The Early James Bond Novels

Cord_37_Super_Charged_White_sf

A 1937 Cord.

In the past decade I’ve been reading Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond. I recently finished the fourth one, Diamonds Are Forever. The first four novels were published, one each year, from 1953 to 1956. Thus they pre-date the movie franchise, which began only in 1962: here Bond is still exclusively a 1950s spy novel hero.

Fleming writes beautifully, with part of what makes the novels so good being the loving descriptions of consumer goods: clothing, cars, weaponry. Bond wears a fedora, and in Diamonds, he sleeps in long pantsless silk night shirts. In Live And Let Die, he appreciatively rides a late-1930s Cord that would look roughly like the car pictured above. In Diamonds, he has lunch at a rural American highway diner where he thinks the jukebox looks like something out of science fiction. Not, obviously, like quaint 1950s design.

Bond must be in pretty bad shape from substance abuse: he drinks hard liquor constantly and smokes three packets a day. In Live he asks HQ for diving gear. They send it over and helpfully add a box of amphetamine pills. After a week of physical exercise, Bond prepares for a dangerous underwater mission by swallowing speed down with whiskey.

I was surprised to find that Bond hardly performs any independent action in Diamonds. He just goes where people tell him to go and follows orders. The secret agent is no more than a convenient observer of various milieux that Fleming wants to describe: diamond smuggling, horse racing, a Las Vegas casino (reminiscent of Casino Royale), a Western ghost town. Indeed, the year after the novel appeared, Fleming published a non-fiction book on diamond smuggling.

In Diamonds, when the first piece of violent action happens (51% of the way through the book), Bond is immobilised in a medicinal mud bath coffin and is barely able to even be a spectator, let alone do anything. 63% into the book, Bond himself comments angrily on his own passivity! And when a few pages later he finally does something, it’s barely a blip: Bond plays some high-stakes roulette against orders. Then he goes back to being a passive victim of his circumstances until the last few pages of the novel when he saves his love interest from the villains – a reaction more than an action.

There’s a recurring masochistic fantasy in these novels, where Bond is immobilised and tortured in ways that would never happen to Sean Connery’s Bond. We’ve already noted the mud bath coffin, where Bond is made to witness torture. In Casino, the villain ties Bond to a chair and whacks his balls with a carpet beater until the agent passes out! And in Diamonds, two villains don football boots and kick the helpless Bond systematically until, again, he loses consciousness. When he wakes up he can barely crawl across the floor.

Fleming came of age in the 1920s. The novels pre-date the Swinging Sixties and the Sexual Revolution: Bond is not a particularly active or promiscuous lover here. Weeks pass where we have no hint that he is going to bed with anyone. He ogles (and Fleming lovingly describes) women here and there, but when he finally does get intimate with a woman he likes to spend months with her and contemplates marriage even before they go to bed the first time (Casino, Diamonds).

Novel Bond is very different from movie Bond.

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12 thoughts on “The Early James Bond Novels

  1. The only Bond novel I have read was The Man with the Golden Gun. I could not have made a worse choice. It was poorly written, lacked detail and made for very uninspiring reading. I had no way of knowing at the time that the published version was only Fleming’s first draft, published posthumously, his health leading up to his death at age 56 having been too poor to attempt a second draft. (Apparently his method of working was to rough out a story line in the first draft, and then flesh out a lot of detail in the second draft – the first drafts were never intended by him for publication.) It was so bad that it put me off reading any of the other Bond novels. I simply couldn’t know that it was barely a shadow of the earlier novels. In retrospect, I have to say that I think the publisher’s decision to publish the first draft as it stood was a big mistake. It did Fleming’s legacy no favours at all.

    If you are working your way through the novels chronologically, I suggest it is one that you could usefully omit. From your description of the four you have read so far, I feel certain you will find it as big a disappointment as I did, or maybe even bigger.

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      • True, if the publisher was focused only on short term profit, which seems to have been the case. The publisher paid Kingsley Amis (32 pounds and 15 shillings) for his thoughts and advice on improving the first draft, but then didn’t use them. The books sold for 18 shillings and advance orders amounted to 80,000, so Amis’ fee was peanuts. The publisher probably profited more than he deserved, because criticism of the book was muted, seemingly out of respect for Fleming’s earlier work and in the knowledge that the manuscript was far from finished in its published form.

