by Ian Fleming
Thunderball might not be the greatest of the Bond movies, or even just the Sean Connery ones, but the novel it’s based on might be one of the better Fleming books. Not only because it minimizes the racism, sexism, and other non-woke ideas that Fleming forces into his work, but because he’s becoming a better writer.
To clarify, I don’t think that the Bond books will ever be taken for classic literature. In fact, on my second time through them, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that the success of Bond, as a book series, a movie series, a character, and an icon, is almost certainly a fluke. I haven’t read a lot of crime or espionage, but Bond does strike me as a somewhat generic entry into an incredibly formulaic genre. And on top of that, I still have no idea who these books are, or were, for. Are they for adults, children, or teens? I read them as a teen and I thought they were great. Now, they seem pretty pulpy. I’m sure I’ve changed somewhat, but it’s also possible that adult tastes have changed a bit since the fifties.
What elevates Fleming is his writing, particularly his scenes of violence, indulgence, or both. It helps that he based the character and some of the stories off of events that he actually participated in during World War II, working clandestine operations as a British officer. This gives the writing, as well as Bond himself, a sense of confidence in its own realism that grounds even the silliest plots. Knowing the lingo and the mindset allows Fleming’s character to exist perfectly within our world as well as the sinister world of espionage, allowing readers to traverse that line right alongside Bond.
The other thing that becomes clear in Thunderball is that Fleming works hard at his craft. I believe I’ve pointed out passages in previous Bond novels that I thought were particularly good, but overall I’d have to say that none of the Bond books have yet lived up to the promise of Casino Royale. In part, I think all series and serials suffer from having to raise the stakes every outing, or risk losing the audience’s interest. Fleming’s problem, since Casino, seems to be that he didn’t know how to raise the stakes without essentially repeating himself in every novel. Thunderball finally breaks free of that trap, providing a dangerous mission for Bond without all of the gratuitous torture scenes and drawn-out climaxes that plague many of Fleming’s novels.
Everything else you need is there: the girls, the ridiculous villains, M, Felix Leiter, and Bond himself, in all his colonialist glory. But this is the first Bond novel since Casino–I’m excluding For Your Eyes Only‘s collection of short stories–that didn’t start to feel like a chore to get through towards the end. I’m hoping that this is a sign that Fleming is re-evaluating his formula, tweaking things here and there in order to create a tighter, more exciting Bond novel.
In addition to its limited use of outdated attitudes, Thunderball is far and away the most exciting Bond novel since Casino Royale. Here’s hoping that Fleming has learned his lessons and will continue to improve in his writing.