RANKING the ORIGINAL BOND
SHORT STORIES by IAN FLEMING
I didn't know what to make of these the first time I read them. My mistake was perhaps to read them with the same set of analytical tools I was taught as an undergrad on stuff like Updike's "A-and-P" or Mailer's "The Language of Men." (Two pretty much perfectly-structured short stories.) Those tools don't work so well with something like "Risico." But stories are written for all sorts of audiences and with all sorts of aims, of course - no one is suggesting there's a one-size-fits-all approach to them. The only thing you can do is establish the context as best you can and see how and where they fit into that. True for stories, true for life, I say.
The questions I asked of the following were: Is it a situation that is exciting to see Bond sort out? If it isn't, is its lack of traditional Bond excitement all the more interesting for its absence? Are the characters we meet fleshed-out, and do they interact with Bond in a more than perfunctory way? Finally, do we learn anything about Bond that we don't already know from the novels? I assigned points for those and ranked accordingly, like I like to do.
And here we go - presented least-to-most favorite:
9. "The Property of a Lady" (1963)
Takes place between "The Living Daylights" and Chapters 1–5 of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (For those who care, I used John Griswold's chronology, not Henry Chancellor's.)
Bond is called into M's office for a brief history of The House of Fabergé from Dr. Fanshawe, adviser to the C.I.D. and H.M. Customs on antique jewelry. (Bond notes he's dressed "rather foppishly in the neo-Edwardian fashion.") He's given this information because Maria Freudenstein - a known KGB agent working for MI6 in a department created specially for her so they can feed false info back to the Soviets - is about to receive her big pay-off for years of dedicated work. She was sent one of Fabergé's greatest works - the Emerald Sphere - with a drummed-up story of it being a family heirloom. She agrees to sell it at auction. M and Bond both agree that this sale will almost certainly be attended by the KGB's head man in London - presently unknown to them - who will try to drum up the price to increase the size of Ms. Freudenstein's "pension."
Bond is dispatched to the auction to spot him, whereupon he will be rounded up and deported and the Russians' London-based spying seriously disrupted.
Not all of Bond's adventures need involve exotic ladies or locales - though Sotheby's is certainly something to behold. I quite liked it, even if we're starting off in the last spot. As a general rule, if your story involves "Soviet secret agents in the West," I'll be on board. I grew up two hundred klicks from the Iron Curtain and never got over it.
8. "For Your Eyes Only" (1960)
Takes place between "From a View to a Kill" and Thunderball.
"You can get far in North America with laconic grunts. Huh, hun, and hi! in their various incarnations, together with sure, guess so, that so? and nuts! will meet almost any contingency."
True in 1960, true in 2015.
|Adapted for The Daily Express, Sep - Dec 1961.|
When two gunmen murder two of M's oldest friends, the Havelocks, on behest of an ex-Nazi named Von Hammerstein, Bond volunteers himself for the mission to take him out. With some unofficial help from the Canadian secret service, Bond tracks them to a residence in Vermont, where he stalks them from the nearby hills with a sniper rifle. He runs into Judy Havelock, who is there on a mission of vengeance herself, but armed only with a bow and arrow. He berates her for being a damn fool and tells her assassination is "man's work," before reluctantly agreeing to team up and complete the mission.
That "man's work" business might understandably piss the female assassins of the world right off, particularly when Judy agrees with Bond after all the killing's been done. (You can almost see the rage-memes and hashtags.) But context, people: every other sentence of the story is about Bond's distaste for the work. This isn't to excuse the sexist perspective - you want to explore Bond's sexism, there's an awful lot to work with. But at least read this story correctly: Fleming is not having Judy validate said perspective; she's expressing the humanity Bond suppresses.
Speaking of that inner monologue, we eavesdrop further on Bond's meandering thoughts as he painstakingly awaits nightfall so he can move into position.
"Was this a hill or a mountain? At what height does a hill become a mountain? Why don't they manufacture something out of the silver bark of birch trees? It looks so useful and valuable. The best things in America are chipmunks, and oyster stew. In the evening, darkness doesn't really fall, it rises. When you sit on top of a mountain and watch the sun go down behind the mountain opposite, the darkness rises up to you out of the valley. Will the birds one day lose their fear of man? It must be centuries since man has killed a small bird for food in these woods, yet they are still afraid. Who was this Ethan Allen who commanded the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont? Now in American motels they advertise Ethan Allen furniture as an attraction. Why? Did he make furniture? Army boots should have rubber soles like these."
|The New York / Vermont border region where the story takes place.|
7. "007 in New York" (1963)
Takes place between Chapters 1–5 of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Chapters 10–15 of The Spy Who Loved Me.
