Tuesday, June 11, 2024

JAMES BOND, BOOK #7: GOLDFINGER


Released in 1959, Goldfinger may be the high-water mark in Ian Fleming's Bond books. It was the third in the great Bond trio: From Russia With Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger, which turned in to the first three James Bond films.

This is Ian Fleming at his finest. For those only familiar with the movies, all the elements from the film version of Goldfinger are there : the Miami card game, the sharp-edged golf match, the gold painted girl, Odd Job, the Silver Ghost Rolls Royce, the gangsters, Pussy Galore (although in a different role), and the Aston Martin, only a DBIII with only minor gadgets & no ejector seat. There's even an atomic bomb headed to Fort Knox. But some of these elements are not quite in the same order as in the movie.

Goldfinger -- "the man with the golden touch," as Shirley Bassey sings -- is even a more deliciously disturbing character in the book as created by Fleming than in the movie. There are a couple of places where the pacing dips due to some of Fleming's wafting into too much detail, but that is minimal.

Goldfinger indeed is a thriller that reinforces Fleming as one of the most entertaining spymaster writers ever. It is a MUST READ.

I began this by noting that it was the high water mark in Bond books.  Written in 1958 and published in 1959, Goldfinger preceded the first James Bond film by three years. Dr. No didn't come to film until 1962. But Fleming admitted that by this time, he was straining to find plots for his novels.  In fact, Goldfinger was the last truly original stand alone Bond novel for four years.

His 1960 book was For Yours Eyes Only, a collection of five James Bond short stories that included From a View to a Kill and Quantum of Solace. He worked on other projects, including a 13-episode American television pitch to CBS which was turned down, and teaming up with three other men, including Kevin McClory, to draft a movie script featuring a super-criminal organization called SPECTRE. That, too, was rejected.

In 1960, Fleming used the unproduced script and turned it into Thunderball, published in 1961. That became the source of the great legal controversy that plagued the Bond movies for more than half a century and contributed to Fleming's early death at age 56 (although Fleming's heavy smoking and drinking surely also contributed). 

Even after Thunderball, Fleming still was looking for something different. He wrote The Spy Who Loved Me, published in 1962. Told in a first person narrative by a lonely woman in the woods of New York, Bond is almost a secondary character. He does not appear until well more than halfway through the book.

But by that time, Life Magazine had published the list of JFK's favorite books, which included From Russia With Love, and the first James Bond movie was making its way to movie theaters. By then, Ian Fleming, not Goldfinger, was the man with the golden touch.

Friday, June 7, 2024

JAMES BOND BOOKS #6: DR. NO


Dr. No is the sixth of Ian Fleming's Bond books, and in my opinion, the best. Oddly, it almost wasn't written. After From Russia With Love, Fleming thought he was likely done with Bond. But the reception of From Russia With Love, both critically and sales, was such that he decided to continue.

Unlike previous years, when Fleming headed to his 2-month vacation in January 1957 at his Goldeneye hideaway in Jamaica, he did not have a Bond book planned. But by happenstance, in March of 1956 he had been invited to visit Great Inagua Cay, a desolate marshland island in the Bahamas that hosted birds, mountains of guano (bird shit) and two naturalists.  

The island was both hideous and attractive to Fleming. So when he decided to continue writing, it was a natural fit for the next Bond book. 

Dr. No slides into the middle of the great late-50s trio of the best Bond books -- From Russia with Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger. More than 60 years after it was first written, Dr. No still maintains its fast-pace edge. It is Fleming's writing at its best. In fact, a few years ago I read a book on writing that used Dr. No as one of three books that exemplify great thriller writing.

All the elements of Bond books come together here - the mysterious villain who isn't seen until the last part of the book; the exotic setting in Jamaica; the tense action, and of course Honey Rider, whose appearance in the book is sans swimsuit.

Because of legal entanglements, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to scrap the original plans to use Thunderball as the movie-world's introduction to James Bond, and instead opted for Dr. No. And the world hasn't been the same since.

Fans of the movies will notice many of the scenes are drawn directly from the book -- more so than any of the other movies. This book is about as good as Bond gets.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

JAMES BOND BOOKS #5: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE


Nearly every noted series, whether mystery, detective or thriller, has a seminal book -- the book that ties together what has gone before and serves as a foundation for what follows. For Ian Fleming and James Bond, that book is From Russia With Love. 

Written in 1957 and published in 1958, From Russia With Love is the fifth of the Bond books. The earlier books had been well received, but they were not mega-best sellers. None had exceeded 12,000 copies sold in the UK, and sales in the bigger U.S. market were minimal. By all accounts, Fleming was beginning to tire of the series, and considered killing off his hero, which led to the ambiguous ending of this book.

But From Russia With Love sold better than the earlier books. More importantly for Fleming, the book drew positive reviews and, most importantly, a rave comment from noted thriller writer Eric Ambler. This prompted Fleming to continue the series by writing Dr. No. 

