents are taken off field work at age 45, and that he has 8 years left to go, making Bond 37 years old.

When M invites him to his club, Blades, we learn that his full title is Admiral Sir M- M-, and that his first name is Miles (p.35).

Bond’s food

For lunch in the MI6 canteen Bond has a grilled sole, a large mixed salad with his own dressing laced with mustard, some Brie cheese and toast and half a carafe of white Bordeaux (p.22).

The dinner at Blades is a set piece: Bond has smoked salmon, lamb cutlets with peas and new potatoes, asparagus with Béarnaise sauce, and a slice of pineapple for dessert; M has caviar, devilled kidney and bacon, peas and new potatoes, with strawberries in kirsch for dessert (p.37). The waiter suggests a marrow bone as a special treat. Bond shows M his habit of scattering a little black pepper on the ice-cold vodka to sink to the bottom any impure residues (p.39)

Breakfast at a diner in Dover – scrambled eggs, bacon and plenty of coffee (p.96).

Recovering from being half-buried by chalk under the Dover cliffs, Bond and Gala go to the Granville hotel for a bath and freshen up, before drinking brandies-and-sodas followed by delicious fried soles and Welsh rarebit and coffee (p.124). The recommended dinner for after you’ve been buried in a landfall.


Credit

Moonraker by Ian Fleming was published in 1955 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1989 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1955

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (1954)

‘So it is convenient that you should die together. That will happen, in an appropriate fashion,’ the Big Man looked at his watch, ‘in two and a half hours’ time. At six o’clock,’ he added, ‘give or take a few minutes.’
‘Let’s give those minutes,’ said Bond. ‘I enjoy my life.’ (p.225)

Luxury

He certainly does. The first hundred pages or so introduce the powerful themes of America, and of black culture in America, but what struck me all over again is the importance of sensual living and luxury in the Bond persona. In fact the opening sentence is ‘There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent’ (p.1). This is the kind of classy sensualism a whole generation of spy writers reacted against, but it is terrifically enjoyable to be in Bond’s skin. He arrives at New York airport, is whisked through Customs to ‘the best hotel in New York, the St Regis’. Here he enjoys the spaciousness of the rooms, has his characteristic sense-heightening cold shower, meets Felix Leiter his friend from CIA, and, along with their FBI contact, Dexter, eat a hearty American dinner – soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice-cream with melted butterscotch.

(This was still the age of rationing in Britain, which got worse after the end of the Second World War and didn’t actually end until July 1954, ie after this book was published. Therefore, Bond’s luxury meals, whether in France (in Casino Royale) or New York hamburgers, as here, were objects of the wildest fantasy to all his British readers.)

Given half a chance he is always naked. In the final, holiday, section of Casino Royale there is nothing he likes better than walking down to the beach, stripping off and piling into the cold bracing water. In his luxury hotels, after a trademark cold shower, he pads around the rooms collecting stuff, opening letters, assembling his thoughts. Continually we are in the mind of a tremendously alert, alive, clever but above all sensual personality.

Sensual enjoyment

He enjoys his bracing morning cold shower – he enjoys breakfast the next morning – his usual half a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice, three scrambled eggs and strong coffee. He enjoys tapping out the first cigarette of the day and staring out the window of his luxury hotel. On page 39 there’s a fine description of Bond watching sun set over New York and the lights on the skyscrapers coming on till it looks like a ‘golden honeycomb’. The cold wind blowing outside lends his snug room ‘still more warmth and security and luxury‘. For a moment he remembers the bitter weather of London in February, the hissing gas fire at MI6 headquarters, and the crappy food advertised on boards outside his local pub. Then climbs into the fine clean sheets of his hotel and stretches ‘luxuriously‘.

Bond has escaped the narrow confines, horrible weather, the poverty and privations of Britain, and through these texts we escape with him. And sometimes, for all the supposed maturity and sophistication of his persona, Bond lets slip the enthusiasm of an overgrown schoolboy.

He loved trains and he looked forward with excitement to the rest of the journey. (p.100)

There’s a similar Brit-Yank comparison as Bond reads the romantic names on freight cars in sidings – Lacawanna, Chesapeake, Seaboard Fruit Express – and compares them with the names of home: British Railways 😦

Bond liked fast cars and he liked driving them. (p.134)

For all the bombs and shooting and torture and intimidation, these are books about a man who enjoys life.

The set-up

Valuable historic gold coins are being fenced on the New York market and FBI investigations have traced them back to a suspected hoard of treasure, which is now being distributed by an extensive network embedded in America’s black community. At the centre sits Mr Big, an extraordinarily clever, powerful, ruthless black man, who runs most of the organised crime in the black community. (Big is an acronym for Buonapart Ignace Gallia.) But this isn’t all: Big was recruited by the Soviets while on US army service in the south of France during the war. At his briefing (pp.13-18), M tells Bond that Mr Big is not just a Soviet agent, but an agent of SMERSH (a conjunction of the Russian words SMERt SHpionam, meaning Death to Spies) the very organisation we saw Bond vowing to dedicate his life to attacking and destroying at the end of Casino Royale.

Black culture

Since the book was written by an upper-class Englishman over 60 years ago, it would be amazing if it escaped accusations of racism, which probably occur on every page, starting with the way he writes ‘negro’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘African American’, or whatever is the current appropriate term. If we accept that Fleming’s text is a million miles away from our modern enlightened attitudes, the interesting thing is actually how far out of his way he goes to sympathise with black people and praise them. He has M say ‘the negro races’ are beginning to produce ‘geniuses in all the professions’ (p.18) and when Felix Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem nightspots, Leiter goes out of his way to praise black creativity, and is himself a passionate devotee of jazz music.

Bond at no point despises blacks for being blacks: the opposite; he is impressed, even awed, at the cleverness and efficiency of the network of fear and control Mr Big has created (p.22) and, once he is in their clutches, at its efficiency and thoroughness. And he respects the knowledge and expertise of Quarrel, the fisherman who briefs him before his final perilous underwater swim.

The ten pages or so where Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem read very much like actual research notes. It would be interesting to know how close it is to any actual visit Fleming made. Certainly the prose conveys a tremendous sense of the energy and excitement of the bars and clubs of Harlem, and the tension for a white man entering a community which is mostly polite and respectful, but not very pleased to see him.