        Longer term, there was at least one reader (me) who wasn’t prepared to buy any of Fleming’s other books because I read the wrong one first.

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      • As for Bond’s hard drinking and heavy smoking (and possibly also amphetamine use, which we might suspect but can’t know), it seems that Fleming was being autobiographical, hence his early demise.

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  2. I have only read a couple of James Bond novels. I have also seen the corresponding movies, although both were a long time ago so my memory is a bit hazy.

    1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The book and the movie end similarly. That ending is out of character for movie Bond but well within what you describe of the earlier Bond novels. I won’t spoil it further, in case you are planning to read or watch it (or both).

    2. The Spy Who Loved Me. All that the book and movie have in common are the title and the James Bond character. The book is unusual in that the narrator is the Bond girl. By the time the novel was written, Bond’s womanizing tendencies were well established.

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  3. I remember getting into the James Bond novels back in grade school and middle school. They were fun. They were easy reading, even for a school kid, since they followed familiar conventions with regards to the spy life. I don’t think I’d particularly enjoy them now. The conventions are a bit shop worn now, but one never knows. I’ve been rereading the Perry Mason novels and enjoying them a lot. There’s an additional bit of fun as they are period pieces now and I can trace their evolution from the pulp era into the 1960s.
    The early Bond books were more fun than the later ones. Ian Fleming developed his formula, then ran into its limits. He could only open the story so much, and since we readers had been following Bond for all those years, it was hard to not notice the lack of character development. It helps to remember there was a change of tone in the Cold War some time after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It turned from a game of action and terror into something more of a chess game where things were less obvious.
    Peter Fleming, Ian’s brother, wrote a lot of travel books. He was a spy with his travel writing as a cover. He was observant. He noted that they limited firing during an air raid drill in Manchukuo to limit damage to the rifling. In a bar full of Japanese soldiers, one was drunk, rowdy and upset at a foreigner being present. Fleming went off on a riff about the ensuing fight, his being rescued by a suave kingpin from the backroom who offers him scotch and discusses cricket.. The reality was more mundane. The diminutive Japanese proprietress berated the soldier who hung his head in shame. Peter and Ian both knew and respected the conventions. Both also knew what espionage is actually like.

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  4. I read most of the Bond stories years ago, when I was in high school (Yes kiddies, they were written in cuneiform on clay tablets – it was that long ago). I’ve forgotten most of the details, but I remember being surprised that the movies were so different from the books. I did enjoy the novels, but I was always a bigger fan of Leslie Charteris’ The Saint – especially the earlier books.

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  5. The Saint books were fun too. The Saint also started out as a pulp hero, ready with his underworld contacts and his fists, but by the 1960s he had evolved into a more sophisticated and complicated character who contemplated and recognized the morality of his choices. My library had some DVDs of the old Saint television show. It held up surprisingly well.

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    • Rather like Fess Parker playing Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Sort of.
      I never liked Moore’s version of Bond, but the Saint TV show was always a family favourite.

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  6. Idris Elba is being tipped to be the next James Bond. For those who haven’t noticed, he’s black. I’m in favour – I’m a fan of his acting and think he would do a better job than Daniel Craig. And I want them to bring back all of the gadgets – deciding to scrap them was a big mistake IMO.

    In the 2004 remake of the film The Alamo, it’s not necessarily what you would expect, but Billy Bob Thornton did an excellent job of playing the part of Davy Crockett. Film worth watching if you missed it before and get the chance.

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  7. I have only seen two actors play Bond: Roger Moore, who had the role when I became old enough to see Bond movies, and Sean Connery. I can understand why many people prefer Connery era Bond, but since Moore was the first actor I saw in the role, he somewhat defines the role for me.

    The trouble with James Bond movies is that they easily becomes formulaic. Our hero travels to multiple exotic destinations, deals with alleged masterminds whose stupidity[1] allows him to escape what should have been lethal situations, and beds beautiful women whose names are often blatantly suggestive (e.g., Holly Goodhead from Moonraker, and that is far from the most egregious example).

    [1]How stupid are they? There is a TVTropes page named after the phenomenon. The frequent stupidity of Bond villains was parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch that was one of the inspirations for the Evil Overlord list.

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