"But New York did not have everything. One can hardly credit the deficiency, but there is no Reptile House at the Central Park Zoo."
The story-behind-the-story for this, as summed up by Fleming: "I am well aware these grim feelings I’ve expressed for New York * may shock or depress some of my readers. In fact, I would be disappointed if this were not the case. In deference to these readers, I here submit the record of another visitor to the city, a friend of mine with the dull name of James Bond, whose tastes and responses are not always my own and whose recent minor adventure in New York (his profession is a rather odd one) may prove more cheerful in the reading."
* He refers to his less-than-flattering account of New York City for Thrilling Cities.
"007 in New York" is simply an account of Bond's taxi ride from the airport to his hotel. He's been dispatched to New York to tell a former Secret Service agent that her boyfriend works for the KGB. He anticipates no difficulties. He muses on Americans and his forthcoming rendezvous with a girl named Solange.
"Were the Americans becoming too hygienic in general - too bug-conscious? Every time Bond made love to Solange, at a time when they should be relaxing in each other's arms, she would retire to the bathroom for a long quarter of an hour and there was a lengthy period after that when he couldn't kiss her because she had gargled with TCP. And the pills she took as if she had a cold! Enough to combat double pneumonia. But James Bond smiled at the thought of her and wondered what they would do together that evening. Again."
I love these mind-of-Bond moments. The paragraph that informs the very end of the story - the "New York did not have everything" bit, above - also tells you a bit more about our old pal Felix:
"New York had everything. He had heard, though he had never succeeded in tracing them, that one could see blue films with sound and color and that one's sex life was never the same thereafter. That would be an experience to share with Solange! And that bar, again still undiscovered, which Felix Leiter had told him was the rendezvous for sadists and masochists of both sexes. If you were a sadist, you wore the gloves under the left shoulder strap. For the masochists, it was the right. As with the transvestite places in Paris and Berlin, it would be fun to go and have a look.
I suppose as a CIA and Pinkerton's man, it's his job to know these things. Of course. I also love the bit about the blue films "with sound and color." One wonders how Fleming's Bond (or Fleming himself) would characterize the internet porn age.
In the end, of course, they would probably just go to The Embers or to hear Solange's favorite jazz and then home for more love and TCP."
Takes place between Goldfinger and "Quantum of Silence."
Bond meets with Kristatos, a CIA informant, about stopping the Soviet-funded flow of heroin into the UK. Kristatos agrees to help if Bond will take out Colombo, whom, he swears, is the man in charge of the heroin smuggling. Colombo gets wind of this and kidnaps Bond to tell him the truth: it is Kristatos who is smuggling the heroin, not himself. He is a man of honor. Bond believes him and joins Colombo and his men to attack Kristatos.
|Published as "The Double Take" in The Daily Express, April 1960.|
This and "For Your Eyes Only" were mashed together to form much of the plot for the For Your Eyes Only film.
|Chaim Topol brings Colombo to life memorably.|
Just a great little story. Not much to it. I loved this:
"M had certain bees in his bonnet. There were queen bees, like the misuse of the Service, and the search for true as distinct from wishful intelligence, and there were worker bees. These included idiosyncrasies as not employing men with beards, or those were completely bilingual, instantly dismissing men who tried to bring pressure to bear on him through family relationships with members of the Cabinet, mistrusting men and women who were too "dressy," and those who called him 'sir' off-duty; and having an exaggerated faith in Scotsmen."
Bond makes several fun observations of M in the novels, but this one is the most eccentric.
5. "From a View to a Kill" (1959)
Takes place between "The Hildebrand Rarity" and "For Your Eyes Only."
|Published as "James Bond and the Murder Before Breakfast" in The Daily Express, September 1959.|
Intriguing bit about the licorice and Bond's childhood. Outside of the details in the obituary at the end of You Only Live Twice, the only information we get on Bond's childhood as Fleming imagined it are via little remarks like this. We also learn he lost his virginity on his
"first, ignorant visit to Paris" when he was 16.