Voodoo

But not only is Mr Big a) head of America’s black organised crime b) which he is running to aid the Russians and c) an agent of the special execution branch, SMERSH – he is also d) the head of the organised voodoo cult in the States. On pages 25 to 29 Fleming quotes liberally from the intense and vivid descriptions of voodoo rituals given in The Travellers Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, based on the latter’s trip round the Caribbean at the end of the 1940s. Mr Big cultivates the rumour of being ‘the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness’ (p.21 and p.110).

In the 1973 movie the Voodoo is much more prominent and Bond actually witnesses Voodoo ceremonies. In the book it is mostly in the background, explained as a tool Mr Big uses to keep his underlings in thrall. There is a powerful sequence as Bond gets to know Solitaire (chapter 11) where we see into her thoughts and she despairs of ever getting this calm, confident, sensible, civilised white man to understand what it was like to be brought up in poverty, in illiterate, superstition-riddled Haiti, to be inducted into the all-pervasive cults so that no matter where you go or how adult you think you are, you can never escape your childhood terrors.

The plot

1. New York

Bond arrives in New York with a mission to track down Mr Big and shut down the gold treasure-funded Soviet operation he’s running. He liaises with Felix Leiter from the CIA and FBI man Hampton. Leiter takes him up to Harlem for a tour of bars and clubs and to soak up black culture. The pair are tracked by Mr Big’s sophisticated network of street-level informants as soon as they enter his territory, and at the final nightclub of the tour are kidnapped (by the admittedly gimmicky trick of having the table they’re sitting in disappear down through a trapdoor during a blackout in the stage act – a very sensual voodoo strip-tease).

Bond is escorted into the company of Mr Big who is an outsize, misshapen giant of a man, and a cold calculating intellect. He introduces Solitaire, ‘one of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen’ (p.69) although, in keeping with Bond’s S&M vibe, she has ‘high cheekbones and a wide, sensual mouth which held a hint of cruelty’ (p.70).

Mr Big keeps Solitaire as a sort of slave because she has special telepathic powers and can read the Tarot cards. One day he will marry her but not yet, as sex ruins her powers – hence the name ‘Solitaire’ (her actual name is Simone Latrelle p.102). Improbably, Bond and Solitaire are instantly attracted and she a) leans forward to show him her cleavage (earning the rebuke of a flick of his whip over her shoulders from Mr Big) b) shows him the Tarot cards of the Prince and Princess kissing. A pretty blatant come-on.

As in Casino Royale, Bond is tied to a chair and tortured, in this case having the little finger of his left hand deliberately broken by a henchman named Tee-Hee. Mr Big says he is going to let him live for the simple reason that killing him would just cause tiresome botherment from the authorities. So Big tells his henchman to rough Bond up and dump him in Central Park. He is dismissed. In the corridor to the garage Bond jumps TeeHee, punching him to the ground, then kicking him in the groin before pushing him down a flight of stairs to his death. Taking TeeHee’s gun, he bursts into the garage, shooting dead the driver of the waiting car and another henchman, then makes a tyre-screeching escape.

Back at the hotel, Bond discovers that Leiter also escaped relatively unharmed by forming a bond with the black henchman instructed to seriously hurt him over a shared passion for jazz, resulting in a few punches and being dumped outside his hotel. But Mr Big is kicking up a fuss with the authorities, claiming his men have been attacked and murdered by a white intruder. Leiter will try and calm down the FBI and the cops, but it’s time to leave town.

2. On the train

So Bond catches the long distance train south to St Petersburg in Florida, as this is where FBI information says Mr Big’s cruiser – the Secatur – regularly docks on its trips over from the Caribbean. 1. Improbably, Bond gets a phone call at his hotel from Solitaire, in fear of her life and wanting to run away with him. Bond weighs the odds, decides to trust her, and gives him details of the train. She meets him there and they travel down masquerading as a married couple. 2. But Mr Big’s men have spotted them and are on their trail. The kindly black steward, Baldwin, warns Bond, who slips off the train with Solitaire at a midnight stop at a junction in the middle of nowhere. Not before time, because a few hours later the train is hijacked on a bit of deserted track, and some of Mr Big’s men a) riddle Bond’s sleeping compartment with bullets before b) throwing a hand grenade in it (killing the unfortunate Baldwin thus creating a) a sense of pathos b) emphasising that Mr B kills his own race, too.)

3. St Petersburg, Florida

When Bond and Solitaire arrive on the following train, four hours later, and rendezvous with Leiter at the hotel out on Treasure Island’, a resort outside Petersburg, Leiter is amazed and relieved to see Bond; surprised he has Solitaire with him; and fills him in on the assassination attempt and all the hysteria it’s caused with the authorities.

Leiter and Bond decide to go out to the dock where the Secatur generally puts in, owned by the Ourobouros Worm and Bait company, and encounter its harsh owner, ‘the Robber’, who shoots a pelican dead with a rifle he casually swings past Bond and Leiter’s bellies, before warning them off trespassing.

When they get back to the hotel it is to find that Solitaire has been kidnapped by Mr Big’s men. Leiter jumps into action, getting the authorities to put out an all-points bulletin etc. They go to a diner, eat rotten food and go to bed feeling bitter at having left her defenceless. When Bond wakes he has overslept and finds a hand written message from Leiter saying he’s gotten up early to go back to the Worm Company. Barely has he read it before there’s a call from a local hospital: a Mr Leiter is asking for him. Bond hurries off in a taxi only to find no record of the doctor or Leiter at the hospital. Feeling sick, he hurries back to the hotel to discover from the landlady that an ambulance has been and delivered Mr Leiter on a stretcher to his room.

Here Bond discovers Leiter’s body swathed in bloody bandages. He calls police and doctors and the CIA and then London. The doctor says Leiter has been very badly mauled, probably by a big fish, probably a shark. He’s lost one arm altogether and his left leg below the knee, and might not survive. The ambulance departs. The investigating police depart. A call comes from Leiter’s superior in the CIA saying maybe it’s time for Bond to move on to the Caribbean arm of the investigation. Bond agrees and books tickets, but…

That night Bond breaks into the Oourobouros Worm Company warehouse and confirms his suspicions. Concealed in the sand at the bottom of the aquaria holding the various exotic fishes, are the gold coins. This is how they’re smuggled into the country. No sooner has he made the discovery than the floodlights go on and shots are fired at him. There follows a spectacular shootout among the precious water tanks, which involves most of them being smashed or knocked over. Eventually, having run out of bullets, Bond feigns an injury, limps up to The Robber and, distracting him for a fraction of a second by dropping the gold coin he’d found, manages to punch and kick him to the floor. He then pushes him back towards the concealed trap door, the same one The Robber lured Felix over, which swings open and drops The Robber with a blood-curdling scream into the open water tank below, where a big bad shark is waiting to eat him alive.

