Following the failed experiment that was The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming reverted to type with his next Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But even here, there is evidence of his discontent with the 007 formula, perhaps with the character himself. For the six years of his existence, James Bond had been firing on all cylinders, dismantling the plots of various villains with a zestfulness that belied the high stakes of his capers. But as OHMSS opens, Bond is deliberating over his resignation letter, tired of his hapless hunt for the head of SPECTRE, Blofeld, who disappeared following Operation Thunderball. It seems the end is nigh for agent 007; he’s had his fill of adventure. Perhaps it’s even time to settle down…
The events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service play out languidly (though no less assuredly), with the action reserved for two extraordinary set pieces in the alps. More than ever, the plot relies on happenstance rather than Bond’s cunning. While many thrillers utilise coincidence to ignite their plots – the protagonist happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as an obvious example – the great ones don’t rely on it as fuel. When 007’s interest is piqued in the enigmatic Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, he is promptly introduced to her father, the head of the criminal empire known as the Union Corse, who (after pleading with Bond to marry his daughter) reveals his sources, coincidentally, know the location of Blofeld. This, despite the auspices of British, and indeed global intelligence agencies, who have been scouring the globe for the villain for a year. Turns out, the bastard is in Switzerland – and he’s up to his old tricks.
Posing as Sir Hilary Bray, Bond infiltrates the secluded headquarters and learns Blofeld is conducting biological experiments on ten women, and intends to release them ‘into the wild’ so their contagion spreads like wildfire. Armed with that knowledge, 007 is chased down the snowy peak in the novel’s most spectacular scene; Bond, on skis, being blasted from all sides by SPECTRE henchmen. At its conclusion, Tracy – again, coincidentally – comes across a battered, bloodied and bruised James Bond and escorts him to safety. It’s at this point Bond realises just how wonderful Tracy is, and with certitude he decides it’s time to settle down: Tracy is the woman for him, and she accepts his proposal without hesitation.
The thing is, while Tracy is unquestionably one of the more capable “Bond girls,” we’re not exposed to enough of her personality to understand precisely why she is the woman for Bond. Naturally, such scenes might’ve slowed the novel’s already languid pace, but without additional explication, she is undercooked. So her death, come the novel’s end, at the hand of Blofeld (spoilers, I know, but seriously, the film and the novel are decades old), lacks the emotional impact Fleming intended. Her romance with Bond is so short, and founded on so little, it’s very difficult to be moved by her untimely end. Of course, as Bond connoisseurs, we understand the impact her murder will have on the character, but we, the audience, have to conjure up emotions of our own making to feel 007’s pain rather than rely on Fleming’s rendering of their doomed relationship.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service aspires to be greater than it is. Fleming’s attempts to flesh out Bond’s character should be applauded, but it comes at a cost to the rip-roaring pace for which we remember, and celebrate, the character and his creator. It is a novel held in high esteem for its dramatic ending, but in this reader’s opinion, it lacked gravitas; much like the entire narrative. As we near the end of Fleming’s James Bond adventures, I wonder whether Fleming can reclaim the genius of his first novels? If memory serves, the answer is unfortunately no; but here’s hoping You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun surprise me.