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.