Bond brushes himself down, and departs, drives down to the highway towards the airport, checks into a cheap motel, showers, cleans his teeth and gargles with mouthwash and passes out in the bed. Next day he catches a flight to Jamaica (a fascinating couple of pages of travelogue from Fleming, describing flying over the jungle of central Florida, stopping over at Nassau, the modest lights of Havana; his attitude to America is mixed, the scenes in New York had opened with much admiration for its beauty and energy, but by the end he is glad to see the back of Eldollarado, ‘a land where litter and junk are so much a part of the landscape’ (p.154), where most of the food served in most of the towns and diners, is junk).

It is also striking that, when the plane hits turbulence, Bond is afraid. There is an intense account (pp.170-172) of his thoughts as he works through what would happen to him and his fellow passengers if the engines failed or the fuselage was split open. Not all the pretty handwashes or luxury duty free would save them from plummeting 15,000 feet to create messy holes in the ground or simply disappear beneath the waves. He has to think of his destiny in the hands of imponderable stars. All of life is a risk. He’s made it this far. You must enjoy every possible minute.

You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. (p.171)

As the flight lands he unclenches his hands and wipes the sweat from his brow…

4. Jamaica

He’s met by Strangways, head of the Service in the Caribbean. (35, ex Lieutenant-Commander in the RNVR, black patch over one eye – p.173). Strangways fills him in on the background: rumour always had it that Captain Morgan the British pirate used the Isle of Surprise, on the south coast of Jamaica as his base. When Morgan was finally hauled off to London for trial in the 1680s he must have left a vast treasure trove but no-one ever found it. Then a few months ago a local fisherman went missing out in Shark Bay (where Surprise lies) and shortly afterwards a smart yacht appeared full of American blacks. The supposition is that the fisherman found the treasure somewhere, went to Mr Big in New York with the news, was dumped in the Hudson River in a concrete overcoat, then Mr Big used his money and international lawyer contacts to buy the island. Shortly afterwards the yacht Secatur arrived, his men created a jetty and cut steps up the side of the rock to the plateau at the top, and began carrying in glass vitrines for aquariums. They then began buying rare, exotic or poisonous fish from local fishermen and settled down into a routine of loading sand-bottomed, fish-filled vitrines into the Secatur on its regular visits, which it ferried back to the Ourbouros warehouse in Florida (the one we saw Bond shooting up a few chapters previously). Smuggling – as Bond now knows – the gold coins in the sand at the bottom of the cases.

Bond is introduced to Quarrel a Cayman Islander fisherman who is going to be his instructor and trainer. They bond instantly, forming a relationship of complete trust as between a Scottish laird and his retainer (p.181). Surprise is within sight of the mainland, but Quarrel and Bond head off to a settlement way up the coast, in Manatee Bay, where Bond can train and learn about underwater wildlife and hazards in the Caribbean. Every morning he swims a mile up the beach and runs back, then settles down to Quarrel’s instruction about local fish, especially the fearsome sharks and barracudas. Strangways tells Bond he’s sent several locals across to investigate the island but their bodies always washed up back on the mainland half-eaten by barracuda. Scary.

Bond is lean and fit when Strangways calls by to tell them Mr Big’s yacht is due in any day. They move operations back to a rented colonial house – Beau Regard – in the settlement overlooking the Isle. Bond takes delivery of a frogman’s wetsuit crafted by ‘Q’ division (p.195), a heavy limpet mine with a selection of timed fuses, a commando dagger and a harpoon gun.

Suddenly he loathed and feared the sea and everything in it. (p.199)

Bond had shown genuine fear when his plane was caught in turbulence. Now, just as vividly, he imagines the million lives of the slimy things which he will be passing among as he sets out to swim to the island. Not just the obvious sharks and barracudas, but a million tiny prickly poisonous creatures who don’t want him there, who are waiting to tear, poison, rip, sting and eat him. Strangways, Quarrel and Bond watch through binoculars as the Secatur docks and various black gang members go about their tasks before Mr Big himself appears and goes ashore.

That evening he takes a Benzedrine tablet, climbs into his wetsuit, checks the air tanks, takes harpoon and dagger and disappears into the water. The fairly short underwater journey is vividly described. The main event is his feet are suddenly gripped by an octopus hidden under a rock which starts immediately dragging him beneath it. The limpet mine attached to his chest makes it impossible to get a clear aim, till he is being pulled right into the darkness and another tentacle is gripping the harpoon gun when he fires. Immediately there is a squirt of black ink into the seawater and he is released. He presses on through the reef surrounding the island, and then into clear underwater sand where suddenly he is punched in the shoulder and horrified to see red blood in the water around him. A barracuda has bitten a chunk out of his shoulder, taking wetsuit, flesh and muscle. Panicking at the thought of the other predator fish which will be here in seconds, and of being savaged to death, Bond hurtles towards a large rock and realises there is some kind of entrance behind it.

Padding along the sloping sand he emerges into an underwater chamber to find himself surrounded by men with knives and guns, and Mr Big sitting at an accounting table in a huge cave, awaiting him. They saw the black ink from the octopus and then his trail of bubbles.

Big takes him upstairs and into a narrow corridor lined with shackles. God knows how many poor victims of Captain Morgan’s rule wasted and died here. And here he is reunited with Solitaire, dark-eyed, tearful, she’s lost weight but appears otherwise unharmed. Mr Big has his men tie Solitaire and Bond to the shackles and then explains passionlessly and scientifically how he is going to kill them in a cunning and appropriate manner: they will be tied together and then attached by rope to the paravane the yacht tows behind it: the yacht will sail through the gap in the reef by which it enters and exits the lagoon, then turn to one side so the rope pulling them is dragged across the top of the razor-sharp coral. The yacht will pick up speed and Bond and Solitaire will be hauled for yards and yards over the reef until their bodies are cut to ribbons. Once out in the open sea, their bodies will become bait for sharks and barracuda, eaten alive, then dead, till there is no evidence left, and he will sail calmly back to Florida.