Here's a familiar enough plot (Bond is liaised to SHAPE to help solve the murder of one of its dispatch motorcycle riders) that like "For Your Eyes Only" is made more interesting by all that's going on in Bond's mind. Whether it's his early imaginings of the kind of day and night he intends to have in Paris or his thoughts on NATO, Fleming does a great job with these meandering idle moments of Bond.
Extra points for Mary Ann Russell, who likes Paris but not getting her ass pinched constantly, often so hard they leave her backside bruised. (Ah, Paris, ville d'amour!) She's a cool character all around. I pictured her being played by Cate Blanchett. I'm sure she and James enjoyed a nice motorcycle tour of France after the story ended. I hope he didn't just take her up to Vesper Lynd's grave for some awkward drunken sobbing.
4. The Hildebrand Rarity (1960)
Takes place between "Quantum of Solace" and "From a View to a Kill."
Bond is relaxing in the Seychelles after finishing a security check for the British Navy. His friend, the excellently-named Fidele Barbey, recruits him for a job he's been hired to do for a sadistic American gazillionaire, Milton Krest, who, Bond thinks to himself, "thinks of himself like a Hemingway character." * Krest has employed the Rockefeller/Morgan (J.P., not Sir Henry) method of pouring his gazillions into a non-profit foundation to avoid the prying eyes of the taxman. Krest's foundation tracks down rare fish for the Smithsonian, which is what brings him to the Seychelles.
* Has anyone ever done a side-by-side comparison of Hemingway and Fleming's writing? If only for the methodical accounting of boozing, it'd be fascinating.
Bond and Barbey join Krest aboard his yacht to search for a rare member of the squirrel-fish family. Bond forms a platonic attachment to Krest's wife Liz, whose marriage to Milton is glitz and glamour on the surface but abusive in private quarters. Bond learns Krest whips her with a stingray tail, an ancient but outlawed marital tradition in the South Pacific. After a night of watching his host drunkenly harangue everyone in earshot, Bond finds him murdered with the rare fish stuffed in his mouth. Thinking that he got exactly what he deserved, Bond throws the body over the side without hesitation.
This is quite a good story. Earlier I mentioned that the type of short-story-deconstruction one learns as an English major doesn't always work with these Fleming stories, but this one is an exception. (As is "Octopussy.") There's a lot going on under the surface of this one about marriage, morality, and predation.
|‘The Corrector and The Collector – A Cabinet of Curiosities.’ © 2015 Gerald Wadsworth. (As nicked from here.)|
And as mentioned here: "Elizabeth is beautiful, but there's not the usual sexual tension between her and Bond. I mean there is tension there, but it comes from knowing how Bond usually interacts with beautiful women and from knowing that Milton Krest is a dangerous man to offend. (...) Her nervousness and unsuccessfully concealed desperation touch Bond and turn him into a listening ear for her. He becomes an oasis of comfort and normality in the life of fear that she's leading, which is a really odd role for him to take. But he wears it well."
Very true. This isn't even undermined by the implication at story's end that he and Liz are poised to take things to the next level; it just seems like a natural progression from all that followed.
3. Quantum of Solace (1959)
Takes place between "Risico" and "The Hildebrand Rarity."
"When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it's obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero."
Bond attends a dinner party at the Governor's house after completing a mission in the Bahamas. Both men have run out of things to say to one another, and after Bond makes an offhand remark about how he'd like to marry a stewardess, the Governor tells him the tragic story of Philip and Rhoda Masters.
I'll say no more. That's really all there is to the plot - Bond simply listens to the Governor tell the story, and then they shake hands and part ways - but the details of the story are exceptionally well-chosen. To quote Michael May again: "it as an homage to W Somerset Maugham, one of Fleming's favorite authors. According to the British Empire website, Maugham enjoyed writing about 'the remote locations of the quietly magnificent yet decaying British Empire' and the people who worked and lived there. He was a master at juxtaposing 'realistic depictions of the boredom and drudgery' of plantation life or civil service with 'the desire and trappings of what [British citizens who lived in those places] would regard as civilization.'"
