Tour de Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) & On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963)

We’re doubling up this week — and I’ll be up front about the reason why: I cannot stand The Spy Who Loved Me. It stands out like a sore thumb in the Bond canon — an experiment gone wrong, as if Fleming had taken his efforts to try other styles (like the Maugham-esque “Quantum of Solace” ) and expanded it to full novel length. Fleming recognized it as a failure himself, in fact — when he sold the film rights to the franchise, he specified that only the title of The Spy Who Loved Me could be used, and that the producers must develop their own original plot in its place.

The book is told from the point of view of Vivienne Michel, and Bond barely appears in the novel at all — he’s not there for two-thirds of the book (the first two sections, titled “Me” and “Them”, which recount Vivienne’s life up until the point where she finds herself running a motel in the Adirondacks, and encounters two mobsters, Sluggsy and Horror, there to burn down the motel). He shows up in the final section (titled “Him”), where he shows up at random (looking for a room), defeats the two mobsters, saves Vivienne, and sleeps with her. He’s then gone before the end of the book, and Vivienne is left only with the memory of the spy who loved her.

Ack.

Awful, awful stuff. I have no idea what Fleming was thinking, since he pretty much immediately disowned the book, even preventing a paperback edition from being published while he was still alive (they appeared posthumously). So better instead to move on:

1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is now viewed as the second installment in the “Blofeld Trilogy” (Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice.) and continues Bond’s efforts to track down and dismantle SPECTRE.

This novels contributes heavily to the oft-referenced image of Bond as a borderline burn-out. At the time the novel starts, he is at the end of his rope — he’s convinced that SPECTRE no longer exists, and bristles under M’s insistence that he continue to search for Blofeld. Frustrated, he drafts a letter of resignation. He encounters a suicidal woman, Teresa di Vicenzo, and prevents her from drowning herself — only for both to be captured by men from the Unione Corse (the Corsican version of the Mafia). The head of the crime syndicate, Marc-Ange Draco, is the woman’s father — and offers Bond a dowry to marry his daughter, feeling that this will pull her out of her depression. Bond refuses, but (of course) begins to develop a relationship with Tracy (as she is known to friends) as he gets to know her. The portrayal here is really well done, with Fleming crafting a connection between two people who are each damaged in their own way.

Draco eventually tips Bond to the fact that Blofeld has undergone plastic surgery and has set himself up in Switzerland under the name Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, and has asked for official recognition to that title, which allows Bond to go in undercover as a member of the Royal College of Arms, there to confirm the “Comte’s” claim. He discovers that Blofeld is running what he claims is an allergy clinic at the top of Piz Gloria, where he is supposedly curing young women of their livestock allergies — in actuality he’s brainwashing them and preparing to use them to deliver biological weapons which will wipe out Britain’s agricultural economy. Not exactly the world-threatening plots that have cropped up in the films, or even the previous books — killing livestock is a bit of a step-down from nuclear blackmail, after all. I do like the plot, though, as it shows Blofeld as more than a one-note villain — crafting what is (despite the presence of the biological warfare agents) essentially an economic attack.

As is usually the case when Bond goes undercover, he’s caught, and must escape from Piz Gloria, which he does — with the help of Tracy, whom he finds in the town at the base of the mountain. He proposes marriage (which I honestly found to be rather abrupt, especially after the care with which Fleming crafted the developing relationship). Draco’s Unione Corse assist Bond in an assault on the mountaintop base (a phenomenal set piece — one of the best action sequences in the novels, in my opinion), but after a harrowing ski chase where Bond is nearly killed, Blofeld makes good his escape.

At this point, I’m sure it’s no spoiler (almost 50 years after the book and over 40 after the film) that Bond marries Tracy, but Blofeld gets his revenge in a drive-by shooting which ends up killing the new Mrs. Bond. Despite the abrupt manner of the proposal, the effort Fleming undertook to show us their relationship as it developed really pays off here: We feel it. And we need to feel it, as this event pushes Bond over the edge — where he remains for the rest of the novel series.

Next week, You Only Live Twice.

3 Replies to “Tour de Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) & On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963)”

  1. I like this series of commentaries, though I’ve never read the Bond novels. Because I’m familiar only with some of the movies, I would be interested if late entries included your views about the value of each novel’s film adaptation.

    Another point I’d like to see addressed is Alan Moore’s contention (in his 1986 introduction to Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”) that “the overriding factor in James Bond’s psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.”

  2. I’m unlikely to cover the films, especially at this point when there are only a few entries remaining. My goal here was to discus the novels, simply *because* of the fact that so few people are familiar with them, whereas the films are part of our shared cultural heritage at this point.

    My view is that the misogyny argument is a product of looking at teh books through modern values. I don’t see him as any more misogynist than other adventure fiction heroes of the time (see, for example, Mickey Spillane’s stuff, or the Parker novels by Westlake/Stark).

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