For Your Eyes Only is a monument to the adage that the best writers never let a good idea go to waste. In 1958, CBS Television offered Ian Fleming a contract for a television show based on the James Bond character. Fleming agreed and prepared a set of outlines for the first episodes of the proposed series — a combination of adaptations of his earlier novels, along with new material. Unfortunately, CBS eventually dropped the idea, and the series never happened. The new material Fleming had created, though, wouldn’t go to waste.
Gathering up the five original outlines that he had developed for the series, Fleming expanded them into short stories — the plots, developed for series television, weren’t detailed enough for full-length novels. The stories– “From a View to a Kill”, “For Your Eyes Only”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Risico” and “The Hildebrand Rarity” — were published as a collection originally titled For Your Eyes Only – Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond (although the subtitle was dropped in later editions).
I have to say, I’m a massive fan of the Bond short stories — Fleming’s pacing and eye for detail really shines in the truncated format. Of all of the tales here, my favorite is easily “From a View to a Kill”, featuring Bond going undercover as a NATO motorcycle dispatch courier in order to draw out a Soviet assassin. It’s a sharp little tale, full of period Cold War detail, and Bond as the ruthless and cunning “blunt instrument.”
Despite having one of my favorite titles, I’m not a big fan of “Quantum of Solace” — mostly because it’s another example of Fleming trying to experiment, getting far from the established Bond format. In this tale, he attempts to emulate the style of Somerset Maugham, which simply doesn’t work as a James Bond story. In fact, the story isn’t about Bond at all — Bond is the framing element for the tale. The actual plot is a story told to Bond at a dinner party by the Governor of the Bahamas, about a failed relationship. Having one’s main character present only as the passive listener, there to mull over the moral of the story, is a huge mistake in my opinion.
“The Hildebrand Rarity” is another stretch of the concept — but more successful. In it, Bond is on assignment in the Seychelles and gets involved with a millionaire’s search for a rare fish. The man is a horrible abusive drunk and is murdered aboard the yacht, and Bond ends up covering up the crime in an effort to avoid entanglement — while drawing his own conclusions about the culprit. Not really a spy’s tale, but well-plotted and exciting — and most, importantly, Bond is true to his character.
The other tales center around operational vignettes — looking into the murder of a Jamaican couple that are friends of M in “For Your Eyes Only”; and cross and double-cross during the investigation of a Italian drug-smuggling ring in “Risico.” Any of these could easily have been expanded into full-length Bond novels — or combined, as was the case with the film producers who combined these two stories to form the backbone of the cinema version of For Your Eyes Only (which, for the record, is my favorite Roger Moore film, simply because it is the least far-fetched).
These shorter pieces gave Fleming a breather — and he’d continue the concept of adapting material developed for other formats with the next novel, Thunderball (1961), which would open up a Pandora’s Box which would plague the author until his death, and continue to effect the Bond franchise for decades afterward.