He locks the door and leaves Bond to work through the terrifying scenarios and reassure Solitaire as best he can. Fleming leaves no stone unturned in his lingering on the gruesome details. Bond can only hope the limpet mine will go off after they’ve set sail – so it kills the bad guys – but before their bodies hit the coral. Otherwise, he determines to use his strength to drown Solitaire then try to drown himself. These are the kind of desperate, deadly thoughts going through his mind, when – hours later – Big’s men come to fetch him.

Bond and Solitaire are tied together and by a strong rope to the paravane, as promised and slowly lazily the yacht sets off for the gap in the reef, with the couple towed behind them. Fleming ratchets up the tension as high as possible, writing so intensely as to overcome your knowledge that Bond (obviously) survives, and instead placing you in a vividly described, intensely physical moment.

Fortunately, the limpet mine does blow up at exactly the right moment, Bond and Solitaire are lifted by the blast into the air before hitting the water again and beginning to sink. It takes all Bond’s strength to get onto his back (to keep the unconscious Solitaire out of the water) and paddle with the little movement in his hands and feet, backwards towards the reef where his feet scrabble about – lacerating feet, calves and thighs – before he finds a relatively secure position to slowly, painfully lie back, so they are both out of the water.

From this vantage point he surveys the wreck of the Secatur, which has in fact mostly disappeared, except for hunks of flesh and a carpet of dead fish floating on the surface. And then he notices Mr Big, who has somehow survived the blast, desperately swimming towards the safety of the reef, and nearly making it when – crunch! – he is bitten by a barracuda, then another, thrashing and screaming bloodily in the water until he is  finished off by a shark.

And now Quarrel is racing towards him in a canoe followed by other fishermen. In the brief last pages, Bond bathes the girl then puts her to bed, then is himself bathed in antiseptic by Strangways, before being sent off to hospital. Bandages and recovery. A telegram of congratulations from M, pragmatically ordering Strangways and Bond to claim the treasure for HM Government (and his cash-strapped department). And giving him two weeks leave in the idyllic house by the sea, for him and Solitaire to recover and then consummate their passion. Which, presumably, they do.


Bond’s biography

Bond still lives in a flat in Chelsea (as we know Fleming did from 1934 to 1945). He still works for the British Secret Service (based in ‘the big, grey building near Regents Park’ p.87), whose boss is ‘M’, whose personal secretary is ‘the desirable Miss Moneypenny’ (p.13). For the first time we hear Bond use the cover name the Service uses for agents abroad, Universal Exports (p.87).

Bond is still a Double O, meaning ‘you have had to kill a man during the course of some assignment’ (p.68). In a revealing phrase, Fleming lets Bond’s S&M mentality transfer over to his boss when he calls M from New York.

‘Yes?’ said the cold voice that Bond loved and obeyed. (p.87)

He still cherishes his 1933 4.5 litre grey Bentley convertible with the Amherst-Villiers supercharger (p.11). He has the comma of black hair hanging above his right eyebrow, the thin vertical scar down his right cheek, and grey-blue eyes with their coldness and hint of anger (p.25). Q branch has grafted skin from his forearm over the Russian letter carved into his right hand by the SMERSH operative who unintentionally saved his life towards the end of Casino Royale. (No mention is made of the intense damage to his body, especially his private parts, during that novel; all is magically healed.) Felix Leiter is still tall and thin with a ‘mop of straw-coloured hair’ (p.41), though less so after he is half-eaten by a shark. Will he reappear mauled and crippled, in later adventures?

The title is given in dialogue with the FBI agent Dexter in chapter 4:

‘And don’t go stirring up any trouble for us. This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr Big is “live and let live”‘.
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s “live and let die”.’


Credit

Live and Let Die was published in 1954 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1978 Triad Grafton paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers of 1954

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (1966)

‘Do you believe in God?’
‘I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never been able to understand what it means, you see. It’s the most difficult idea I’ve ever heard about. And yet people seem to get results by it all the time.’
Churchill said animatedly, ‘Only people with no sense of right and wrong. No real sense of it. What would you have to be like to worship something that invented every bad thing we know or can imagine?’ He looked away. ‘Death in particular. If there were no such thing as death the whole human race could be happy.’ (p.228)

This novel is a complete departure for Amis – I kept stopping to check it really was his name on the cover. It is a lot longer than average (304 pages to One Fat Englishman‘s 170) and not funny at all for long stretches (though snips of Amis humour can’t help creeping in at odd moments). Admittedly the plot becomes a bit preposterous towards the end, but for the lion’s share of the text what is happening is compassionate, sensitive and delicate portrayals of very real people, their thoughts and feelings, captured in minute detail through interplay and dialogue.

Milieu and dramatis personae

It is set in the recent past (a scientific paper published in 1963 is referred to) in an Army camp somewhere in England set up to guard a Top Secret Weapon and prepare for a Top Secret Operation. We are introduced to a dozen or so characters, mostly of the officer class, with the occasional batman or servant or private. But for the most part it is chaps talking chaps’ talk – very different in its face value acceptance of upper-middle class values and speech from his early novels which all have a chippy, anti-posh stance. In addition there are two or three posh local women, the head of a nearby lunatic asylum and his staff.

The plot

The book opens with fine upstanding officer James Churchill, accompanied by Ayscue, the haggard padre, and an Indian officer, Mori Naidu, visiting fellow officer Max Hunter, who has been admitted to the local asylum after trying to drink himself to death. It also introduces us to the head of the asylum, Dr Best who, it is quickly conveyed, is himself of questionable judgement (ie bonkers) obsessed with his idées fixes and theories. Thus Best has diagnosed Max’s motive for drinking so recklessly as a method of avoiding confronting his repressed homosexuality. Which makes the other officers burst into laughter since Max is as openly and candidly gay as a man in his position could be in that era.

In the courtyard on the way back from visiting Max, the trio walk past a striking young woman out for a walk with a nurse: she is Catharine Casement, admitted after a nervous breakdown. (True to obsessive form Dr Best as diagnosed her breakdown as caused by her suppressed lesbianism.)

