Review: The Man With the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming

Golden GunIan Fleming’s James Bond series began its descent with Thunderballand never regained traction, or ever threatened to reclaim its former glory, despite fleeing glimpses of ingenuity in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and a couple of hair-raising scenes in You Only Live Twice. At this point, both the author, and his famous protagonist seem to be running on fumes. The Man With the Golden Gun — Fleming’s final Bond novel — epitomises the disappointing turn the series had taken, with a weak villain, insipid premise, and altogether un-thrilling prose. But in this case it’s hard to point the blame squarely at Fleming, who died before he could properly edit the novel. Perhaps it was salvageable. We’ll never know. Unfortunately what we’re left with is a half-baked 007 caper, which never takes advantage of its monumental opening chapter.

When we last saw Bond, he had been posted missing, presumed dead, after events in Japan (detailed in You Only Live Twice). But at the beginning of The Man With the Golden Gun, Bond is back in London, via the Soviet Union, where he has been brainwashed, and tasked with the assassination of M, the head of the Secret Service. Allowed access to M’s inner sanctum, Bond’s attempt to kill M is unfortunately — (for the sake of the plot, I wasn’t rallying for M’s demise, I swear!) — foiled inside the first couple of chapters, and his rehabilitation almost entirely skipped over in order to transition the book’s focus to his mission to find and kill Francisco Scaramanga, an American trigger-man known as “The Man with the Golden Gun,” who is facilitating a meeting in Jamaica with a bunch of notorious gangsters.

Had Fleming chosen to focus on Bond’s brainwashing and rehabilitation — perhaps then re-targeting Bond at the men who poisoned his mind — this novel might’ve been something special, at the very least, a very different kind of 007 thriller. After all, Fleming was no stranger to changing his formula; the less-than-spectacular The Spy Who Loved Me being a key example. But what we’re left with his a very uninspired, by-the-numbers James Bond thriller. It’s tired, it’s stale, and its only saving grace is the climatic battle between 007 and Scaramanga, which isn’t enough to elevate it above middling.

The Man with the Golden Gun is a disappointing end to a series that hit its high points early and never reattained its glory. But nothing will ever take away from the brilliance of Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Moonraker and the pinnacle, From Russia With Love.

ISBN: 9780099576990
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 14mm)
Pages: 240
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: James Bond, Vol. 1 – VARGR by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters

tnjamesbondhccovtempmastersAfter avenging the death of a fallen 00 Section agent in Helsinki, James Bond assumes his fellow agent’s workload, which takes him to Berlin, on a seemingly routine mission to dismantle a drug-trafficking operation.

Warren Ellis is one of my favourite comic book scribes. Even when his work doesn’t quite strike the right chord, I always appreciate his particular brand of storytelling and innovate ideas. So when news broke that he’d be penning a new James Bond series, I was ecstatic – even when it was revealed this would be a contemporary take on Ian Fleming’s character. Having read Fleming’s novels, as well as those by John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Jeffrey Deaver and so forth, I’ve decided Bond belongs in a post-War setting. I’d love to see more stories set in the 1950s and 1960s – a bit like Anthony Horowitz did with Trigger Mortis, which was set between Fleming novels. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see the Fleming Estate sign off on a series of novels set between Fleming’s? Philip Kerr does such a great job bouncing around a wartime and post-war timeline in his Bernie Gunther series – one could easily employ Bond in the same setup. Anyway – moving beyond my deepest James Bond desires…

There is a lot to like about VARGR. It’s packed with the staples Bond fans expect: shoot-ups, car chases, deadly cybernetically-enhanced henchmen; and all the characters you’d expect appear (though artist Jason Masters has been given free-reign to re-create their appearance, so don’t go expecting a Ralph Fiennes-inspired ‘M’, or indeed for Bond to look anything like Daniel Craig). But in too many respects it plays out formulaically. Where’s Ellis’s trademark spark? Why not take advantage of the absence of a film budget and depict truly spectacular set-pieces? VARGR just feels a little too easy, is too reminiscent of James Bond adventures we’ve read, or seen, before. It’s a fun, action-packed romp for sure – and Masters delivers these scenes in spectacular fashion – but it’s not going to earn a place in the James Bond adventures highlights reel.

