by Ian Fleming
The Spy Who Loved Me was an experiment for Fleming, who felt it so different from his other Bond novels that he claimed in the prologue to have received the book as an anonymous manuscript. He also seemed to have regretted publication, later ensuring that the Bond movies wouldn’t adapt the novel. (They did not: the film producers took The Spy Who Loved Me for their title, but used an entirely new story, new characters, new settings, and a new plot. Luckily, we got a great song out of it.) Maybe Fleming was right; the book was seen as a break in the formula–which it absolutely was–that failed to live up to the high standards set in previous books.
The main departure for this book involves James Bond’s own presence, or lack thereof. He is, in fact, absent from about two thirds of the novel, which follows French Canadian Vivienne Michel’s unfortunate decision to watch over a secluded motel for the last week of the tourist season. But the first chunk of the novel isn’t about that, either. Act one recounts Vivienne’s life story, from Canada to England and up to her travels through the mountains of upstate New York. The trouble then begins when two gangsters show up with orders to burn the place down. Bond makes his entrance when the gangsters, who have no incentive to let Vivienne live, are deciding exactly what they want to do with her.
As a Bond fan who’s been critical of both the rigidity of the formula and the inconsistency of its results, I actually welcome this change. Waiting around for Bond to receive his assignment, get the lay of the land, and start working his way towards the villain gets a bit stale after a while. Spy solves this problem by showing us the action through the eyes of someone else, and by having Bond simply stumble upon the plot, which is entirely self-contained. Actually, Spy has an appeal similar to the short stories of For Your Eyes Only, with smaller threats and cozier casts of characters. Vivienne, Bond, and the two gangsters are the only characters in the novel, and their motivations are neither grand nor complex. Simple characterization isn’t always a positive, but to me it was a breath of fresh air.
The bad guys are just two mobsters, Sluggsy Morant and Sol Horror, who are sent to the motel in order to burn it down for their boss. While I admit that they’re not the most well-rounded villains of all time, or even of the Fleming oeuvre, it’s nice to have a different set of tensions and stakes than in, say, Goldfinger or Thunderball. Since we’re introduced to these characters through the eyes of a young foreign girl, who has no idea who the men are or what she’s gotten herself into, I’d argue that they’re scarier than the supervillains Bond usually faces. Sure, Bond has been tortured and whatnot–pretty regularly, actually–but he’s a double-oh agent. He knows what he’s getting into every time he leaves his desk in London. Vivienne, though confident and self-assured in other ways, is simply not equipped to handle these things. From this perspective, regular gangsters can be just as scary as megalomaniacs, especially when they plan to kill Vivienne and show no qualms about raping her in the meantime.
If you think it odd that Fleming writes from a female perspective, and that he uses rape as a threat to this heroine, I hear you. It’s uncomfortable for me too. But to me, Vivienne is Fleming’s attempt to write about a woman who’s had to deal with dicks like Bond (and Fleming) her whole life. By the time we meet her, she’s a self-sufficient woman in her twenties, but in her earlier years she got involved with dudes that undervalued and mistreated her. To me, that sounds a lot like how Bond treats the average Bond girl throughout the series. Maybe Fleming is absolving himself here, by making Bond the knight in shining armor, coming to rescue Vivienne from the big bad men of the world, the run of the mill kind as well as the gangsters. Maybe Fleming just sucks at writing women, and can’t imagine a woman that could resist Bond’s charms. I don’t pretend to know what he was trying to do, but I found the shift in perspective to be a welcome change, though it might not work for everyone.
The last thing I’ll say is that Fleming creates a mood that is much more consistent than many of his other outings. Again, it reminds me a lot of the short stories, which seem to be a real strength of his. It’s not as if the Bond novels are weighty tomes, but they push Fleming’s writing style to its limits. Spy is an intimate and concise novel with clearly defined boundaries, few characters, and a tense plot, making it a unique entry into the series, and one which showcases the strengths of Fleming’s writing.
In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming breaks the mold and creates a new kind of Bond novel. Whether you like the end result probably depends on how much you liked the formula to begin with.