|—||L’histoire Du Châtelain De Coucy Et De La Dame De Fayel - Jakemes|
“The hair,” corrected Bond.
“One hair would not be enough, Bondo-san. I need the whole skin.
|—||Tiger Tanaka & James Bond - You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming|
Now, we arrive at the first book in the series that I never finished. The first time I attempted to read the series, some 8 years ago (or more?), I ended up stopping in the middle of Thunderball. For whatever reason, it didn’t hold my attention. I never really enjoyed the film adaptation (I learned how to snap my fingers over the length of a particularly dull screening), which I found to be rather dull and one-note, with very little in the way of memorable action or plot. I’ll be revisiting this film shortly, so stay tuned for that review, but I will say that the things I find boring in Bond usually stay pretty constant. One of the things I get most bored of is nautical Bond. As Bond/Fleming was a naval officer and given Fleming’s life in Jamaica, extensive material involving diving, marine biology, and all other things aquatic appears throughout the series. Nothing is more boring than an underwater fight scene. It’s true in the films (Thunderballand For Your Eyes Only, to name two) and it’s true in novels.
But is Thunderball a novel? Books and documentaries have been made detailing the history behind the legal disputes between either Fleming or EON Productions and Kevin McClory, one of Fleming’s collaborators. The long and short of it is that Kevin was one of five writers, including Fleming, that contributed to the story of an original James Bond screen treatment. The film, pre-dating Dr. No by a couple of years, didn’t materialize, and Fleming decided to adapt this screen treatment into his next novel (McClory, Fleming, and one of the other writers receive credit for the source material on the copyright page). Legal disputes ensued and the resultant endpoints thereof include Kevin McClory’s producer credit on Thunderball (the film) and the eventual McClory-produced remake, the entirely uninteresting “unofficial Bond film, ”Never Say Never Again (1983), starring Sean Connery.
More importantly (for our purpose), the complicated history of the novel’s development leads to a book far unlike any that preceded it. At times it reads like a novelization of a film. Description is slightly more literal than stylized, and, despite the overall lack of action, it conjures up images in one’s mind of a Thunderball film with Connery, but with the budget of Dr. No. The novel shows a constraint and self-awareness, with the hint that they were considering keeping the film simultaneously high-concept and low-budget. The globe trekking is minimal, there is only one real action set-piece (or maybe, two… but they are both underwater and involve spearguns and deadly fish; both are also relatively brief). There is a lot of dialogue and character development, and a fair deal of meandering about. But I guess we’re supposed to be looking at the pretty location photography that would have been.
The opening act at Shrublands, the health clinic Bond is required to stay at, is a lot of fun. I am always a sucker for more casual Bond material that shows him at home and being rather relatable. This chunk of the book would have made for a pretty decent short story. Next comes the introduction of SPECTRE, Bond’s new adversaries. It’s remarkable, in hindsight, how understated the organization’s presentation feels. It does obviously have a lot of the over-the-top dramatics you’d expect, but they are couched in as much realism as possible. The plot is obviously the biggest in Bond so far: theft of nuclear missles with the world held for ransom. But as these things don’t actually happen, the budget can be kept down.
The book makes the Fleming mistake of putting us way ahead of Bond in knowing the plot. Fleming must not be particularly interested in the suspense of who/what/where/when/why that compels Bond to engage in his duties, but instead he builds his stories around the “how” of “How is Bond going to figure it out and beat the baddie?” Bond and Leiter (whose presence in the story is larger than ever) bumming around for the whole middle of the book, trying to find out information that we already know, doesn’t make for the most compelling read. Fortunately, Domino and Largo are colorful figures, and the scenes of villainous exposition are engaging, so that makes up for something. I will admit that the Domino’s brother connection is never fully explained, and it’s not entirely clear of how the Domino/Largo/Giuseppe triangle developed, nor who knew what and when. This element is stronger in the film, as far as I can recall.
By the way, every time Leiter appears, it’s always a surprise for the reader and for Bond, and it makes me the giddiest young man on the subway whenever it happens. He is the Gene Parmasan to my Lucille Bluth whenever I read Bond.
The novel’s lopsided structure (my usual grievance with any Fleming) can be felt by noticing the fact that act III (or is it act IV?) begins with about 10% of the book left. The book’s finale is predictable but thankful after the water treaded by Bond & Co. in the chapters leading up to it. The coda is sweet, and maybe a bit hokey, but I’m sure it would have been a hit with the cinemagoers.
This book, which I never finished a decade ago, took me the longest to finish out of any book so far in this go-round. Hopefully, the future battles with SPECTRE bring Fleming back to form. It will be a surprise I look forward to, as I haven’t read any of the remaining novels before.
In keeping with my attempt at following Griswold’s chronology for the series, I will be reading the three main stories in Octopussy & The Living Daylights next, then the first few chapters of OHMSS, then 007 in New York, followed by The Spy Who Loved Me, and finally the remainder of OHMSS. After this little tango, I will finish the series with the final two Fleming novels, back-to-back.
1. Casino Royale
2. From Russia With Love
3. For Your Eyes Only
5. Diamonds Are Forever
7. Doctor No
8. Live and Let Die
Next: The Spy Who Loved Me/Octopussy & The Living Daylights/OHMSS