Friday, March 9, 2018

Forgotten Books: ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE by Ian Fleming (1963)

Look out, there’s a SPOILER coming up. But it’s only a spoiler if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie. The plot element (and ending) I’m going to discuss was a really big deal in the film, and it’s because that element is so underplayed in the novel that I feel compelled to bring it up.

Yeah, I’m talking about Bond getting married, and his bride’s almost immediate demise. She had to die, of course, just like every unwitting damsel who every got engaged to one of the Cartwright boys. But the way it’s presented in the book, it’s pretty hard to swallow. Bond spends one night with this woman, finds her to be mentally disturbed, and scoffs at her father’s suggestion that he marry her.

Months later, meeting her again (in an amazingly contrived situation), he spends a couple of hours with her (with his clothes on, no less), decides she’s the love of his life, and proposes. I just didn’t buy it. 

So why did Fleming do it? Well, it's pretty obvious he wanted a way to rationalize Bond recruiting a group of Corsican mobsters to help assault the stronghold of his arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That assault makes for a cool scene, and the friendship between Bond and head mobster (his fiancé’s father) seems genuine. But once that’s over, Mrs. Bond is simply discarded like the plot device she is. She’s snuffed out on the final page of the book, the story’s over, and we get no glimpse of Bond’s grief, if any. This was not Fleming’s finest hour.

Otherwise, it was fine Bond book. One of the funniest parts was seeing him 007 play the role of a snooty aristocrat from the royal genealogical society. And there’s a cool tribute to Rex Stout.

It's set up when we learn that M’s hobby is to paint watercolors of the wild orchids of England. As Bond enters M's office, he's hunched over his drawing board with a pitiful looking flower in front of him. Here's what follows:  

“What the devil’s the name of that fat American detective who’s always fiddling about with orchids, those obscene hybrids from Venezuela and so forth? Then he comes sweating out of his orchid house, eats a gigantic meal of some foreign muck and solves the murder. What’s he called?”

“Nero Wolfe, sir. They’re written by a chap called Rex Stout. I like them.”

“They’re readable,” condescended M. “But I was thinking of the orchid stuff in them. How in hell can a man like those disgusting flowers? Why, they’re damned near animals, and their colours, all those pinks and mauves and the blotchy yellow tongues, are positively hideous! Now that”—M waved at the meagre little bloom in the tooth-glass—“that’s the real thing. That’s an Autumn Lady’s Tresses—spiranthes spiralis, not that I care particularly. Flowers in England as late as October and should be under the ground by now. But I got this forced-late specimen from a man I know—assistant to a chap called Summerhayes who’s the orchid king at Kew. My friend’s experimenting with cultures of a fungus which oddly enough is a parasite on a lot of orchids, but, at the same time, gets eaten by the orchids and acts as a stable diet, Mycorhiza it’s called.” M gave another of his rare smiles. “But you needn’t write it down. Just wanted to take a leaf out of this fellow Nero Wolfe’s book.”

So Ian Fleming was a Stout fan. If you ain't, you should be too.


Cap'n Bob said...

Sounds like a book I should read--except some jackanapes spoiled the ending for me.

Evan Lewis said...

Maybe you could just read the Nero Wolfe part. But wait! I spoiled that for you too. How sad.

Mathew Paust said...

I read On Her Majesty's Secret Service as a wide-eyed yout', way before I read any Rex Stout or knew anything at all about orchids other than I had to buy one for my prom date in high school. I also remember the line--or something similar--"We have all the time in the world"...oops.

Art Scott said...

Wow, this is quite a Wolfean "discovery" (though it's been hiding in plain sight)! Never was keen on spy fiction, read 3 or 4 Bond books, but not this one. Fleming evidently had some familiarity with his contemporary crime writers. Did you ever hear the interview he did with Chandler for the BBC? Worth your time, it's on the net.

TracyK said...

Thanks for this, Evan. I can't believe I never knew about the Rex Stout / Nero Wolfe mention (or maybe I did but forgot). I read this book decades ago, but at any point in my mystery / spy fiction reading I have been a Rex Stout fan, even in my teens. Coincidentally I am reading all the Ian Fleming James Bond books in order now (just about to read Goldfinger) and aiming at getting to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. So I guess I will speed it up.

Cap'n Bob said...

Have you offered this up to the Facebook Wolfe crowd? I would but I've bailed on them.

TC said...

Besides the Rex Stout plug, OHMSS also mentions Ursula Andress by name. So she has the distinction of having been mentioned in a novel by Fleming, as well as having been in the first Bond movie. Two Bond movies, if you count the 1967 Casino Royale.