That being said, with Ellis and Masters signed on for a second volume, which sees the return of SPECTRE, there’s every chance the next volume will deliver on this creative team’s promise. The fuse has been lit, and VARGR provides some sparkle; my fingers are crossed for EIDOLON to deliver an explosion.

ISBN: 9781606909010
Format: Hardback (267mm x 178mm x 19mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Dynamic Forces Inc
Publisher: Dynamic Forces Inc
Publish Date: 5-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

9780099576983The twelfth James Bond book marks a real low point in the series. More a travelogue than an espionage novel, and with fewer thrills than Ulysses, beyond the opening pages, which provide some genuine characterization and depth to 007 as he wallows in self-pity and guilt following the murder of his wife, there’s an overriding sense of boredom in Fleming’s prose and plotting. Fleming exhibited such imagination and bravado in his earlier works, but his trademark zest is in short supply here.

Since his wife’s death, Bond’s usefulness to Her Majesty’s government has expired. He is drinking more than ever, gambling gratuitously, and even worse, has bungled his most recent assignments. M is ready to pull the plug on 007’s career with the service, but is encouraged to send Bond on one final, “impossible” mission. And so, he is dispatched to Japan to convince the head of Japan’s secret intelligence service to provide Britain with information from radio transmissions captured from the Soviets. Alas, Bond and his superiors at MI6 don’t have anything Tiger Tanaka wants; but Tiger sees something in Bond, and demands he use his deadly skills to assassinate Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a “Garden of Death” in an ancient castle. And yes, you should take “Garden of Death”quite literally – it is a place full of toxic plants, where people come to commit suicide.

The big twist? Shatterhand is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the man responsible for the murder of Bond’s wife, and former head of SPECTRE. So naturally, this is an assignment 007 accepts. But this time he’s not doing it for Queen and Country; this is about revenge.

The final fifty pages of You Only Live Twice pack some genuine excitement as Bond infiltrates Blofeld’s sanctum and seeks his prey. But even then, it’s all rather perfunctory, and far from Fleming’s best. And the cliffhanger ending – which worked brilliantly in From Russia With Love – is a tad insipid here.

It’s a shame, because the weary, shattered Bond we meet at the beginning of the novel is interesting. We have never seen 007 like this before, with such emotional baggage. But that baggage is rapidly eviscerated in favour of Fleming’s detailed account of post-war Japan. It’s set-up promises much, but fails to deliver; not even the rudimentary elements of the best Bond novels.

ISBN: 9780099576983
Format: Paperback  (198mm x 129mm x 19mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Man With the Golden Typewriter

Golden Type.jpgThe Man With the Golden Typewriter by Fergus Fleming provides unparalleled insight into Ian Fleming’s quest to become a successful novelist. This is a book for the James Bond aficionado, or indeed, anyone who has ever written a book, aspires to, or worked in publishing. It’s an expose of the man who created spy fiction’s everlastingly popular hero, told through the copious amount of letters he wrote to his wife, publisher, editors, fans, friends and critics. It reveals the man behind the myth, in his own words.

The best exchanges are those between Fleming and two of his most trusted readers, William Plomer and Daniel George, to whom he sent early drafts of each Bond novel. While they always found something positive to say, they didn’t shy away from criticism, either. As a writer myself, it is chastening to read commentary such as “on some pages the sentences all begin with ‘And.’” Polmer couldn’t see the point of this. “Presumably you are aiming at producing an effect of panting continuity. Take out all the ‘Ands’ and see if it makes any difference.” These are lessons every writer can learn from. But there are practical criticisms, too; faults in Fleming’s plot, or the continuity of events. 007 fanatics will lap up these exchanges.

