Friday, September 15, 2017

Forgotten Books: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME by Ian Fleming

I started reading James Bond (along with Tarzan and Doc Savage) when I was twelve years old, and have been through the whole original series at least a couple of times since. I remember most of them pretty well, but have almost no memory of The Spy Who Loved Me. So now, as I’m working my way through the audio versions, all I knew was that the story was narrated by a woman, and was looking forward to the novelty. Big mistake. This one is Bad with a capital B.

Ian Fleming began the book with this prologue:

I found what follows lying on my desk one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman, evidently beautiful and not unskilled in the arts of love. According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically, with the same James Bond whose secret service exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed 'Vivienne Michel' assuring me that what she had written was 'purest truth and from the depths of her heart'. I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of the Official Secrets Act I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication.

A "fantasy" cover, though a pretty good one, with art swiped from Jubal's Children by Lenard Kaufman.

Fleming’s pleasure was short-lived. The book’s reception was so bad he prevailed upon his publishers to see that no paperback edition would appear in Great Britain until he had gone to his grave.

One reviewer called it “as silly as it is unpleasant,” and “boring.” One called it “cornography.” One said it was “as if “Mickey Spillane had tried to gatecrash his way into the Romantic Novelist’s Association.” And sadly, they were all right.

The novel is divided into three parts: ME, THEM and HIM.

ME, which consumes half the book, opens with an exceedingly dumb and aggravating scene in which our heroine, called Viv, is in a rural New York motel being frightened out of her wits by a storm. Then we flashback to her girlhood in Canada, a move to England and a lot of coming-of-age nonsense involving sexual encounters with a British boy. This is followed by some coming-of-another-age nonsense revolving around her career as a journalist and sexual encounters with her boss. It’s all, as the reviewer noted, silly and unpleasant and boring, and has zero story value. It is absolutely devoid of plot.

THEM, starting just before the mid-way point, takes us back to the motel from the beginning of the book, and introduces a couple of over-the-top gangsters called Sluggsy and Horror. The plot, such as it is, is finally underway, as they set about terrorizing her in silly, boring and unpleasant ways until the doorbell rings and the third part of the book begins.

HIM, of course, is Bond, and he’s looking for a room at the motel, having conveniently suffered a flat tire nearby. Compared to what has gone before, this is great stuff, but set against the rest of the 007 canon, it’s of only passable interest.

My gut feeling was that Fleming had an old unfinished and unsalable manuscript lying around and, with no inspiration for a follow-up to Thunderball, hit upon the idea of adding Bond to the mix and passing it off as a novel. Apparently that ain’t so. So the story goes, Fleming had recently suffered a coronary, was having marital problems, and was still reeling from the legal difficulties of getting Thunderball published (he had collaborated with film producer Kevin McCLory on the story)  He had even been tempted to do a Conan Doyle and kill Bond off in that book. (This was all before the appearance of the first true 007 film, Dr. No, which would turn Bond into a household name.) So Fleming deliberately set out to something different, perhaps in hope of acclaim as a serious writer. You gotta feel for the guy.

Another "fantasy" cover, much better than the real one Pan came up with.

When the film called The Spy Who Loved Me finally appeared, the producers wisely chose to scrap everything but the title. There was not so much as a sniff of the rest.

Probably the most interesting thing about the book is that the men’s sweat mag Stag published it in abridged form as “Hotel Nymph.” The fact that Viv is by no means a nymph apparently deterred Stag not at all. (Prior to meeting Bond, she has sex with only two men, first to be “a sport,” and then to be a good friend.)

I have not seen the abridgment, but am reasonably confident they cut out the entire ME part of the book, and began with the arrival of Sluggsy and Horror. That portion of the book is light on sex, but more than makes up for in violence. We present herewith some of the illos from the magazine appearance.


Jerry House said...

Yeah, this was pretty much at the bottom of the Bond pile, along with several later short stories/novelettes.

For my money the best Bond was the first, CASINO ROYALE, followed by the wild tongue-in-cheek DOCTOR NO.

Brian Drake said...

I think this is the book in which Fleming intended to kill off Bond, but changed his mind along the way and by then it was too late to start over. I've always meant to talk about this on my blog but have never gotten around to it, because that would mean reading this rubbish again. The best part of the book is the third act, where Bond describes raiding an apartment building to catch a bad guy. The third act is also perfectly set up as Bond's Reichenbach Falls, there's even a point, as I recall, where Bond goes charging into the mist leaving Viv alone to escape. Fleming said in correspondence leading up to SPY that he was running out of "puff and zest", and this might have been how he wanted to go out. Would have been a pity. Somewhere somebody helped change his mind and we got the wonderful Spectre trilogy out of it with a much better Reichenbach Falls in You Only Live Twice and one of the best "back from the grave" moments in The Man With The Golden Gun. Too bad the rest of that one is a clunker.

Mathew Paust said...

I thought I'd read this one back in the day, but the plot--such that it is--doesn't sound familiar. Maybe it was just forgettable.

TC said...

It's crap. But I have to admit, it is exactly the kind of book that a dingbat like Vivienne would write.

TC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

As I recall, there was an interesting backstory about 007 going up against a SPECTRE cell in Canada, related by Bond to explain why he was in upstate New York. Fleming should have written that one instead. Either Kingsley Amis or O.F. Snelling (I forget which) took a poke at the "tough guy" dialogue uttered by the two hoods.

Evan Lewis said...

You're right, George. That little tale Bond told was the best part of the book. I'm surprised it hasn't been made into a movie yet.

Cap'n Bob said...

George who?