Three years later, in March, 1961, newly-elected President Kennedy's voracious reading habit and his amazing 1,200 word per minute reading rate were the subject of an article in Life Magazine. He also listed his ten favorite books. Most were in-depth biographies and histories, but coming in at #9 was the only popular fiction book on the list -- Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love. Instantly, Fleming's James Bond books rocketed onto bestseller lists. 

The plot centers on a Russian scheme to lure Bond to Istanbul with a pretty girl and a chance for British Secret Service to get their hands on the Russians ultra-secret coding machine. The plot runs from one exciting encounter to another, including the incredible gypsy camp scene (one of the best-written scenes ever in any thriller), the billboard shooting through the mouth of Marilyn Monroe (in the movie, it's Elke Summer), to the iconic ride on the Orient Express.

For fans of the Bond films, this book will seem very familiar. Of all the Bond films, this is the one that most closely follows the book. The two major differences are the absence of the super crime organization SPECTRE, and, because of the presence of SPECTRE in the movie, the name of the Russians secret coding device is changed from Spekter to Lecter. 

This book elevated Bond to an entirely new level. It is a MUST READ for any Bond fan, and indeed for anyone who enjoys a good book.

Friday, May 17, 2024

JAMES BOND BOOKS #4: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

 


My progression through Ian Fleming's James Bond books continues with Diamonds Are Forever, the fourth of the Bond books, published in 1956. 

When I originally read these books more than 50 years ago, I ranked Diamonds Are Forever above all but the most known of the Bond books. With reflection brought by a half-century of reading and experiences, I've changed my view. 

This fourth book in the Bond series is well worth reading. It provides an interesting historical look at American organized crime, mid-century horse racing and the early years of Las Vegas. But the story comes up a little short in the Bond genre, and I rank it as the weakest of the first four Bond books. In fact, excluding The Spy Who Loved Me, it may bemy least favorite of all the Bond novels.

The story is a tale of diamond smuggling from South Africa, through England, New York City, the race track at Saratoga, and on to Las Vegas. The shortcoming is that this is more of a police story about catching smugglers than a spy thriller. It seems a bit inconsequential for a 00 agent like Bond. 

As with most of the Bond book-to-film conversions, the 1971 movie does not resemble the movie in the most essential parts of the plot. However, there are some interesting aspects of the book that were appropriated by the moviemakers.

 In the opening scene in the movie, a dentist removes diamonds smuggled by mine workers. It comes almost directly from the opening scene in Fleming's book. Perhaps most surprisingly, the gay assassination team of Kidd and Wentz also comes directly from Fleming's novel. So, too, does the quirkily-named Tiffany Case, who is a much more complex femme fatale in the book than the character played by Jill St. John in the movie. There is character named Shady Tree in the book, but he's not the comedian who appears in the movie. There is no Willard White and Ernst Stavro Blofeld doesn't appear in the book. He is not introduced until Thunderball, which is much later in the Bond series.

A side note about the genesis of the book. Ian Fleming was the foreign editor of the London Sunday Times. He researched the diamond trade and diamond smuggling for a series of articles published in the London Sunday Times, which gave rise to the plot of Diamonds Are Forever. The articles were later collected and published in one of Fleming's two non-fiction books, The Diamond Smugglers, published in 1957.

This book is still well worth reading and a MUST for any true Bond fan.

Monday, May 13, 2024

JAMES BOND BOOK #3: MOONRAKER

 


Ian Fleming's third James Bond book (1955) was the only one of Fleming's 14 Bond books set entirely in England. It shows Fleming continuing to hone his craft as one of the finest thriller writers of the mid-Twentieth Century. I last read this book in high school more than 50 years ago. It was a joy to re-read it now. 

Hugo Drax is a post-WWII hero. Found severely wounded and with amnesia in the rubble of WWII, he has built a fortune and now is giving back to England by building Moonraker, the world's most advanced rocket that will protect the motherland. Only this multi-millionaire hero has a flaw -- he cheats at cards. 

At M's encouragement, Bond accompanies his boss to Blades, a posh fictitious private card club based on Fleming's own private club. The battle of bridge between Bond and Drax is even more intense and suspenseful than the duel between Bond and LeChiffe in Casino Royale, and is Fleming's writing at its best. But that is only the beginning.

When the security officer at the Moonraker sight is murdered, Bond is sent in his place. And the story kicks into high gear.

It is a well-written book that carries with it more than a bit of mid-century history. It brings back the time when the world was still trembling at the thought of nuclear weapons raining down from the sky on supersonic missiles fired from over the far horizon. Fleming latches on to that fear. Still years before the public started hearing terms like pitch and yaw, Fleming does a very credible job of writing about rocket technology of the time. 