Most terrifying (at least from my perspective, as I currently work in a marketing and PR) are Fleming’s interactions with his publisher, Jonathan Cape. To say Fleming was not an easy customer is an understatement. The way he haggles Cape for higher royalties, additional proofs, and pushes various marketing ideas, is frightening. But there is an elegance to their letters, despite the occasional underlying of sarcasm or (sometimes) malice. Fleming remains a gentleman throughout, seemingly unflappable and confident – an egotist – but there are moments when this façade cracks, revealing the anxious persona that exists inside all writers. In a letter to Raymond Chandler, he reveals his disparaging opinions of his James Bond novels, labelling them “straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.” He admits, “I don’t take them seriously enough and meekly accept having my head ragged off about them.” But his readers took them seriously, showcased by the plentiful letters, many full of praise, others critiquing certain details.

Interesting, too, is the distinct lack of letters between Fleming and his wife, Ann. Not because they never wrote to each other – there are a few scattered throughout the pages of The Man With the Golden Typewriter – but because their correspondence was withheld from publication because of Ann’s daughter, which highlights the fractured nature of the Fleming family. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder whether Ian and Ann were better off as occasional lovers than partners for life – their relationship had an acrimonious ending.

There is plenty for readers to latch onto in The Man With the Golden Typewriter, and one needn’t be a Bond fan to find nuggets of gold here, though of course, it helps. The Man With the Golden Typewriter showcases a different era of publishing, and the mindset of one of the world’s most popular authors. I simply couldn’t put it down.

ISBN: 9781408865484
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

Maj SecretFollowing 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.

ISBN: 9780099576976
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 23mm)
Pages: 368
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

Spy Who.jpgI’m all for authors writing outside their established wheelhouse, or breaking free of their ‘series characters.’ Recently, I’ve wished for Lee Child, mega-selling author of the Jack Reacher novels, to try his hand at a standalone; to remove himself from the ‘comfort’ of his nomadic purveyor of justice. Not that he has any reason to do this; the Reacher novels continue to do gangbusters, and always reach #1 on the sales charts. Heck, even I, the naysayer in this scenario, always grab a copy of his latest on the day of release. But the writers who have refused to conform – Harlan Coben, for example, whose batch of standalones over the past decade have elevated him into a sphere he might never have reached had he stuck with Myron Bolitar. And as much of a fan as I am of Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro, the landscape of crime and thriller fiction would be much poorer without Shutter Island and Live By Night. Standalones encourage experimentation. They allow writers to flex muscles they mightn’t have previously used. Alas, in the case of Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me, the experiment is a failure – and one the author himself admits.

In principle, the theory behind The Spy Who Loved Me is sound; exciting, even, to have Bond analysed from another perspective. Because while there’s no question readers consider 007 a hero, the simple fact is, he is an instrument of death utilised by Her Majesty’s government. Bond will occasionally contemplate the morality of his actions, but the truth is, he assumes he is being used for good rather than evil, and merrily goes about the deadly business of espionage and, when called upon, assassination. In fiction, yes, he is a hero; but were we to meet such a man in person, if James Bond stood before us, what would we think of him? It’s an exciting question, and a solid premise for a thriller. Alas, it’s protagonist – Vivienne Michel – is merely a device used to showcase James Bond’s slaying of the men hunting her, rather than a full-fledged character.

It’s not that Fleming doesn’t attempt to establish her backstory – he does. Indeed, the first two portions of the novel detail Vivienne’s past love affairs and her long journey to the motel she has been entrusted to monitor for the night. But that’s just the problem – her history is seemingly comprised entirely of failed love affairs rather than anything substantial. She is a women defined by the men in her life, who finds herself threatened by two mobsters masquerading as insurance men, requiring the aid of another man – James Bond – to rescue her. Perhaps, had Fleming flipped the script and had Vivienne dispatch the men with her own wits, They Spy Who Loved Me might’ve been salvaged, or at least partially redeemed. Instead, it stands as a blueprint of how not to define women in fiction, a disappointing fissure in James Bond’s legacy.

