Thursday, 21 February 2013

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Ian Fleming

It was one of those Septembers when it seemed like the summer would never end.


OHMSS needs no introduction to fans of the 1969 film, the sole Bond outing for George Lazenby. Unusually for a Bond film, Peter Hunt's adaptation hews fairly close to the literary source, following Bond as he falls in love, faces off against Ernst Stavro Blofeld and gets married, all while enjoying a range of winter sports.

This is the second Bond I've read recently, after Casino Royale, and it's interesting to compare Fleming's style at the beginning and end of his career as a thriller author. Casino Royale was, of course, the first James Bond novel, while OHMSS was published a year before Fleming's death, by which time his creation was a household name.

The first thing to notice is that, while all of the requisite Bond elements (summed up a little glibly by Paul Johnson in the New Statesman as "sex, sadism and snobbery") are in place, the writing style is noticeably different. Fleming cuts loose with a good few hundred exclamation marks, many of them within the narration rather than the dialogue. It's an interesting and confident approach... some might say over-confident. In places it feels like Bond is relating the story in the manner of an exciteable teenage girl.

Fleming just about gets away with it, and that's because the breathless style is hitched to one of his strongest stories, as Bond investigates a genocidal plot in the Swiss Alps. The skiing scenes are thrillingly told, once you become accustomed to the exclamation marks, and Fleming's genius for scene-setting is as potent as ever.

Spoilers below, if you've never seen the movie.

Of course, the thing everyone remembers about this book (and the cinematic version) is the end, when Bond's new bride Tracy is gunned down by Blofeld in a drive-by revenge attack. As in Casino Royale, the tragedy is heavily foreshadowed by Bond's sheer happiness in the pages leading up to the climax. The epitome of bachelorhood, Bond could never be allowed to settle down. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, killing any love interest that threatens to tie the hero down.

You can understand why it's such a temptation for authors, because it accomplishes two important tasks: resolving a tricky story problem while at the same time creating some high drama. You could accuse Fleming of taking the easy way out here, but the execution is so well done that it's hard to complain. I've always been partial to a downbeat ending, and OHMSS doesn't disappoint.

What I learned:
  • if in doubt, kill the love interest
  • a dramatic setting works wonders if you get the balance of description to action right, as Fleming assuredly does here

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