Two final points.  First, Fleming's Moonraker bears no resemblance to the absolutely dreadful Roger Moore movie of the same name. Second, this is the rare book in which Bond doesn't walk off into the sunset with the girl, in this case, Gala Brand. Instead, on the last page, she walks off with her fiance, leaving Bond on his own.

If you enjoy thrillers or books set in the first decade following WWII, this is a MUST READ.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

JAMES BOND BOOKS #2: LIVE AND LET DIE



 Live and Let Die is the second book in Ian Fleming's iconic James Bond series. For those who know Bond only through the movies, there is some similarity in the movie to this book, but it is mostly limited to a few characters and settings (Mr. Big, Solitaire, Harlem and the Caribbean.)

Live and Let Die features Bond up against Russian spy service SMERSH  and its "negro" agent Mr. Big. Bond's love interest is the mystical Solitaire. Bond, with the help of CIA agent Felix Leiter, is tracking down Mr. Big's use of Captain Henry Morgan's buried treasure to help communist efforts in the United States. 

It sounds a bit far-fetched, but the plot really works. And the danger of Mr. Big is brought home when one of the major characters suffers catastrophic injuries.

Reading Live and Let Die is like stepping into a time capsule, transporting the reader to the early 1950s, when most travel was by train and places like Harlem, St. Petersburg, FL and Jamaica were exotic places most readers would never visit.

If you're reading the original book, the references to black characters are dated and will cause modern day readers to cringe a bit, (mostly "negros," but I don't think the N-word is ever used).  However the book reflects the reality of perceptions of the time, and is a good history reminder. NOTE; if you're reading the 2023 70th Anniversary release of the Bond novels, they have been re-edited to change some references and language that is now considered offensive. This particularly applies to Live and Let Die.

This is the book where Fleming really begins to his Bond formula. It's a quality thriller that hurtles along at break-neck speed until its dramatic conclusion. Unlike Casino Royale, Bond does not spend time in self-introspection. Nor does the climactic scene come two-thirds of the way through the book. 

The book is noteworthy for being the first of several Bond books and short stories set in the Caribbean, which Fleming loved. He wrote each of the Bond books at his Goldeneye home on the north shore of Jamaica where he vacationed for two months each winter. 

If you keep in mind the time in which this book was written, it is well-worth reading.



Friday, May 3, 2024

JAMES BOND BOOKS: IN THE BEGINNING --- CASINO ROYALE -- Book 1

 

James Bond played a major part in my life. As a middle-school age boy, I saw Goldfinger when it first came out in early 1965.  That summer, I caught up with the series by seeing a double feature of Dr. No and From Russia With Love.  I was hooked!  

By the time Thunderball was heading to theaters, I started reading the Bond books. I read all of them over the next few months -- my first true grown-up books.  I was also hooked on the music, teaching myself to play piano so I could play the Bond music. Two years later, I re-read all the Bond books in order (by that time, The Man With the Golden Gun had been published in paperback.

I have Bond to thank for my interest in writing, reading and music beyond what played on pop radio station.  So last summer I decided to re-visit all of the Bond books, reading them in order. I've started the last of the Bond novels, so I decided to share my thoughts on each of the books with the reviews I wrote on Goodreads upon finishing each one.

So here they are:

Stephen Terrell's Reviews > Casino Royale

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorite-books-ever

"The smell and sweat and smoke of a casino are nauseating at 3 in the morning." So is the very first line of the very first James Bond book, published in 1953.  Seventy years later, it still holds up.

Just re-read for fourth time as part of my re-reading the entire series of Bond books written by Ian Fleming, which have played such an important part in my life. If I remember correctly, it is the first book I have ever read four times. I last read the book in 2012, reading it for the first time in nearly 40 years. I first read it at age 13 when I was making my way through the Bond books in non-sequential order. Two years later, I re-read all 13 books in order.

Casino Royale is an excellent thriller, as the reviews of the time that I looked up stated. Forget the slick gadgets, super-villains and wise cracks -- Casino Royale is a cold-war hard-edged thriller filled with men, like Bond, Felix Leiter, Mathis, Bill Tanner, M - and their creator Ian Fleming - who were hardened and shaped by their experiences in World War II.

Remarkably, the Casino Royale movie with Daniel Craig essentially is the same as the book, just updated. LeChiffe is a money-man for the bad guys (in the book, it's the Russians). He has squandered money that isn't his, and must earn it back in a card game. In the book, it is bacarrate, not Texas hold 'em. But the tension is every bit as powerful in the book, if not more so. 

In the book as well as the film, Vesper Lynd remains one of the most intriguing of all the Bond women. In some ways, her impact on Bond is far greater than any other female character, perhaps even more so than Tracy, Bond's short-lived wife.

I think Ian Fleming would have approved of the Daniel Craig version of Bond in the 2006 version of Casino Royale, much more so than any of the other Bond movies since Thunderball.

Seventy years after it first made its way to bookstores, Casino Royale is still a riveting thriller. If you have not read Casino Royale, you owe it to yourself to do so.