Indulge me in a little exercise. Open a new tab on your browser, enter Amazon.co.uk and type ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ into the search bar. After multiple DVDs, CDs and audio downloads (but thankfully before the OPI nail varnish, ‘retro maxi poster’, 1:36th scale Aston Martin DBS model and silver framed magnetic notice board) you’ll find Ian Fleming’s paperback. Click on Look Inside! and read the first chapter.
Aren’t you glad you indulged? Whether you’re that rare creature, a Bond virgin, or whether, like me, you simply haven’t revisited the original books for several years, I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised, especially if you’re a woman. Because with all the excitement around this month’s release of Skyfall - the latest, and according to most reviewers, one of the greatest, in the Bond film franchise, which also happens to mark the fiftieth anniversary since Dr. No brought James to our screens in 1962 – it can be easy to underestimate the skill and subtlety of a writer associated with girls dipped in oil and gold like bankers’ crudités.
For me, the most immediate accomplishment of ‘Seascape with Figures’ – a chapter heading more reminiscent of Virginia Woolf than Pussy Galore – lies in the author’s aptitude for detail. Like any good journalist, Fleming names rather than describes what he sees, and his specificity – the plant species, the exact distances and sizes of things, the names of the playground enclosures, the colours and flags on the boats – evokes vividness without sentimentality. This is filmic writing from the off, where minute close-ups alternate with wide-lens sweeps, and contrasting shades and shapes are carefully juxtaposed. My first reaction is not surprise that such successful action movies have been made from such lyrical books, but that the films themselves aren’t more beautiful. Fleming’s writing is more Boudin than bonkbuster, and it throws the action into sharper relief.
The next delight occurs when we plunge from the plages straight into Bond’s head, only to bypass the self-assured sophisticated for a childhood James: grubbing in the sand, dirty, frustrated, vulnerable, chastised. It gives instant depth and humanity to the focused killer, for all that he quickly shakes off the memory with a flick of his cigarette. And this is swiftly followed by Fleming’s wit, a subtle knife which has none of the glibness of the films and which judges our hero more harshly than we might expect. Bond, caught in a moment of introspective weakness, asserts himself with gruff self-dramatisation as a woman-hunting spy; Bond observes coldly, scientifically, the prominence of French girls’ navels and their relationship to fertility. It’s funny, damning, bizarre. I simultaneously laughed out loud and cringed.
There is darkness in this passage too; genuine darkness, without the camp histrionics of a movie set piece. The “briefly, grittily” writhing lovers on the dusky abandoned beach and the fragility of the white, hunted girl on the bloody sunset-streaked sand is more Don’t Look Now than For Your Eyes Only. And finally, you get the smooth Drambuie savour of his masterfully engineered plot. In the text, the end-of-chapter segue to flashback, which can come across as so clunky on screen, makes you want to punch the air with glee.
Admittedly, I’ve picked a good ‘un. Fleming certainly has his flaws, and reading too many Bonds can leave you with a stale aftertaste akin to a Martini hangover. The writing’s earnestness and endless references to aspirational cars, drinks, clothes and cigars can be wearing. The sexism (which even Fleming’s niece Lucy concedes) is difficult to dismiss as a trait that belongs solely to Bond. And individual novels are of variable quality; Fleming himself tried to block the UK paperback edition of The Spy Who Loved Me after critics and fans alike quite rightly lambasted its slapdash characterisation, sleaze and violence.
The literary establishment has traditionally been rather dismissive about Fleming; the Oxford Companion to English Literature concludes his three-line entry with the sneering aside that “Bond has appeared in many highly popular films which mingle sex and violence with a wit that, for some, renders them intellectually respectable.” The fact that other novelists, such as Sir Kingsley Amis (under the pen name Robert Markham), John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver have been roped in to produce their own Bond novels over the years, has also reinforced an unhelpful belief that while Fleming’s central idea is precious, his prose is not.
However, the importance of that central idea is not to be underestimated. In Christopher Booker’sThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Fleming’s plots are hailed as some of the best examples of the ancient ‘Overcoming the Monster’ archetype, their hold over our collective imagination timeless and timelessly satisfying. As for prose, when Faulks was asked to write Devil May Care, a one-off instalment to celebrate the centenary of the author’s birth, he was surprised, on re-reading, “by how well the books stood up. I put this down to three things: the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero; a certain playfulness in the narrative details; and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn’t dated.”
Indeed, Fleming’s ability to inspire not just filmmakers and merchandisers but other writers is a sign of how potent his mixture of lyricism and action, interiority and object fetishism, really are. In a 2007 BBC Radio 4 programme Amis, Amis and Bond, Martin Amis spoke with equally effusive super-fan Charlie Higson about the deep impact Fleming had on his father. In fact, as a stunt for the premiere of Skyfall, Higson has even been squashing 007 plots into 140-character tweets: Bond as (repetitive) poetry, no less.
So whether you’re inspired by or indifferent to Daniel Craig’s majestic brooding, I’d urge you to give Fleming’s original texts a try. Having raced through three, I’m continuing to uproot my action/thriller aversion and finding other unexpected joys in John Le Carré, A.D. Miller’s recent Booker-shortlisted debut Snowdrops and even that old stalwart Wilbur Smith. Shaken out of my snobbery, stirred by surprise, I’m being reminded that genre prejudice remains the book-lover’s true criminal mastermind.