Octopussy and The Living Daylights - Audio Book Review

An unabridged audio version of Octopussy and The Living Daylights from 2009 read by Simon Vance. Octopussy and The Living Daylights is the fourteenth and final James Bond book by Ian Fleming and was published posthumously in 1966. This isn't a novel but a collection of four short stories - Octopussy, The Living Daylights, The Property of a Lady, and 007 in New York. The stories work quite well in the audio format and once you've got used to Vance he's fairly agreeable.
The first story - Octopussy - concerns the strange death of Bond's former mentor and ski instructor Hans Oberhauser, found frozen in a glacier in Austria. The case is rather personal to Bond and he travels to Jamaica to speak to Major Dexter Smythe, the last man to see Oberhauser alive. Is the Major hiding something? Octopussy is mildly interesting although nothing terribly special and it goes without saying that it doesn't have an awful lot to do with the daft but highly entertaining Roger Moore film of the same name. There are some typically Fleming aquatic flourishes in this one that are always enjoyable with the author's great love of the sea and a plot involving a cache of Nazi gold. What is quite interesting about this story is the way that it's told by Smythe with a flashback structure, Fleming once again in slightly experimental mood, rather like he was in The Spy Who Loved Me. I quite enjoyed having Octopussy read to me but it isn't the most exciting story that Fleming ever wrote.
Next up is The Property of a Lady which, slightly confusingly, was pilfered for the 1983 Octopussy film. The Property of a Lady revolves around Maria Freudenstein, a clerk with MI6 who is secretly working for the Russians. The British are on to her but when Freudenstein inherits a Fabergé egg they realise this is to be her payment for spying and that the KGB will send someone to the auction at Sotheby's' to push the price up and cover their costs to this double agent. James Bond will therefore attend the auction too to see if he can spot the KGB representative.
The Property of a Lady works quite well as an audio piece and Fleming's obvious knowledge and interest in this refined world comes through strongly as the story is read to us. You hear the low chatter and murmurs from the auction room and picture Bond taking his place and scanning the room for the KGB man. I don't know the first thing about auctions and don't have a huge interest in them but it all becomes quite entrancing when described by Fleming and while The Property of a Lady might might be rather sedate it is a clever and elegant little piece at its best.
The next story is The Living Daylights and finds our hero doing a bit of navel gazing. A British spy is making his way back to the West through East Berlin but the Soviets have a top sniper waiting for him. Bond is duly sent out with his sniper rifle to bag the Soviet sniper. 'M looked coldly across the desk. It was going to be dirty work and Bond, because he belonged to the Double O section, had been chosen for it. "You've got to kill this sniper. And you've got to kill him before he gets Agent 272. Is that understood?"'
Bond ends up in a darkened safe house watching a female orchestra come and go from a building across the road as he waits for a sight of his quarry. This allows Fleming to ruminate on the darker and dirtier side of Bond's profession, the fact that he sometimes has to kill people as part of his job. Bond is well aware that's it's a necessary part of his duty to Queen and Country sometimes but he still finds himself troubled by missions like this. 'So, it was to be murder...' The intimate nature of The Living Daylights makes it work quite nicely as an audio book and you are once again taken back to a bygone era as Fleming's words are read to us. These trappings are a big part of the fun in this collection. The trip back in time to the Caribbean, old cars, plush hotels, auction rooms, and the intrigue and covert jostlings of the Cold War. The Living Daylights was also nicely incorporated into the Timothy Dalton film of the same name.
The last story is 007 in New York, a very brief piece which first appeared in American editions of Fleming's non-fiction book Thrilling Cities. James Bond is sent to New York by M to contact a former MI6 secretary and warn her that the man she now resides with is working for the KGB. It's a simple courtesy by M to the woman for her work at MI6. Bond arranges to meet her at Central Park Zoo and thinks about what food he will order later on and also another woman he is due to meet. That's more or less it. It's a brief piece but interesting for the New York and food passages. Fleming was famously obsessed with food and drink and his legendary fictional creation shared this obsession and took his grub very seriously.
The story is most famous for the passage where Bond muses on his approach to perfect scrambled eggs, to be served 'on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittinger) and low music.' 007 in New York doesn't amount to much but it wasn't originally part of this short story collection and it's nice at least that it has long since been given a good airing and now forms part of Octopussy and The Living Daylights in their various incarnations.
This a decent enough audio book on the whole and not a bad thing to have up your sleeve for a long train journey.
- Jake

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