ISBN: 9780099576969
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 15mm)
Pages: 240
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Thunderball by Ian Fleming

Thunderball.jpgMemorable for introducing Ernst Stavro Blofeld as the head of SPECTRE – the organisation responsible for many of James Bond’s deadliest capers – Thunderball has the potential to be the secret agent’s most spectacular mission yet. But with its glacial opening chapters – interesting because Fleming shines the spotlight on Bond’s excessive lifestyle when he’s off-mission, and how this exorbitance affects his health and therefore his usefulness to the ’00 section,’ – Bond’s eighth adventure never gains any real momentum.

SPECTRE has hijacked two nuclear bombs from a fighter jet, a Villiers Vindicator, and plans to destroy two major cities unless a £100,000,000 ransom is paid. With the clock ticking, 007 is dispatched to the Bahamas to investigate, where, in tandem with faithful ally Felix Leiter, he encounters Emilio Largo and his mistress, Dominetta “Domino” Vitali, who is also the sister of dead pilot Giuseppe Petacchi.

Thunderball is by-the-numbers stuff, festooned with the requisite villainy, and peppered with fleetingly dramatic moments. If you’re happy to tread water for a while, the finale – an undersea battle between allied forces and SPECTRE – is on par with Fleming’s greatest action set-pieces. More impressive is Domino; not just a pretty face, a woman for Bond to bed and rescue. She gets to kick arse in the final pages, and it’s refreshing to see Fleming’s formula tweaked.

This isn’t a bad thriller, by any means; it’s just middle-of-the-pack stuff, particularly for a writer whose last full-length novel,Goldfinger, was one of his best. There’s entertainment to be had; just mind the potholes.

ISBN: 9780099576952
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming

For-Your-Eyes-Only-Cover.jpgThe five short stories presented in For Your Eyes Only are wonderful additions to 007 continuity. Rather than pitting James Bond against another megalomaniac psychopath with a penchant for destruction, these tales are smaller in scope, demonstrating to readers that not every case 007 is handed contorts into the stuff of fantasy: for every Goldfinger he topples, there is a smaller villain to terminate. And James Bond does his duty diligently every time he is called upon by Her Majesty.

Ian Fleming’s occasionally stilted prose is perfect for these quickly-digested short stories, and in fact he finds room for experimentation; a spin on the formula that had served him so well up until this point. There’s not a bad yarn in thus bunch, but it’s Quantum of Solace that deserves the most acclaim; a story that doesn’t have Bond get out of his chair! 007 is told the tale of a failed marriage; and just as the reader assumes Fleming is leading us down a well-trodden path, he offers an impactful, emotive twist, immediately making it the highlight. The Hildebrand Rarity ranks a close second; but here, Bond does indeed get his hands dirty, and bloody.

Though it’s an entertaining package, For Your Eyes Only doesn’t offer anything particularly memorable. With its smaller focus, none of the villains stand out, and there are none of the epic action set pieces or environments that make the Bond novels resonate. Having followed Goldfinger – one of Fleming’s best – one can’t help but feel a little disappointed. From a View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, Quantum of Solace, Risico and The Hildebrand Rarity are fine stories; but they’re gold scrapings amidst the lavish nuggets that are Fleming’s preceding novels.

ISBN: 9780099576945
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

GoldfingerWith his seventh James Bond novel, Ian Fleming took his craft to another level. Not only is Goldfinger a brilliant, enthralling spy novel – capped with thrills, dastardly villains, and audacious action – but here, more than ever before, 007 is presented as a complex individual; not just the callous, sardonic killer for Queen and Country, but a man, who, like the rest of us, suffers from an inner turmoil; whose propensity for death has darkened his psyche. James Bond is a man who derives pleasure from the food he eats, the women he beds, and the cars he drives; he basks in the finer things in life because his existence beyond those things is perpetually bleak.

