The Spectre Trilogy by Ian Fleming

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The Spectre Trilogy by Ian Fleming

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Bond v Blofeld is a classic combination carried through many of the films, these three books take you back to the original stories and show a side of Bond that has got lost in the all-action hero of the screen, a more considerate agent, a more fragile human being. They also show a different Blofeld from the ultra-cool cat-stroking Pleasance. Of course it’s all boys own adventure stuff, but none the worse for that, and maybe quite a bit better you might expect.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 832 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784702236

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With the new Spectre film in the cinema, it's time to revisit the original stories… what exactly is SPECTRE, who is Blofeld… and how exactly does 007 come into the picture?

Vintage have repackaged the original SPECTRE stories into a single chunky volume, with a simple black cover whose only artwork (typesetting aside) is a letter O morphing into a gun barrel, with rising smoke.. a nod perhaps to the now classic title sequence of all the Bond movies. Another nod to the movies, which have no doubt kept the myth of Bond alive in a way that might not have happened on the back of the books alone, is a short introduction by Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, stepson and daughter to "Cubby" and current producers of the cinema franchise.

Acknowledging the debt to the movie-makers, I now want you to forget everything you have ever seen… I say this as someone who holds all the films (even the cheesiest of them) in great affection and who feels that strangely those most recently made and based on nothing that Fleming ever wrote possibly come closer to his 007, than anything produced in his lifetime. I also say it, knowing that you won't – as I couldn't when writing about it.

When you come to read the books, you'll see that the 'real' James Bond is little like some of his portrayals… but you'll also get an inkling as to why that is. Much of what is in the words would not work so well on screen – at least not without turning a 'thriller' into something entirely different.

But, as I say, forget all that… and let Mr Fleming introduce you to Bond, James Bond.

Yes: that's one line that is a straight lift!

Practicalities first:-

This is a compendium. It comprises the three SPECTRE novels, namely Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice.

This is in the order they were written and they do follow sequentially. It would seem that The Spy Who Loved Me sits between the first and second, but that doesn't seem to be a fundamental flaw. More important to the reading of the three together is the fact that the third is a direct sequel – in more than the usual loose-linked series way – to the second.

I'll try to avoid the Bookbag editor's frustration by not producing a book-by-book review, but try to take the thing as a whole. It will be hard though, because plot-wise they're very different.

Let's start with SPECTRE itself. The Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion is the brain-child of one Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The first of the books is the only one in which SPECTRE operates as imagined by Blofeld. It is a criminal organisation with links to all of the others. A UN of the underworld if you like. All the big crime gangs (Sicily, Marseilles, Russia, Japan, China) have representatives here… and it is all about the money. Blofeld has been a fully-fledged freelance in the original sense of the word since he was a child. His back-story is given, his rise to power.

The Donald Pleasance portrayal works with this original view of the man… but over the next two, the character morphs in a way that is never reflected in the adaptations. As we move from the Caribbean to the Swiss Alps to Japanese stronghold, the character deliberately changes his appearance. He also slowly descends from power into madness.

Bond doesn't get to meet him first time around.

Bond is on the boss's blacklist. His lifestyle is finally raising questions and he is sent off to a health farm. How sixties is that?! Naturally, all is not what it seems at the establishment in question and baddies start to crawl out of the woodwork… or at least out of the sauna. Our hero's cover is quickly blown and before we know it, he's back on active duty.

The crisis point is that the world is being held to ransom. Nuclear bombs have been stolen, and ransom notes sent. Everyone is on high alert. Even Bond has to be brought in. He's still not entirely believed to be fit for duty so he's sent down to the least likely theatre of operations in the Caribbean. There his contact turns out to be none other than (slightly disgraced, certainly ex-) CIA agent Felix Leiter.

Naturally it all becomes the traditional 'boys own' stuff from there on in… girls, drinks, secret hide-outs, underwater battles, unlikely abilities to call in the cavalry (or in this case the U.S. nuclear submarine part of the navy) – and the good guys eventually win… sort of…

But Blofeld escapes.

… and next turns up running some kind of Swiss mountain top sanatorium for English girls with unfortunate allergies: unfortunate in that they are allergic to the animals which, by and large, are the root-stock of their family business. They are being cured by means of deep hypnosis. Meanwhile someone is producing large amounts of bacteriological weaponry.

And of course the occasional snooper turns up somewhat the worse for wear.

How Bond ends up in the Alps is the kind of convoluted tail that gets told in the books and takes up a good five seconds of intro on film. Ok, I exaggerate. But the joy of the books for anyone brought up on the films is the very fact that they are not about the set-pieces. Yes, you will see our all action hero racing by the seat of his nicked-ski-suit down a bob-sleigh run or trying to out-ski an avalanche through a forest… but what you also get is the puzzlement of him wandering round the College of Arms. You get a feel for the fact that he has to learn stuff… that cover-stories don't come fully fledged to be absorbed on an overnight flight: there are weeks of study that go into it.

Then there are the girls. OHMSS is famously the one in which Bond got married. We all know how well that turned out. It might be important though in understanding the character.

To be fair, the affair (if such we can call it) is laughable. No-one of Bond's inclinations is likely to have fallen so hard and so completely as to actually marry the girl, is he?

If you've not read the books, you might be surprised. Someone of Bond's character absolutely would. Or he would not fall at all. Tracy (or Teresa) is the daughter of a crime boss… and her father finds her a bit wild. So it's not like 007 has crumbled at the sight of a pretty face. She's a complicated woman, and a smart one, and a brave one.

Then again: something that comes across more in the books than in the movies… "Bond girls" are! They are complicated, and smart, and brave. That gets underplayed in the films, but it is clear from these stories than Bond relies heavily on others – spying is after all a team game – and many of the others are women. I won't deny that there is the fair crop of pretty airheads, but some of the blokes are a bit dim too.

Given when they were written though, and who they were written by (an ex-Naval Intelligence Officer), it is no surprise that the female protagonists are given a fair crack of the whip – and not always on the side of good. There's a touch of the chauvinism of the times in that the bad women are ugly and the good ones are gorgeous (but again, that's fairly evenly played with the men). The women are however integral to the plots playing out. They are not set decoration.

I think that needs to be understood to fully appreciate the novels. The other thing that comes across is that our hero is flawed. Far from being invincible, Bond gets very badly hurt in these books. He pays the price for his actions, both physically and emotionally. The 'glamorous' life-style that is hyped in the on-screen versions is shown to be to the detriment of an agent in the field, and it doesn't go unnoticed… to the extent that at the beginning of the third of these tales You Only Live Twice - in which Bond is sent on a nebulous mission to Japan - he is on the brink of being sacked.

Only the advice of a psychiatrist who feels that being put back in mortal danger is what Bond needs to aid his recovery, keeps him employed. He's sent off on an impossible mission, but it's a quirk of fate that twists this onto another path… one that might see him finally deal with his nemesis.

I'm not going to claim that Fleming's works are under-estimated great literature. They're not. They are ripping yarns that were never intended to be anything else. They are eminently readable though, and if you've always had a guilty pleasure in the Bond films, they can soothe the conscious by giving you a better Bond: a man who knows when he's treating women badly, and often regrets it; a man who knows that his lifestyle is likely to get him killed because it's slowing his ability to be effective; a man who is capable of loving and being loved; moreover a man for whom none of it actually comes easy – a man who has to work to get fit or to learn the details of a cover – and a man who, at the end of every story, far from sailing off into the golden sunset with the girl, is lying broken on the field of battle.

If you’re interested in the man behind Bond, Bookbag can recommend the biography For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond by Ben Macintyre.

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