In the month of Valentine’s Day, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week, could really only go with the theme of
And Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery is collecting the links this month.
Last week I looked at Love in Agatha Christie.
Anyone who hasn’t read Ian Fleming’s James Bond books will probably be surprised that I have picked him for this week’s topic. I have spent the past year reading the James Bond books and stories from beginning to end, and they have surprised, confounded and delighted me. I wanted to do a roundup post on the whole project – and this seemed the ideal way to look at Bond and Fleming and love…
James Bond in Love
This is how the archetypal Bond Girl dresses in the books
I read most of the James Bond books when I was a teenager, and hadn’t looked at them since. I had seen exactly one Bond film in my life.
At the end of 2015 I read an extract from a collection of Ian Fleming’s letters, The Man With the Golden Typewriter. I bought the book, read it, gave it to half a dozen people as Xmas presents, and on the strength of it decided to re-read all the James Bond books. I feared that they would seem dated and perhaps tiresome, that the attitudes to women, foreigners and the lower classes would be objectionable – but I was certain it would be an interesting project.
It certainly was, and I was confounded by how enjoyable the books were. Yes, they were of their time – for such unrealistic stories, they are full of fascinating details of how we lived then. To take random examples:
Smoked salmon as a luxury item
Las Vegas as a new phenomenon, and one readers would not know
Sexy women in wellingtons as they run round the casinos in Vegas
Spaghetti Bolognese and sex in a car as the height of sophistication
Bond or Bigglesworth? all-purpose illo
Other aspects I very much enjoyed were the similarities with childhood hero Biggles, and the succession of giant and small octopuses and squids. The fact that nearly all the nice women at some point wear a ‘hand-stitched leather belt’. The way the titles have entered the language. The Bond details of sleeveless shirts, slip-on shoes, a hatred of flying. The absorbing card games (compared with the dull golf).This list of what Bond would do if he got rich:
He thought for a moment and then wrote carefully on a memorandum pad headed ‘Top Secret’:I said then: ‘Bless. It’s like my son’s Christmas list when he was 8.’
1. Rolls-Bentley Convertible, say £ 5000.
2. Three diamond clips at £ 250 each, £750.
But what surprised me most were the Bond Girls, as they are always known – though not by Fleming. Of course they were women of their time, and I don’t think Fleming can be criticized for that. There are lines and passages that made me wince, that I wish he hadn't written - but not too many of them.
The women are varied and fascinating, and Fleming does attempt to see into their lives and minds – much more so than many of his contemporaries. And he does a good job of describing their clothes on the whole.
Here’s my final rundown of the books, with links to the full review and a particular look at female characters.
Casino Royale 1953 Vesper Lynd (a problematic heroine), the French setting, some horrible scenes of torture and general violence. You can see why this one must have been a welcome breath of casino air in post-war Britain. Bond is in love with Vesper.
Live and Let Die 1954 Solitaire is a fairly unmemorable heroine. The book has nice scene-setting in New York, Bond travels by train to Florida and then on to the West Indies. These are the key elements of the plot:
The secret of the treasure, the defeat of a great criminal, the smashing of a Communist spy ring, and the destruction of a tentacle of SMERSH, the cruel machine that was his own private target. And now Solitaire, the ultimate personal prize.You could get away with that personal prize business in 1954. The book ends with Bond going on (carefully-worded) ‘passionate leave’ with Solitaire, who, far from being concerned by the danger, violence and injury she has suffered, is concerned about getting some clothes and the right lipstick. (In case it isn’t clear, this is a sign of her sang froid and feistiness rather than frivolity and silliness.) Short-term love affair.
New York in the 1950sMoonraker 1955 Gala Brand, something of a lightweight, but starts out with an excellent attitude to Bond:
Clearly a conceited young man like so many of them in the Secret Service… she had put him in his place and shown him that she wasn’t impressed by dashing young men from the Secret Service, however romantic they might look.They are not in love.
Some wince-making discussion of the secretaries at the department. I ask: ‘what does Bond need a secretary for?’
Diamonds Are Forever 1956 Tiffany Case, Las Vegas, and a splendid variety of settings and action. Relationship with Tiffany fizzles out a bit… but she is a great heroine.
from the Suits of James Bond website
From Russia With Love 1957 Tatiana, she of the bottom shaped by ice skating: ‘she had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep.’ This book is completely bonkers but at the highest possible level, terrific fun and definitely one of the best, what with Istanbul, the Orient Express, the gypsies and the awful Kerim. OF COURSE Tatiana and Bond are in love.
Dr No 1958 Honeychile Rider. She is wonderful, surely everyone’s favourite Bond girl, and the book is terrific. She and Bond love each other, but with no prospect for a future.
Goldfinger 1959 Pussy Galore and the Masterton sisters. Pussy is a lesbian and is – of course – just ready to be converted by James Bond, who has some very weird views on the subject. It’s a pity: leaving a bad taste from what is otherwise a fun book.
For Your Eyes Only/ Quantum of Solace 1960 Nice collection of stories, not noted for the women characters.
Thunderball 1961 Domino Vitali, a classic Bond woman. This book had a very complex history – see entries – and the first half is a lot better than the second. I managed to devote most of an entry to a discussion of the word ‘mimosaic’.
The Spy Who Loved Me 1962 Vivienne Michel. Noted for 1st person narration by Vivienne, and a very creditable attempt to represent her point of view. But the title is the opposite of the reality: she loves James Bond, not the other way round. The Spy I Loved would be more accurate.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 1963 Tracy Vicenzo. Possibly my favourite – heroine and book (keep changing my mind). The romance in this one is too sad, but the action is terrific. Fork Left for Hell is my favourite chapter title in the entire oeuvre. Bond is very much in love.
You Only Live Twice 1964 Kissy Suzuki. Strange Japanese setting, a dream-like surreal quality, and a charming young woman. There is a deep relationship, but you know Bond is not in it forever…
The Man with the Golden Gun 1965 Mary Goodnight. She was his secretary in earlier books: he meets up with her in Jamaica. This is a book Fleming would surely have edited, but it was published after he died. Not the best one, but still – not bad. Mary G does not play a large role.
Octopussy & The Living Daylights 1966 No real Bond girls. An interesting and varied collection of stories, and there is one knockout female character (in The Living Daylights) whom we never actually meet. And neither does Bond.
I had two invaluable resources while reading my way through the books, and while writing this and all the other entries: the Kingsley Amis book The James Bond Dossier, and the website The Suits of James Bond.
Amis talks of Fleming/Bond, and the accusation that he/they are misogynists. Looking specifically at a passage about Honeychile Rider, he says:
I suppose it is conceivable that the man who wrote that ‘hates women terribly’, but I can’t feel that he obviously does.And I think it is also relevant to look at James Bond’s description of why he loves the woman he eventually marries:
she’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings…He wants a modern, feminist, independent woman in my view.
I am ever on the alert for what I consider to be problematic male writing, and am a very strong feminist. Of course there are attitudes and remarks in these books that I wince at – they are very much of their time, and would be unacceptable now. But overall, I think Amis is right.
James Bond and Ian Fleming were not woman haters.
And the books have given me a huge amount of pleasure over the past year – I can highly recommend them. Anyone who only knows the films or the later books by other hands might be as surprised and impressed as I was.