Goldfinger begins with Bond reminiscing about the mission he has just completed. Once again he has faced danger, overcome it, and is left stewing over events alone, awaiting a flight home from Miami, with only an alcoholic beverage for company. That is, until he is recognized by a man with whom he gambled with in Casino Royale; Junius Du Pont, a rich American businessman, who is adamant he is being cheated in his daily games of Canasta with the enigmatic Auric Goldfinger. While Du Pont isn’t entirely cognizant of Bond’s profession, he identifies 007 as a man with a keen eye, and hires Her Majesty’s agent to monitor proceedings during his next game with Goldfinger. His flight delayed, Bond accepts the job, and the very next day meets one of his greatest adversaries, who, it turns out, is connected to the Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH.

007’s investigation ultimately leads to the discovery of Goldfinger’s daring heist to steal the United States’ gold reserves from Fort Knox. Before that, however, Bond masterminds various gatherings with his foe, including a particularly sensational golfing scene, which sees Goldfinger attempt to cheat his way to victory. The tension and mistrust between the two men is palpable; Fleming in top form.

Goldfinger represents the crystallization of Fleming’s storytelling; perhaps its apex. It’s over-the-top, but equally grounded, finding that balance his contemporaries struggle with. And yes, contemporary readers will frown at the depiction of Pussy Galore, whose sexual tendencies, Bond believes, can be swayed by the touch of a good man – but in my mind, this just reaffirms Bond’s damned personality. Oh, sure, I love reading his adventures, but I wouldn’t want to meet the man. As M once put it in the first Pierce Brosnan Bond film Goldeneye: he is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” He’s not a man – he’s a bullet. And I enjoy reading about him hitting his target.

ISBN: 9780099576938
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Dr. No by Ian Fleming

Dr NoDr. No occurs months after the events of From Russia With Love, which (for those who came in late) ended on a cliff-hanger, with 007 perilously close to death after being injected with poison by a Russian spymaster. The botched operation has landed Bond on the Head of Service’s shit-list; his reputation is tarnished, his capability is being questioned. As such, M sends Bond on an assignment he considers more of a holiday than a matter of national security. John Strangways, Head of Jamaica Station, and his secretary Mary Trueblood have gone missing, believed to have eloped for fresh pastures. Bond’s dispatched to Jamaica to tie a bow on the case, and ensure nothing untoward has happened. Of course, something has

Bond quickly discovers Strangways had been investigating Dr. No, a Chinese operator of a guano (seabird excrement) mine on the Caribbean Island of Crab Key. Despite protestations from his old friend Quarrel – the island, it is believed, is inhabited by a fire-breathing dragon – Bond makes the journey across to Dr. No’s abode, where he meets the stunning Honeychile Rider – – and learns the extent of his opponent’s insanity.

Punctuated with moments of thrilling, brutal action, Dr. No is a novel of oscillating quality. Fleming’s description of Bond’s pulse-pounding confrontation with a deadly centipede showcases his talent for producing unsurpassed thrills; so too Bond’s expedition through Dr. No’s insane obstacle course. But beyond these moments, the novel flatlines; its plot is wisp-thin, and is feeble in comparison to the brilliant From Russia With Love which came just a year before. And while Honeychile Rider is a concoction of man’s most erotic fantasies, she is cast here as a victim, never once exhibiting the ability to think or fight for herself; this, despite the fact Fleming goes to breath lengths to describe her harrowing upbringing, and how she has managed to fend for herself for many years. In this instance, Fleming tells, and doesn’t show; we never actually witness Honeychile’s strength, which diminishes the novel from a contemporary reader’s perspective.

So, while not demonstrative of Fleming’s best – – still reserved for Moonraker and From Russia With Love in my eyes – – Dr. No possesses enough excitement to keep readers’ eyes glued to the page.

ISBN: 9780099576921
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom