The Spy Who Loved Me

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. The Spy Who Loved MeAct 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.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

 

On Labor Day weekend, after attending a party in Falls Church where much cornhole was played and much beer was drunk, I found myself (and my ride) unwilling to make it all the way back to DC; we ended up sleeping at my ancestral dwelling in Arlington. I didn’t bring a book, and my phone was dead, so in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I decided to pick up a novel that would kill some time, something I’d read before, something that I could potentially finish quickly. If you’re good at following clues and taking hints, you know what book that is.

Actually, clues and hints aren’t a bad segue into Curious Incident. The title refers to a dead dog discovered by a teenage boy with undisclosed behavioral and emotional disabilities, perhaps most similar to the autism spectrum. Upon finding the dog’s body, the boy, Christopher, takes it upon himself to discover who might have killed the animal. Despite his reticence with and fear of strangers, Christopher identifies and interviews suspects in the neighborhood, following the clues and crossing people off the list as he gets closer to uncovering a major conspiracy.

I love that the plot of Curious Incident both follows and deviates from the whodunit structure that Christopher lays out. He realizes he’s writing a mystery novel, dutifully following clues wherever they may lead him, but he remains almost completely oblivious to what’s really going on, no matter how many of his “suspects” hint at the truth. Curious IncidentOn one level, yes, the mystery of the dead dog is the plot of the book; the search for the killer’s identity drives the first half of the novel, while the second half reckons with the killer’s motivations. However, were we given a more conventional narrator, the dead dog might better be described as the catalyst for the novel, rather than its central mystery.

As you can probably tell, the unique narration plays a huge part in the novel. On top of treating a neighbor’s dead dog as a Sherlock Holmes novel, Christopher omits composite numbers from his chapters, digresses into math or scientific fact at inappropriate times, and, most importantly, fails to even realize what his own novel is about. In one sense, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust him to accurately report on the goings-on around him, simply because he doesn’t always understand what’s happening. He misinterprets the intentions of strangers and loved ones, and he fears everything that he’s not familiar with. On the other hand, he is always truthful, especially with his own thoughts and feelings. He explains why he hates certain colors, why he likes to listen to white noise at full volume, and any other behaviors that most would consider “abnormal.” He’s honest to a degree that is unusual for fictional characters, especially in the noir world of mystery novels.

One important question will come to anyone who picks up this book: Does it accurately reflect the way autistic people think, feel, and experience the world? I couldn’t possibly answer that; I have no personal experience with it and I’m nowhere close to being qualified. I think it’s comforting to believe that the book is accurate. I mean, for one thing, Haddon is such a good writer that we desperately want his words to be a reflection of something real. Christopher’s narrative is so believable, and his line of thinking so logical, that we’re tempted to assume it must be grounded in either expertise or first-hand knowledge. But more importantly, I think we all want to believe that people on the autism spectrum, especially the more extreme ends, are more similar to non-autistic people than behaviors show. I’m guessing that this is why the book’s publisher, and the public, latched onto the notion that Christopher’s behavior was not only a portrayal of Asperger’s, despite the author leaving us without a diagnosis, but an extremely accurately portrayal of the syndrome. It would be reassuring, in a way, to think that a simple, short novel could bridge the gap between those with autism and those without.

Alas, I don’t know if these beliefs are warranted. I’m not saying they’re not; I really just do not know. I have read conflicting opinions on whether this novel portrays autism realistically, and I’m not going to jump into the fray with people who know way more than I do. Haddon himself does not specify what disabilities Christopher might have, and readily admits that he’s not an autism expert. Some might think of this as a cop-out, given the book’s marketing strategy clearly hinting at autism or Asperger’s.

