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Saturday, 26 June 2010


Fleming’s third Bond novel, Moonraker was something of a departure –it’s a much slower, more thoughtful novel than the previous two and it’s nothing at all to do with cool looking laser guns and bad guys in one piece yellow suits. After two largely fantastical novels Fleming brings the series down to earth with Moonraker – the reader learns more about Bond in this novel that they did in the previous books and Fleming takes great care to put meat on the bones and give Bond a reality that had previously been lacking.

Ironic that this most down to earth of the books would become the film that took Bond into outer space – mind you, as we will see, the film and book share nothing but a title and a few character names. In fact Moonraker the film and the book were so different that there was a novelisation of the movie written by Christopher Wood. So there are, in fact, two different Moonraker novels, the same thing would happen with The Spy Who Loved Me, but Fleming’s is where the real Bond hangs out.

We learn much about Bond from the first chapter – we learn his age for one thing and that he has eight years to go before the age of 45 when 00’s are retired to easier and less hazardous duties. We discover he has a flat situated off London’s King’s Road and that his housekeeper is called May. Bond is a reckless character and it is clear that when he goes past his usefulness as a 00 he’d be lost. It seems he would rather fall in the line of duty before that day.

He had a small but comfortable flat off King’s Road, an elderly Scottish housekeeper – a treasure called May – and a 1930 supercharged four and a half litre Bentley, which he expertly tuned so that he could do a hundred when he wanted to.

On these things he spent all his money and it was his ambition to have as little as possible in the bank when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be before the statutory age of forty-five.”

In the following two chapters there is a superb example of the Fleming Sweep in full gear – there’s no action as such but still the story moves at pace. The second chapter details a lengthy explanation of Drax and his history and of how he has become a hero of the British people, but by putting the words into Bond’s mouth as the agent tells M all he knows about Hugo Drax the story doesn’t slow at all and the reader experiences this huge information dump in short bursts of speech. The following chapter is basically Bond getting ready for the evening at the exclusive Blades club, in which the author goes into great detail on his clothing and the lay out of his flat. The chapter ends with Bond mis-reading a neon road sign and seeing the words, HELL IS HERE projected onto the sky.

By now the reader’s nerves are wound to breaking point, which is, what makes Ian Fleming’s writing so exhilarating. The author goes into extreme detail and yet at the same time his writing displays a sparse, almost hard-boiled style. There is no wonder that he and Raymond Chandler had such a mutual appreciation for each other’s work.

In 1958 Ian Fleming interviewed Raymond Chandler for the BBC’s Third Program and Chandler complimented Fleming on his descriptions of New York and especially Harlem (Live and Let Die), saying that he can’t think of any American writer who had ever brought the area and its people to life so well. The conversation between these two titans is deeply interesting and reveals much of their respective thoughts on what makes a thriller work. Why do you always have a torture scene, Chandler asks Fleming at one point. Fleming considers this for a moment and from his answer it becomes clear that he initially intended Bond to be, in his words, “ a blunt instrument” and not a hero at all, but that Bond developed in a way not initially imagined. THE FULL INTERVIEW IS EMBEDDED AS A VIDEO PRESENTATION AT THE END OF THIS POST.

It was with Moonraker that this character development really began and James Bond started to turn into a classic hero – this novel keeps Bond firmly rooted in the UK and for the lion’s share of the story he is carrying out straightforward detective work as he tries to uncover the mystery of Hugo Drax. The lack of an exotic setting this time out, having Bond on his home turf, gives the novel a different momentum. It’s a very strong entry in the series even if it is arguably the least action orientated.

“Your hero, Philip Marlowe, is a real hero. He behaves in a heroic fashion. I never intended my leading character, James Bond, to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, or get out of them one way or another. But of course he’s always referred to as my hero. I don’t see him as a hero myself. On the whole I think he’s a rather unattractive man . . .” IAN FLEMING IN CONVERSATION WITH RAYMOND CHANDLER.

Hugo Drax comes across as Fleming’s most successful villain thus far – there’s a great deal of mystery in his past which creates a feeling of deep unease in the reader. This man we know so little about seems too good to be true and he’s in charge of a new nuclear missile, The Moonraker, that he claims will bring peace to our times.

Bond initially starts to investigate Drax at M’s request – the man is a national hero but he cheats at cards, - M, thinks this rather odd. Bond discovers Drax’s cheating method and then sits down to beat him at his own game. This is another excellent gambling scene, in which the game of Bridge is turned, by Fleming’s pen, into a heart stopping sequence. It is difficult to think of any other writer who can make such scenes sparkle – Drax’s reaction at losing also tell us more about his character and for the first time we start to see his dark side.

From here on in the book concentrates on suspense rather than full out action and it’s a great book for it – a feeling of impending doom runs through the entire narrative and by the time we discover, along with 007, that Drax actually plans to destroy London with his Moonraker rocket it comes as no surprise.

When the story ends Bond is a more rounded character than ever – he has some almost superhuman qualities, we know he’s the best shot in the service and also the toughest man in the 00 section. He is habitual in his tastes and he enjoys a high level of living. Fleming knew he was dealing with wish fulfilment because Bond was a product of his own dreams, his alter ego, the man he would have liked to have been and, in many ways, thought he was. Both writer and character lived their lives on the edge and took their vices to excess.

“James Bond was Ian’s dream- fantasy of what he would like to be, you know – ruthless and dashing.” Noel Coward

Next – Diamonds are Forever



Charles Gramlich said...

Love those covers with the old style rockets. I'm a sucker for those.

Randy Johnson said...

Moonraker might be my favorite of the novels. The movie were so disappointing. To me anyway,

The two Christopher Wood novelizations you mentioned were respectable tales and, with a few name and title changes, could easily stand beside any of the non-Fleming Bonds.