Moonraker - Audio Book Review

'There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette...' An unabridged Bond audiobook from 2009 read by Simon Vance - this time Moonraker. Moonraker was the third entry in the series by Ian Fleming and originally published in 1955. Moonraker is one my favourite James Bond books and pits 007 against the enigmatic Sir Hugo Drax. Drax is a millionaire genius and the head of Britain's new nuclear rocket programme - named 'Moonraker' of course.
Drax is foreign but apparently doing this as a great favour to his adopted country. His complex rocket systems will be vital to Britain's national defence but only he can control them. However, when M begins to suspect that Drax is cheating at cards at his exclusive club Blades, he privately asks Bond to go there one night and find out if his suspicions are correct. Card shark and general know-it-all 007 engages in a memorable game with Drax and discovers that he is indeed cheating.
Drax's stock goes down a few more percentage points when a government security officer who had been working at the Moonraker project is murdered. M decides there is only one thing for it. James Bond will be assigned to the Moonraker project base on the Kent coast (Romney Marsh) as the replacement security officer and keep a close eye on Drax as the countdown to launch draws ever nearer...
I'm more familiar with the Rufus Sewell Bond audio books than Simon Vance narrated ones but this is pleasantly in much the same vein - fairly unobtrusive and not too gimmicky. This is unabridged and although Ian Fleming always has a few bits that can be excised without ruining the story it is nice to know you are getting the whole thing I suppose. Vance has quite a deep and somewhat plummy voice that works very well at times here and on the whole I had no major problem with him. My one quibble would be that (and I believe he started life on BBC radio) he does teeter on the brink of having a local radio DJ quality at times but just manages to hold this back and ladle in enough posh generic voiceover tones to prevent it from becoming a major issue.
The charm of Moonraker (which is of course completely different from the Roger Moore film) lies in a number of things - most notably the game of cards between Bond and Drax at Blades (this being the sort of thing that Fleming could do very stylishly and effortlessly in his sleep) and the Kent locations with Bond speeding through a number of towns in his Bentley. The card game set-piece is excellent here. Fleming was something of an expert when it came to gentlemen's clubs, card games, good food and fine wines, and creates a very vivid and authentic atmosphere for the showdown at Blades. He takes his time, building tension and describing each thought that Bond has. Card game set-pieces don't always work terribly well in Bond films because they seem rather low-key but the ones in the books are much richer and more enjoyable.
Bond's preparation for the game is a memorable passage too in the story. '"Benzedrine," said James Bond. "It's what I shall need if I'm going to keep my wits about me tonight. It's apt to make one a bit overconfident, but that'll help too." He stirred the champagne so that the white powder whirled among the bubbles. Then he drank the mixture down with one long swallow. "It doesn't taste," said Bond, "and the champagne is quite excellent."'
It's a shame really that Moonraker couldn't have been brought to the screen in a more faithful fashion at some point or other as it's a wonderfully atmospheric and enjoyable thriller at its best. Some names and elements of the story were lifted for the 2002 film Die Another Day but we should probably draw a veil over that. I find Bond books often work best when Bond has to do some detective work and the story is really good here when he moves to Drax's Moonraker base and begins nosing around to see what he can find out. You could argue that the general story in Moonraker, though obviously very dated in places, is strangely topical. The presence of a Chinese company in Britain's communications (and by implication intelligence) system was so controversial recently the government had to change their policy and remove Huawei from British 5G networks.
This is an early entry in the series and Fleming was still fleshing Bond out slightly. He tells us here that Bond is 37 and has a flat on the King's Road. He visits a shooting range for practice and agents in his section are retired at 45. Bond though does not expect to live that long. The romantic interest for our hero here is supplied by Gala Brand, a policewoman working undercover as Drax's secretary. Gala (her father, we learn, named her after a ship!) is quite an interesting character and is very committed to her job and rather cold and aloof towards Bond - who, to his surprise, finds her much more 'seductive' than her file had let him to believe. The 'swell' of her, er, chest, is 'as splendid as Bond had guessed from the measurements on her record sheet'. There is a nice passage here where Gala and Bond visit the beach at night and go for an impromptu swim.
Gala is also pestered by the advances of Drax and wears a ring on her finger so she can pretend she is engaged to someone. We hear some of her thoughts about Bond too to sketch him out more. Bond himself is a tough character but has a playful sense of humour and is (as expected) fastidious about food and his clothes in the book. 'Ten minutes later, in a heavy white silk shirt, dark blue trousers of Navy serge, dark blue socks, and well-polished black moccasin shoes, he was sitting at his desk with a pack of cards in one hand and Scarne's wonderful guide to cheating open in front of him. He went into his bedroom, put on a black knitted silk tie and his coat and verified that his cheque book was in his notecase. He stood for a moment, thinking. Then he selected two white silk handkerchiefs, carefully rumpled them, and put one into each side-pocket of his coat.'
If anyone ever attempted to make a period Bond film or miniseries I could think of worse places to start than Moonraker. The story is always very interesting with plenty of trademark Ian Fleming flourishes and obsessions. This is a decent enough audio book on the whole and unabridged too. I think I slightly prefer Sewell to Vance but Vance does a good enough job here. The last time I checked this Moonraker audio book was available to buy for next to nothing.
- Jake

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