Back at the Army base we meet more characters, notably Brian Leonard, the insecure ‘intelligence officer’ who has been stationed in the unit to sniff out a suspected ‘spy’. His rather ludicrous obsession with finding reds under every bed obviously parallels the obsessive secret-motive-finding of Dr Best.

The novel unfolds slowly in a series of measured and in-depth scenes between variations on all these characters. A few scenes in we meet Lady Lucy Hazell, lady of the rather run-down local manor. She kindly and compassionately takes Catharine into her big echoing mansion, and there are tender scenes of care and compassion between them. About a third of the way in we learn from conversation between the chaps that Lady Hazell has a novel approach to love and sex: she organises evenings when three or four officers congregate in her drawing room, drinking, chatting and smoking, and then are summoned one by one upstairs to have sex with her. Churchill, the nearest thing to a hero in the book, takes us with him when he goes up and we see the thing through his eyes, see how intelligent and clear-headed Lucy is.

There is no snideness about women, none of the vulgarity or crudeness which – arguably – mars this novel’s predecessors. As Lucy explains to more than one of the officers (only officers, naturally) she has been in love before, it always ends badly; this way she gets what she wants with no emotional damage. It is what she wants to do. ‘Be sure to tell the next one to come up on your way out, there’s a dear, now.’ She is a benign and happy version of the malignant nymphomaniac figure, Mrs Gryffudd-Williams, in That Uncertain Feeling. She is treated with complete respect and dignity throughout, and all her officers worship and respect her. Can this be the same Kingsley Amis?

Jumping ahead a bit, there is a comparably respectful and humane treatment of Max’s gay love life. Early in the novel a despatch rider is run over and killed, witnessed by the trio visiting Hunter. It emerges that a common soldier, Pearce, was in love with this rider or at least very good friends. One sub-plot is that Max, restored to health after his spell in the sanatorium, makes a sophisticated play for Pearce. He wines and dines him at an expensive restaurant in the village before walking on to a flat where he claims there was a party but when they get there, oh dear, the flat is empty with a feeble note from the ‘party-giver’ saying it’s cancelled, he’s been called away, please make yourselves at home. It has all been set up by the suave and humorous Max and he begins to slowly seduce Pearce, getting as far as kissing him on the mouth when – the latter pulls away. There follows a really mature and respectful scene where young Pearce apologises and explains that he still isn’t over the death of his friend. Max responds astonishingly respectfully and walks him back to the jeep – although, life being what it is, he pops back into the restaurant under the pretext of having left his watch there, and makes a date with the rather dishy waiter who served them lunch.

James and Catharine

There are roughly two narrative arcs. In one, James Churchill and Catharine fall deeply in love. No tricks, no jokes, a really heart-felt, deeply emotional love story. Lucy gets Catharine a job at a local pub, the White Hart, where both the landlord (Eames) and the other bar staff, informed of her condition and recuperation, go out of their way to be kind and considerate of her. These scenes and characters evince a lovely feeling of warmth and sympathy, I almost wanted to cry at a few moments. Can this be the same man who wrote One Fat Englishman and The Egyptologists? Churchill and fellow officers drop into the White Hart for a drink where Catharine is working, they recognise each other from that fleeting encounter at the asylum, and it is love at second sight.

Their relationship is beautifully and sensitively described and provides a central core to the narrative. There is a frankly wonderful scene where James sits at the bar through one lunchtime while Catharine is serving, then helps wipe the tables and clear away, before they are both thanked and bid goodbye by the landlord and James takes her for a drive in an Army truck up into the countryside. They park in an isolated spot, go through a small fence and clamber down to walk beside a stream to an isolated spot where they lie on the grass and make love.

It is made all the more powerful because in the pub, after the last customer had left, Catharine revealed the secret of why she had her breakdown: it was her abusive and violent husband who, she slowly realised, could only have sex with her if she was hurt, wounded, injured and crying in pain. The gentleness with which James coaxes this out of her, the horrid plausibility of the brutishness of some men, and the support and love he gives her, are as if written by a completely different man, in a completely different tone.

Catharine came out of the pub. She looked so beautiful in her white dress and white shoes and white hair-band that Churchill had an instant of sincere puzzlement at the way the passers-by went on passing by, the farmer climbing into his estate wagon over the road failed to reverse the direction of his climb and come pounding across to cast himself at her feet, the man laying slates on the roof of the barber’s shop managed to stay aloft. Churchill put his arms around Catharine and kissed her. (p.170)

It comes, then, as a shock when James feels a lump in her breast and advises her to go to a doctor straightaway. Things move very fast and she is diagnosed with breast cancer while James is on an exercise and he is devastated. She is taken into hospital and he goes into a deep depression.

The Anti-Death League

Churchill and some of the others, especially after the accident with the despatch rider, and given that one of their number is the padre, Ayscue,  have occasional conversations about God and the meaning of it all, in which Churchill and to some extent Max are revealed as vehement atheists, despising a God who created so much suffering, though there is comedy when the more robust of them point out that they are in the Army, old chap, whose job is to dish out rather a lot of Death when called upon.

Out of nowhere there are two mysterious events: the padre had announced he was going to start up a magazine to try and keep morale up and one day someone leaves an upsetting poem on his desk, titled To A Baby Born Without Limbs which is fiercely anti-religious. Then carbons of a notice are pinned up everywhere informing everyone about the creation of the Anti-Death League, incorporating Human Beings Anonymous. It lists three appalling tragic deaths and says all you have to do to be in the Anti-Death League is be against horrible pointless deaths. There are no fees or rules but if you want to find out more, be at the Base Hall next Thursday.

The ‘meeting’ is a complete anti-climax as four or five of the officers we’ve got to know, plus the camp commander turn up expecting to see the originator of the notice, but there’s no-one there except a handful of bored squaddies who, after a grilling, are let go. It gives the novel its title but nothing else really happens about it, there are no members and no conspiracy and no big revelations. This is true of a number of Amis’s novels which promise Big Things which then peter out. I found it very hard to tell the tone in many places: not funny for long stretches, but not deadly serious, not as thrilling as a spy novel, not as imaginative as a science fiction novel, not as solely about emotions and feelings as, say, D.H. Lawrence – but with elements of all of these mixed together.