I tend to side with the author, though. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the writing is real, or whether it corresponds in some way to a specific disease. Haddon’s goal in this case was to portray a way of thinking that is both human and alien at the same time, and in that he succeeds beautifully. Christopher appears to feel emotion like we do, but is simply unable to express it in the way that most people would. His preference for touching his palm to a loved one’s over a hug shows that he understands and sympathizes with the need for intimacy, even if he himself is terrified by being so physically close to another. These characteristics humanize behavior that might be jarring for someone encountering it for the first time, to the point where, towards the end of the novel, Christopher’s unique behaviors begin to elicit the same emotions in the reader that more “normal” behavior might; Christopher’s acceptance or rejection of an open palm gesture comes to mean the same thing as the acceptance or rejection of a hug, which is itself only a symbol of the acceptance or rejection of unconditional love.

The wonder of Haddon’s book comes not from the mystery, but from his ability to bridge the gap in understanding between narrator and audience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time accomplishes this and more, breaking down and brushing aside human symbols and embracing the pure emotions behind them.

Doctor No

by Ian Fleming

 

In keeping with tradition, this will be brief.

This is one of the better Bond books. Our hero travels to exotic locales, meets a few interesting people, and generally either kills them or leads them to their deaths. Such is the life of a double-oh agent. The plot here involves M sending Bond on what should be a relatively easy mission investigating the disappearance of an MI6 agent in Jamaica. Knowing Bond as we do, however, that’s obviously not what we get.

Fleming’s, ahem, biases, this time come down primarily upon the ethnic Chinese minority living on Jamaica. Fleming calls them Chinese Negroes or “Chigroes,” a term that I can only assume isn’t used with the kindest of intentions. Doctor NoFleming also has an obsession with ascribing traits to specific nationalities, a tendency not unlike science fiction’s predilection for creating a whole race or planet with the same characteristics or vocation. (Why are all Kaminoans cloners? For that matter, why was the plot of Episode II so needlessly complicated?) In Fleming’s mind, the Chinese population of Jamaica stands together as a criminal syndicate, led by our eponymous villain Dr. No, himself only half Chinese. (Since his other half is white, he’s a genius, whereas the “Chigroes” are little more than henchmen.)

Fleming, if you weren’t dead, this is the part of the post where I’d ask you to drop that kind of nonsense from your books. Those ideas kind of fell out of fashion a while ago. Luckily for us, the modern James Bond is much more politically correct, though his decision in Skyfall to surprise a sex trafficking victim in the shower is questionable, to say the least.

The appeal of the book comes when Bond decides to take action by visiting Dr. No’s stronghold on Crab Key. Bond and an old accomplice infiltrate the island under cover of night and wake in the morning to discover Honeychile Rider, the prototypical Bond girl played in the movie by Ursula Andress, collecting sea shells on the beach. She’s naked, of course; Bond immediately decides to make her part of the squad. From there, the book becomes fights and chases and torture scenes, interrupted briefly by Dr. No’s introduction and megalomaniacal spiel.

Dr. No seems like the book in which Fleming realized he had a formula and embraced it, warts and all. Parts of it are ugly, but you can’t say it’s not exciting.

Diamonds Are Forever

by Ian Fleming

 

I can’t sugarcoat it: Diamonds Are Forever isn’t the best Bond book. I don’t know if it’s the absolute worst, but it’s certainly the weakest of the four I’ve reviewed so far on B+L. Let me explain why.

First of all, the Bond villain is a gangster. Not a KGB agent, or a megalomaniac, or a dangerous assassin- a gangster. Not even a voodoo gangster. It’s just some American gangster in Las Vegas who’s been smuggling diamonds from Africa into the US, through London. Why London? Because why else would James Bond be involved, that’s why. Duh.

Second, the exotic locales that Bond goes to are New York and Nevada: Bond meets up with diamond smuggler Tiffany Case in London, follows her New York City where he finds his old American chum Felix Leiter, and then hits the racetracks of upstate New York. Diamonds Are ForeverFrom there, he flies again to Las Vegas, where his target runs a casino. He finds out about another property in the desert, then goes there, and handles his business. Except for the cruise back to Europe with the now-reformed Tiffany Case, that’s pretty much it. Take a trip to lovely New York and Nevada.

I also didn’t even realize the climax of the book was happening as I was reading it. Ian Fleming sometimes likes to mess with his readers’ expectations by going for the unorthodox ending, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work. Casino Royale works; Bond’s mission concludes about 2/3 of the way through, leaving the rest of the book to deal with the fallout. Diamonds Are Forever just finishes the mission, then wraps up some random threads that don’t have a whole lot to do with the rest of the book.

