Dynamite From Nightmare Land - Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me

'Vivienne Michel is in trouble. Trying to escape her tangled past, she has run away to the American backwoods, winding up at the Dreamy Pines Motor Court. A far cry from the privileged world she was born to, the motel is also the destination of two hardened killers - the perverse Sol Horror and the deadly Sluggsy Morant. When a coolly charismatic Englishman turns up, Viv, in terrible danger, is not just hopeful, but fascinated. Because he is James Bond, 007; the man she hopes will save her, the spy she hopes will love her...'  
The Spy Who Loved Me is the tenth James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming and was first published in 1962. The book is a departure from Fleming's usual style and can be described as an experimental Bond novel and one that didn't go down particularly well with readers at the time. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming abandons his usual third-person narrative and instead the story is told first person by the central female character Vivienne Michel. Another strange thing about the book is that James Bond himself is mostly absent until the third act. At the time Fleming was apparently growing tired of the Bond books and certain critical barbs thrown in his direction and decided to try something new. It's the shortest of the Bond books too (split into three sections) and Fleming gave strict instructions that only the title and not the story was to be used by Eon for their series of films. However, despite the strangeness of the book in contrast to the author's overall body of work and Fleming's own attempts to distance himself from The Spy Who Loved Me, it is an interesting entry in the literary Bond series and undeniably a gripping and solid story. 

The fairly simple story/set-up has Vivienne, a young French-Canadian, looking after and closing down a lonely motel in the mountainous Adirondacks while she awaits the owner. The telephone is out and a storm rages as Vivienne dwells on her complex past - happy enough to be solitary for a while perhaps. But things take a nasty turn when two repellent and sadistic criminals  - Sol 'Horror' Horowitz and Sluggsy Morant - arrive with plans to torch the motel on the orders of their employer Mr Sanguinetti for insurance purposes. Vivienne is taken prisoner and beaten and tries desperately to escape. We fear the worst for her with these two immoral and violent professional killers but - in Vivienne's bleakest hour - a tall, dark, mysterious stranger with a flat tyre turns up at the motel. His name is James Bond...  

The fact that this is not your typical Bond novel is emphasized by the first sixty or so pages of The Spy Who Loved Me which are introspective and even melodramatic as Vivienne reflects on her life - romantic failures, sexual history, sad things, buying a Vespa scooter even. I found Vivienne quite an interesting - even vivid - character and became reasonably absorbed in her backstory although those looking for a more traditional Bond caper might be somewhat bemused by the novel's structure. It's an attempt to look at Bond and a Bond story from the rare perspective of a Bond girl/heroine, which is an interesting idea. 'He was about six feet tall, slim and fit,' recalls Vivienne. 'The eyes in the lean, slightly tanned face were a very clear grey-blue and as they observed the men they were cold and watchful. His good looks had a dangerous, almost cruel quality that had frightened me. But now I knew he could smile, I thought his face exciting, in a way no face had ever excited me before.'  
James Bond is a slightly more enigmatic character in this one and by taking us away from Bond somewhat and presenting him through someone else it makes him more iconic in a way. While The Spy Who Loved Me is not a complete success (the villains border on film noir caricatures at times) Fleming at least deserves credit for trying something new and generating a surprising amount of suspense and tension at times. 

Bond is more tender in this book and you do get caught up in the plight of Vivienne and become increasingly anxious for 007 to arrive. Sol and Sluggsy are suitably creepy and frightening and have the usual grotesque Fleming villain touches like bloodshot eyes and (in Sluggsy's case) a complete absence of hair anywhere. Sol 'Horror' also has steel-capped teeth - which was one thing that made it into the film of the same name in the form of the character Jaws. The pair beat Vivienne and in terms of sadism this book perhaps goes a little further than other Bond entries - 'Slowly, almost caressingly, he began to hit me, now with his open hand, now with the fist, choosing his targets with refined, erotic cruelty.' As ever with Fleming, some parts of the book - attempted gangster lingo and lines like 'All women love semi-rape' - are sometimes jarring to the modern reader.  

Although James Bond himself enters the narrative surprisingly late - taking his part in the story for the last third or so - the situation is a tense and gripping one and his arrival is somewhat reminiscent - in mythic terms - of Sherlock Holmes return to the story in The Hound of the Baskervilles.  

'Hey, limey. What's your name?'

'Bond...James Bond.'
This is a wonderful and very satisfying moment because these two hoodlums have absolutely no idea who they are dealing with.  As ever, Fleming's descriptive ability is the main strength of the book and there are some good set-pieces and a welcome dose of suspense in the final third - which contains the action for the most part and is suitably gripping. Despite the divisive nature of the book amongst James Bond fans I felt it was interesting to look at Bond from a slightly different angle and attempt to construct a Bond story in a new way. A nice touch too is the story Bond tells about taking the place of a defector to capture a SPECTRE agent. 

The Spy Who Loved Me is an effective damsel in distress story with a good atmosphere that can be read relatively quickly. The novel is much more down to earth than 007's usual escapades and adventures and constructed in a surprisingly experimental way. Personally, I think the book is somewhat underrated and eventually turns into a good page-turner but those seeking more traditional Bond literary thrills might find this a strange experience.       

- Jake

c 2010 Alternative 007