Atomic rifles

The other main strand in the novel is the slow revealing of the Big Project the Army unit has been created for and which the officers occasionally mention in hushed tones. For two thirds of the novel I was in suspense wondering if there was going to be the revelation of some Grand Science Fiction Technological Secret Weapon, that that would justify the rather rambling directionless feel to the narrative. About page 230 it is revealed that the big secret weapon stored in the ‘special building’ D4 is a new kind of rifle which fires ‘atomic bullets’. They look normal and require only lightly amended rifles. Load and fire in the normal way and whatever it hits a miniature atomic explosion vaporises. The third part of the novel features a large-scale demonstration of the rifles involving trucks of soldiers accompanying the officers to a firing range accompanied by helicopters overhead etc.

It is here that a number of themes collide, specifically the Brian Leonard spy theme and bonkers Dr Best, for Leonard has become convinced Best is the spy he’s after and that this exercise will flush out the ‘spy’. His worst fears are confirmed when Best is indeed spotted making his way to the perimeter of the exercise, whereupon Leonard feverishly brings all his forces into play, telling his men to pull back and lure Best into a trap. Unfortunately half way through Best literally disappears; and when, after the demonstration of the atomic rifle’s awesome powers, the lorries are trundling back to camp, one of them has an accident and bursts into flames, and in the ensuing confusion, one of the rifles goes missing!!!

This prompts a full-blown panic with all soldiers formed up to scour the countryside and tear the camp to pieces looking for it, and also the arrival of a Man from the Ministry, plump, scruffy, posh Jagger.. He is a little like the Fat Englishman, immediately demanding cold beer, so fat he struggles to get out of a chair and so on. But he appears to be meant to be the real thing, smart, clever decisive. Is this satire? Does this mean it’s turned into a spy novel? Or a (very low-key) science fiction novel? Or both?

Whoever stole the atomic gun terrifies everyone by letting it off later that night and blowing to smithereens a local (already ruined) priory.

Next morning Leonard is tipped off by his men that Best is back in his office at the asylum and the rifle is with him. Leonard and Max tear off there in an Army vehicle with Jagger hiding in the back seat. They gain admission to the asylum and then up to Best’s office where Leonard attempts to arrest Dr Best for espionage and breaching Official secrets etc. To which Best smirks and replies that, on the contrary, his expedition to the test site has confirmed his suspicions that Leonard is mad and he flourishes a sectioning order countersigned by the two other doctors in the room. And so there’s a stand-off as they both stand there shouting that they’re arresting the other: a satire maybe on the fatuousness of human concepts, of law, of authority, of power and legitimacy.

A stand-off solved by brute force for when one of the doctors enters with hypodermic syringes to tranquilise Leonard and Max quite a big complicated fight breaks out with bottles smashed and cupboards knocked over, until Best takes quite a heavy blow to the head. And in a not funny but genuinely weird development he freezes and starts to spout a kind of spy comic narrative: ‘They contacted Dr Best. Only you can save the world from the death rays. Best said he’d do what he could. He recruited his best agents and set off.’ He has gone into a kind of bizarre comic strip psychosis. The other doctors are astonished and sedate him. Max and Leonard return to the base.

The real spy

Leonard returns to his room to be astonished to find his valet, Deering, going through all his things, with all his Top Secret reports open on the bed. Deering attacks him in another prolonged fight which ends with Leonard unconscious amid the wreck of a mirror. When he comes to he dashes down to the officers mess, has the alarm sounded but at that moment a heavy machinegun goes off and the soldiers are rallied round the roof of D4, the Top Secret building, where Deering has coshed a guard and is letting loose. There follows some hair-raising action in which Max Hunter shows himself to be something of a hero, climbing up to the roof, having to duck the bullets, before distracting Deering long enough for him to be finished off by Jagger, not just a fat Englishman.

Operation Apollo

So Leonard had been briefed correctly, there was a spy in the base. It does, however, look very bad that it was his own batman. Jagger says they’ll go gentle on him, he’ll be quietly court-martialled and given a dishonourable discharge, but then quietly slipped some cash. He also confirms that Best was never a spy, his madness was a pure coincidence.

Leonard is then debriefed by a minor character, the stern and logical officer, Ross-Donaldson. He explains briefly that the atomic rifles are an impractical weapon and could never be used in combat. A selected cadre of officers had been told they were taking part in Operation Apollo: this would involve being sent to the Himalayas in pairs with the equipment to spread a lethal new plague among the Chinese Army which intelligence suggested was considering invading India. The teams of officers were to capture and infect Chinese troops, releasing them to go infect their comrades. It wasn’t really expected that any of the officers would return. But this plan was a bluff. HQ had hired an inexperienced and incompetent ‘intelligence officer’, told him to promote his own existence among the men, and to guard the atomic rifles, all the time counting on his incompetence to let the information about the deadly plague be stolen and reported back to China. This has now successfully taken place. The Chinese will be frightened off; the invasion of India will be called off; the Operation was never actually about the plague: it was about Leonard’s incompetence. He is a broken man.

(In an entertaining side scene, fat Jagger – he struggles to get out of chairs or off a bed – corners Hunter, the hero of the hour who took on Deering behind his heavy machine gun nest: Jagger prompts Hunter to confess all – it was he, Hunter, who wrote the poem against God, who posted the note about the Anti-Death League, and who stole the atomic rifle, with the sole intention of blowing up the Priory as a deliberate snub to God. Since he is a hero Jagger says he will forgive and forget, ‘unless you’re planning to do the same kind of thing again, old boy.’ He advises Hunter to leave the Forces and settle down with a nice someone (his homosexuality acknowledged and accepted), but Hunter surprises himself and us by saying he rather enjoyed being under fire, real combat, real bullets – he might volunteer for a genuinely dangerous tour of duty.)

Having learned all this, Leonard realises there is still some good he can do. He drives with Naidu out to Lady Hazell’s mansion to visit Churchill, by now comatose with despair about Catharine’s cancer, lying in a darkened bedroom. They both have speeches about God and life designed to knock James out of his stupor: Leonard saying Operation Apollo is off – it was never on – it was always a ruse to frighten the Chinese – anyway, there is no God to be angry with, Naidu saying he must learn to transcend his own greed and selfishness in order to come to learn to love the world as it is (p.268).

Neither works, so Leonard hacks off in his car and returns an hour later with Catharine, extracted from hospital against her doctors’ advice. She takes him in her lap and pleads with him to return to her, to be a man again, to be there for her. And like the sleeping princess, suddenly he responds, he answers her. He returns to life.