I normally have trouble suspending my disbelief for stories where one character tells another character a long story without interruption. I didn't mind here, though - I think the deciding factor is whether or not the characters involved are British or pre-twentieth century. I'm not sure why this is the case, but looking over the stories where I mind the trope vs. the ones I don't, that seems to be the deciding factor.
2. The Living Daylights (1962)
Takes place between "Octopussy" and "The Property of a Lady"
"Look, my friend," said Bond wearily, "I've got to commit a murder tonight. Not you. Me. So be a good chap and stuff it, would you? You can tell Tanqueray anything you like when it's over. Think I like this job? Having a Double-O number and so on? I'd be quite happy for you to get me sacked." Bond drank down his whiskey, reached for his thriller *, now arriving at an appalling climax, and threw himself on the bed.
* That thriller is called Verderbt, Verdammt, Verraten - "the prefix ver signifed that the girl had not only been ruined, damned, and betrayed, but that she had suffered these misfortunes most thoroughly."
Bond is dispatched to a hotel overlooking the border between East and West Berlin. He's there to take out his Soviet counterpart, who, M tells him, is there to assassinate a British agent escaping the East after many years in the cold. Bond must assassinate the assassin so the agent can return safely. While he waits for the pivotal moment, he spends his time reading the aforementioned thriller, drinking whiskey, arguing with the stuffy staff officer assigned to the same room, and fantasizing about the cellist he sees through his rifle scope going in and out of the Haus die Ministerien.
|Adapted (with a few twists) for the first Dalton movie.|
Another gem that effectively walks the line between typical Bond adventure and booze-soaked deconstruction of Bond as a character. The attachment he forms to the cello player (thinking "something almost indecent in the idea of that bulbous, ungainly instrument between her splayed thighs") is subverted brilliantly by the ending.
I'm not sure anyone would really notice the minute adjustment Bond makes to his shot, but of course his doing so makes all the difference in the world. "Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book that's enough."
1. Octopussy (1965)
Takes place between Thunderball and "The Living Daylights."
If any of these short tales of Bond belonged in something like the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, it would be this one. In addition to being a fascinating sideways-glance at the Bondverse (as something like The Spy Who Loved Me is) it's probably Fleming's best-realized exploration of his favorite themes: accidie, karma, Best-laid-plans? Meet-James-Bond, and predatory creatures. Not to mention three of his great interests: gold-smuggling, the underwater world, and physical pain.
Major Dexter Smythe, retired, is in bad shape:
"Fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks. And he had two coronary thromboses. But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbors why, in defiance of the two ounces of whiskey and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night."
(Some have speculated that this is Fleming-in-disguise. I refer to you this excellent Literary007 post pointing out the pros and cons of this approach.)
Smythe spends his days drinking and looking for a scorpion fish to feed to an octopus he is quite fond of. He (and a colleague at the university, whose intellectual interest in the subject he appropriates for his own) are curious to see if the octopus can withstand the fish's highly concentrated poison. Smythe has taken to feeding the octopus daily in order to get it accustomed to him.
He is visited by a man who says he's there on Miscellaneous Objects Bureau, his wartime outfit, business. The man asks Smythe if he ever knew a man named Oberhauser and observes him closely as he lies through his teeth. A feeling of dread envelops him, as he realizes this man is there to finally bring him to justice for the crime he committed in the last days of World War 2: the cold-blooded murder of an Austrian ski instructor and theft of several bars of Reichsgold. Eventually, Smythe confesses to everything. The man says that Smythe's story is more or less how he figured it. Smythe asks how on earth the man ever got on the case to begin with.
James Bond looked Major Smythe squarely in the eyes: "Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one."
Bond mentions to Smythe that it'll take about a week for the authorities to catch up to him and leaves the "or you could kill yourself before they get here" dangling unspoken in the air. As Smythe processes what has happened, he goes back to the reef and has one final (and very symbolic) encounter with Octopussy.
I love everything about this story. I really am surprised no one called my attention to it before I got to it myself. It's possible it's known only to hardcore Bond fans. If so, that is a real shame. It preserves in short-story-amber its themes as well as just about any other short story I can think of. And Bond's working out the decades-old crime from a body in the Alps all the way to Smythe's drawing room in Jamaica - and his steady, controlled vengeance - is a great moment for the character.
~James Bond will return in... From Novel to Film: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.