Why it’s hard to like literary 007 in 2015
Last year, it was announced that acclaimed writer Anthony Horowitz would be writing the next James Bond continuation novel. Released in September 2015, Trigger Mortis hailed the publicity-grabbing return of Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, as well as throwing 007 head-on into the world of motor racing, where he must protect a British driver from the evil of SMERSH, before uncovering a deeper plot to destabilise the Western world!
For my part, I was excited to read a new Bond novel. The fact that Horowitz, author of one of my childhood favourite series Alex Rider, and creator of the excellent Foyle’s War for TV, was writing it was a sweet, sweet bonus. One of my friends was also super keen, but on the basis that Horowitz was the writer. I was interested to see what she would make of it.
Ultimately, she found it hard to get into. Rather than write like himself, Horowitz actively sought to emulate Ian Fleming’s tone and style, and he is largely successful. The clipped journalistic sentences and self-indulgent lyrical waxing about clothing and food are all present, so for Fleming devotees it’s certainly a win. However, for one thing the lower-key plotting of a James Bond novel can be jarring for those used to the films – Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me does not feature skiing, submarines, flared trousers, Lotus cars, or indeed anything else remotely interesting. It barely even features James Bond! But there are a number of other issues with the literary Bond, driving home the cold reality that in the 21st century Fleming’s Bond is scarcely relevant.
To be fair, Fleming knew how to write a thriller. Casino Royale is a real potboiler, and it keeps you compelled all the way to the end. Moonraker, with its post-Nazi intrigue, is easily a better story than the film. From Russia With Love even features a fantastically clever (for the time) inversion of the usual Bond mould, in that the audience knows more about the plot than James Bond himself does, and the enjoyment comes from following him as he works his way out of the web in which SMERSH has him entangled.
This is all well and good, but Ian Fleming and his novels were also dreadfully backwards by today’s standards. Bond inhabits a world where white men are in charge of everything, and people of colour are written to speak and behave as though they are a bad impression of Bill Cosby. Live and Let Die is the chief offender in that last category, but it does at least try to be ham-fistedly respectful towards black people. James Bond is pleased to see a black woman being allowed to drive her own car but then goes and spoils it all when his inner monologue expresses surprise and incredulity that a woman, and a black woman no less, is capable of competent command of a motor vehicle. Along with a few other pleasant-but-not-actually assertions, Fleming demonstrates his condescending affection for another race. It’s possible that he was trying to demonstrate that black people were actually normal people, but it’s done in such a colonialist fashion that any goodwill is wiped out.Whilst Fleming may well have liked black people, his feelings on some other citizens of the world are rather less approving:
“Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.”
That’s from Goldfinger, and Bond doesn’t even get the mild and tacky redemption of bedding an Asian woman and realising they’re not all bad. It’s well known that James Bond was a thinly veiled emulation of Fleming himself, so it’s thoroughly reasonable to assume that Fleming was himself not a fan of Asiatic peoples. Of course, sixty years of education and globalisation has awoken most people to the obvious fact that people from Asia are just another bunch of humans, the same as the rest of us, but of course Bond is from the 1950s. Post-colonialism was rife, and the sun was at last setting on the British Empire. What better way to feel safe at home in crumbling old post-war Britain than to retreat into racist escapism where the well-fed white establishment polices the world and keeps the colonials in line?
Fleming’s attitudes towards women are little better. Most of the female characters are secretaries, arm candy, playthings, or in love with James Bond. Indeed, it’s possible that 007 is responsible for the trope of nice girls only wanting bad boys, no matter how bad, because that certainly seems to be the way of Bond’s world. In one of the more cringeworthy romances of Bond, he even “turns” the lesbian crime lord Pussy Galore after they survive their final battle with Goldfinger. And in Casino Royale, he considers exciting the prospect of sex with Vesper Lynd, “…because of the central privacy in her, [it] would have the sweet tang of rape.” Fortunately Fleming has been roundly condemned for decades about that particular line, but it says rather a lot about his documented sadistic attitudes to sex and to the woman’s role in a heterosexual relationship.
The tragedy of it all is that even amongst all his arch-conservative, anti-progessive ideas, Fleming was, as stated, a capable and convincing writer. He was a master of imagery, and to this day my desire to travel to the Caribbean stems largely from Fleming’s writing. His travelogue Thrilling Cities paints fantastic pictures of lesser-travelled international locales of the early 1960s, and Bond isn’t even present. One can only imagine that if he had been able to document his own experiences in British Intelligence during the Second World War, it would have been at least as compelling and fantastic as the best Bond adventures.
The now distasteful and cringeworthy socio-cultural attitudes of Fleming were largely products of their age. Whilst I don’t long for a return to Fleming’s sort of mores, it’s hard not to want to inhabit Bond’s world of unstoppable spies, where the bad guys don’t win. In these times of global political uncertainty, that sort of escapism doesn’t go astray. The Bond novels are far from classical and mainstream literature, but there’s a place in our cultural lexicon for James Bond. Whatever Fleming’s faults, he was definitely at the forefront of espionage stories, and so much of what came after in that genre was a reaction to his work. This doesn’t make racism and sexism okay, but one would hope that 21st century readers of Bond are able to work out that the books are of their time and react accordingly. It’s not impossible to like the Bond novels; it’s just becoming more difficult.