Conclusion

A puzzling blend or confusion of genres. Amis’s style remains quite detached and factual ie rarely becomes emotional and also lacks colour, lacks simile and metaphor, in this respect rather like David Lodge’s. His attitude is capable of flashes of satire and social comedy at almost any point, and all the scenes that include Jagger are more or less funny.

After a couple of abortive tries and a bit of shrieking Jagger pulled a loudly ticking watch out of his top pocket and glared at it. (p.285)

But the vast majority of the text isn’t trying to be funny and it’s quite a puzzle trying to define what it is trying to be, in the end. There’s a continuous thread of chatter about God, about life and the meaning of it all, but hugely inconsequential. Like most novelists, Amis is most profound or thought-provoking about the weirdness of existence, about the mystery and impenetrability of life, when he’s not tackling it head on but dramatising it in strange incidents or conversations or moments which reveal the disjunctions between our cosy expectations, our familiar chat and conventions, and the bizarre biological and psychological ‘reality’ which underlies it.

And this is what novels, literature, texts, do more than any other genre. They can be puzzling, unexpected, quirky and odd in the way film or TV can’t. For me the sci-fi scenes didn’t really convince and the spy plot wasn’t even persuasive as a spoof – much though spy spoofs infested the mediascape in the mid-1960s. The most vivid scenes for me were the long pub-to-streamside walk between Catharine and James, and the equally mature, responsive account of the attempted seduction of Private Spencer by Max. They’re the scenes which will stay with me, and are reminders of how powerfully Amis could write about real human beings and their feelings when he wanted to.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Arthur Robins

I love these cartoon covers of the old Penguin paperback editions of Amis’s novels. They were done by book illustrator Arthur Robins, who is still at work illustrating mostly children’s books. Visit Arthur Robin’s website.

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

L.S. Caton

A character named L.S. Caton appears in Lucky Jim. He promises the eponymous hero that he’ll publish his academic paper in a newly-established journal. Instead, Caton flees the country and the journal collapses – a further blow to Jim’s shaky reputation – and Caton is last heard of setting off for South America.

He is then mentioned in most of the subsequent Amis novels, making him a nice running joke:

  • In Take A Girl Like You he appears in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Patrick Standish’s school about his experiences in South America
  • On page 159 of One Fat Englishman Roger Micheldene discovers a letter asking a reviewer to consider his book about South America for publication
  • In The Egyptoloists he appears on page 43, as an agenda item for a meeting of the mysterious Egyptology Society, and then again on page 158 as that night’s guest speaker.
  • In this novel he is booked as a guest lecturer to talk about the military in South America and he actually arrives at the Base ready for his talk at just the moment the Chinese spy Deering goes on the rampage, letting loose with a heavy machine gun from the roof of the secret building. To my horror Caton, being driven through the front gates at that instant, is the only victim of Deering’s rampage, a direct hit in the face, instant death (p.279). My God. Is that really the end of this entertaining joke. Will it turn out to be a case of mistaken identity? Will he be miraculously resurrected in the next novel? Hope so.

The Enemy by Desmond Bagley (1977)

‘There’s one thing about being in an organisation of spies – news gets around fast.’ (p.163)

This is another belting thriller from Bagley; man, he really hit his stride in the 1970s. There’s a question mark over some of his novels from the 1960s, which often become a bit over-excited (eg Wyatt’s Hurricane, which starts sensibly, ends up featuring a hurricane, a tsunami and a civil war all in a frenzied 200 pages). But by the 1970s his stories are much more calm, focused, factually anchored and, for that reason, when the action kicks in, all the more plausible and genuinely gripping. Like The Snow Tiger, I just couldn’t put this one down and read it through into the early hours.

Sweary

It’s a first-person narrative. Either Bagley’s style evolved during the 1970s or, as I suspect, he deliberately created a different voice for each of these books. There was swearing in the last two novels – and certainly more swearing than you get in MacLean, who tells you people swear but not necessarily the words they use. The protagonist of this one, Malcolm Jaggard, is 34, the optimum age for heroes of this kind of thriller (Bagley himself was 54 when this novel came out). His voice starts out fairly traditional, almost posh (as well as his job he enjoys a private income of £11,000 per annum, a lot in 1977) mixed with rather dated slang. But as the novel proceeds he becomes steadily more vulgar – until right at the end he, rather surprisingly, tells his boss where he can shove his job.

To stitch together some sample snippets of speech and thought…

‘Stuff the record,’ I said… ‘Who’s pinched our Who’s Who?’… ‘The man keeps a bloody low profile…’ A couple of hours later I was having a mild ding-dong with Larry… ‘Oh Christ!’ I said, ‘Nellie is a tattle-tale, too bloody gossipy by half’… I was knocking croquet balls around on the lawn when Ashton pitched up… ‘Nip round to the garage and see what’s missing,’ I said… I told her a damned sight more than I ought to have done, and to hell with the Official Secrets Act… We can have another noggin at the Coach and Horses… ‘… and has been freezing his balls off ever since…’ ‘… the bloody Russian embassy.’ ‘I’m making bloody sure I do stay out of sight’…. He was doing it deliberately, the bastard…’Oh Christ!’ I said… ‘Caught in a shell blast, my arse!’… ‘I think it’s a bloody disgrace.’…’It is bloody difficult’… Jaggard, you bastard!… there was a hell of a lot missing… ‘The bloody thing beat me in the end’… ‘We’re going to talk to that bloody auctioneer’… ‘Ashton was a clever bastard,’ I said… What a ruthless bastard he had turned out to be!…’I won’t take compliments from you, damn it!’

I said bluntly, ‘Get lost.’
He was not a man who showed astonishment easily, but he did then. ‘What did you say?’
‘You heard me. Get lost. You can take Kerr’s job and your job and stuff them wherever you like. The Minister’s backside might be a good place’ (p.251)

The plot

British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard is falling in love with Penelope, daughter of well-off self-made industrialist George Ashton, when someone throws acid in the face of Ashton’s other (grown-up) daughter, in the drive to his country house. When Jaggard digs into Ashton’s background he discovers he was a high-ranking child prodigy and Soviet scientist who defected to England in the 1940s. But his life is shrouded in mystery and, when Ashton and his loyal man-servant, Benson, suddenly disappear, Jaggard can’t get access to the Classified files.