The annoying thing is that the last couple of chapters would actually be pretty awesome somewhere else. They’re like their own short stories added to the end, but they’re not a significant part of the plot. It just doesn’t make any sense why Fleming didn’t cut it or make it a bigger part of the story; the middle ground kind of sucks

The really frustrating thing is that diamond smuggling is inherently cool. Diamonds are cool and smuggling is cool, so diamond smuggling should be… the bomb diggity? (Or whatever the kids are saying these days.) But it doesn’t really make sense for an international man of mystery, such as our beloved 007, to handle a problem that should probably be left to the local constabulary. Admittedly, the Bond books generally feature slightly more mundane plots than the movies have accustomed us to, but really. “I want to smuggle diamonds out of Africa.” To what end? “To smuggle diamonds out of Africa.” How grandiose.

According to Wikipedia, Fleming decided to write Diamonds Are Forever after he did quite a bit of research for a non-fiction book about diamond smuggling. Diamonds Are Forever is pretty much a side project, and it shows.

Live and Let Die

by Ian Fleming

 

Gotta get it out of the way right now: this one struck me as a little bit racist. It starts on the second page, in which Bond compares himself to a “negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” Later on we get to the chapter called “Nigger Heaven” (referring to Harlem). Oh, and Bond’s mission involves taking down a nationwide organization of American Communists. That last one doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well, the organization in question consists of every black person in America. They toe the line out of malevolence, stupidity, or fear of Mr. Big’s voodoo powers. Fleming seems to have some, uh, old-fashioned views on race. Of course, if you’re reading any James Bond book, you’re probably at least aware of some of the more odious attitudes that can be found within. I mean, Bond isn’t exactly a feminist hero, either, so you can’t be surprised that he’s not at the vanguard of civil rights and tolerance.

That being said, Fleming writes a hell of a book. Live and Let DieAnd a refreshingly short one; I mentioned before how short Casino Royale was, and the rest of the Bond novels are no different. They’re quick and violent, and 007 rarely wastes time brooding. Sure, there’s always some exposition, and Fleming revels in the details of, for instance, a train ride from New York to Florida, which I doubt is actually as romantic as he seems to think. (I’ve ridden Amtrak.) But when action gets going, it goes hard and fast. The first action sequence of Live and Let die takes place beneath a Harlem nightclub following a burlesque act, and there’s something about the scene that just keeps you entranced.

This is also when 007’s nemeses started to become the “Bond villains” that we’re all familiar with. While Mr. Big is, like his predecessor Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent, he’s also an unusually large man with a skin condition whose appearance leads his cronies to believe that he’s also the zombie of Baron Samedi. (Black people are really into voodoo in in Fleming’s America.) In both appearance and status, Mr. Big is the first larger-than-life Bond villain, and he provides a good template that the books and movies return to again and again. (Kingsman jokes on this idea by giving Samuel L. Jackson’s villain a lisp. Actually, that whole movie is a great homage to and send-up of Bond and other spy movies. I highly recommend it.)

By the by, in addition to reading Live and Let Die the first time I read the Bond series in middle school, I started the book again a little over two years ago. I even started writing this very blog post. Unfortunately, I left a Dr Pepper on my bedside table next to the book, and apparently those Chipotle cups just aren’t meant to hold liquid for very long. I took the book off the table and left it somewhere to dry, then I went on to read something else. I ended up moving soon thereafter, packing up all my Bond books and letting them sit in a box for almost a year. I moved again, and again, until I finally ended up in a semi-permanent spot. Everything was unpacked, and I finally got around to finishing my soda-stained book as well as this blog post.

I just wanted to let you know how dedicated I am to the craft.

Live and Let Die might be the most politically incorrect Bond novel, at least to a 21st century reader, but the completist can’t just skip it, and its action makes it worth checking out anyway. Also, I wasn’t kidding about Kingsman. See that shit.