The novel turns into a Quest, a Pursuit. Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, tasks him with finding the two men and, after a lot of false trails, Jaggard discovers them living in Stockholm, under false names, suspiciously close to the Russian border. His daughters, his household, know nothing about it. It was a very professional disappearing act.

Jaggard suggests he simply presents himself to Ashton and asks him to return to England, but his boss, Ogilvie, insists he mount a major operation to snatch him. Half a dozen men tail Ashton round Stockholm, alerting him to the fact he’s rumbled, scaring the pair into catching a train west. Following the train Jaggard and his team detect them alighting at a tiny village stop and are planning to corral them into a car, and thence to a plane and home to Blighty. But Ashton and Benson are stubborn – what is their secret, what are they so afraid of? – and make off into snow-covered woods, where the pursuing agents are horrified to hear the sound of guns – single shots, then machine guns. My God, they’re blundering towards a Swedish Army exercise! Now Jaggard and his men close in at speed on the old man and his loyal servant when, to everyone’s amazement, just as Ashton turns towards Jaggard who is shouting to warn him – Benson shoots his master twice, and is immediately shot dead by one of the agents. Disaster!

On his return to London Jaggard has not only to explain the catastrophic failure of his mission to his boss – and then to a committee including the Home Secretary – but has to live with the knowledge he has helped kill his fiancée’s father.

But this is only half way through the book. There’s something very wrong about the whole affair and Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, while pretending to downgrade him, in fact gives him free rein and orders to get to the bottom of the business. In doing so Jaggard uncovers a plot which extends to the highest levels in Whitehall and which dates back to the War, and which leads Jaggard from a comfy Home Counties mansion to a grim, storm-tossed Scottish island where a secret laboratory is carrying out hair-raising germ warfare experiments.

There are some light and amusing scenes along the way – especially around the slowly-emerging significance of the enormous model train set which the agents find in the attic of the dead Ashton’s mansion – but the brutal deaths in a Swedish forest mean the book can never have a happy ending, and in fact its last few pages contain an unexpected twist which contain a horrifying message for all of us, even 40 years later. Hence the title which is lifted from an American satirist, Walt Kelly: ‘We have met the enemy – and he is Us.’

No descriptions

Bagley just isn’t into descriptions, visual descriptions, the way other novelists are. When the narrative moves to Stockholm, the opening of chapter 18 sets the scene. Or rather it doesn’t. Even when a sentence or paragraph starts out describing something it always veers back to human or anthropomorphised activity. People, animals, scenery, architecture – they aren’t painted, they always have to be doing something in Bagley. His is a dynamic imagination.

It was dark and cold in Stockholm at that time of year. All the time I was in Sweden it didn’t stop snowing; not heavily most of the time, but there was a continual fall of fine powder from leaden-grey clouds as though God up there was operating a giant flour-sifter. I was booked into the Grand, which was warm enough, and after I had made my call to Henty I looked out over the frozen Strömmen to the Royal Palace… There were swans on the Strömmen, walking uneasily on the ice and cuddling in clusters as though to keep warm. One was on an ice floe and drifting towards Riddarfjärden; I watched it until it went out of sight under the Ström bridge then turned away feeling suddenly cold in spite of the central heating. (p.117)

It’s not intended as a criticism. I’m just trying to identify the differences between, to individuate the strengths and weaknesses of, Bagley, Deighton, Innes, MacLean et al.

Instead of description of scenes and places, what you do get in Bagley is lots of factual background. And so at several places there are detailed explanations of genetics and genetic engineering, circa 1976, each instalment picking up ideas from the previous one and exploring them further, thus adding depth (and tension) to the plot.

The way Bagley incorporates his obviously in-depth background research into the drama of the text is one of his great achievements.

Computers

Same goes for his extensive knowledge of computers demonstrated by his technically precise descriptions of:

  • the Department’s central database with its remote terminals and passwords
  • the complex computer language which Ashton turns out to have programmed into his labyrinthine train set with its advanced micro-processors
  • the links along a landline which the investigating computer scientist sets up from his remote terminal to another, central information-processing computer

All this isn’t clunked into the text, it is woven seamlessly, it is part of the imaginative fabric of the story:  the computers and the genetics turn out to be what the novel is, ultimately, all about.

The anxiety of influence

As in every spy thriller from this period, there are the obligatory comments trying to distance the narrator (and the text) from the enormous shadow of Ian Fleming. After using his organisation’s new, super-powerful computer, Jaggard remarks:

Strange how the real world is catching up with James Bond. (p.28)

Later, he explains his profession to his fiancée, Penelope.

‘State security! You mean you’re some sort of secret agent. A spy?’
I laughed and held up my hands. ‘Not a spy. We’re not romantic types with double-o numbers and a licence to kill – no nonsense like that.’ (p.60)

‘You people amaze me. You think you’re James Bonds, the lot of you. Well, I don’t think I’m living in the middle of a highly coloured film, even if you do.’ (p.120)

Social history

The novel turns out to be about genetics and genetic engineering and it’s a bit of a shock to realise just how long this has been a ‘hot’ topic of debate. Same goes for three or four other political/social issues, altogether making me realise how little things really change:

  • Genetic engineering Typically thorough Bagleyesque explanation of the state of genetics in the mid-1970s, what genes are, how phagocytes are used to carry snippets of DNA etc, and the risk of it all going wrong, of creating virulent new viruses and diseases.
  • The internet Jaggard and his team use remote computer terminals to access a central computer database. They require login details and passwords, just like the computer I sit down in front of every day. When the ‘boffins’ analyse the train set they set up a link by phone line with a remote computer. Here, pre-1977, are the seeds of the internet.
  • Scottish devolution As soon as the narrative switches to Scotland, the narrator mentions Scottish nationalism and the Scots desire for devolution or even independence. In the pub in Ullapool:

There was talk of English absentee landlords and of ‘Scottish’ oil and of the ambivalent attitude of the Scottish Labour Party, all uttered in tones of amused and tired cynicism as if these people had lost faith in the promises of politicians. (p.220)

Thank goodness, 40 years later, all these issues have been sorted out by the wise men who govern us.

Related links

1977 Fontana paperback edition of the Enemy

1977 Fontana paperback edition of The Enemy

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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