by Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen
On a movie website there’s an institution called “The Black Sheep.” Here aficionados can defend a movie generally held in poor esteem that they think is unfairly maligned—or simply enjoy. If there were a novelistic equivalent, my Black Sheep would be The Man With The Golden Gun, the last James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming. It is universally considered a minor work, especially given its appearance after the so-called “Blofeld trilogy” of Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice; with the last two, Fleming elevated humble spy stories to a quasi-literary level. Compared with these genre giants, Golden Gun, published in 1965 eight months after the author’s death, is a slim, straightforward gangster story without the lavish details that make Fleming’s best work so appealing. It is therefore panned, for style, content, and lack of imagination (some plot elements are rehashed from Fleming’s previous writings). The reason usually given to explain this “lack of quality” is that the book as we have it now is simply a first draft, banged out quickly by Fleming before his heart attack in August 1964. Had he lived to complete it, he would have taken this draft and lavishly enriched it with the famous Fleming touch.
Well, you can guess that I come to praise Golden Gun and not to bury it. But first, some background on my relationship with James Bond and the Fleming books.
When I was a boy, a cinema close to our house ran, for a few fateful years, the entire Bond movie series. They played on a one-film-per-week basis, in a cellar screening room, with scratchy copies, and I usually went in the afternoons. My stomach clenched in excitement each time Monty Norman’s pulsing 007 theme began to play and the white gun-barrel dot moved across the screen. At about the same time, while staying at a palazzo in Venice visiting friends, I chanced upon the pale yellow Signet pocket-sized edition of Fleming’s Casino Royale from 1954. The reading of this book is inextricably bound up in my memory with the smells of marble, stone, and the slightly rotten tang of the Lagoon. Needless to say, I went immediately to find the rest of the Bond novels and was hooked for life. Some years later, when already a respectable husband and father working as the spokesman for a Catholic bishop in Austria, I even authored the James Bond volume in the German booklet series Die Welt In 60 Minuten, which tells you everything you need to know about 007 (in both his book and movie incarnations) that can be read in sixty minutes.
Nowadays, in rereading a Bond novel or one of Fleming’s brilliant short stories, I find the experience is more wistful—it is like taking a holiday to a far-off time where men were still men, women still women, and little green men from Mars still little green men from Mars; where the exhausts of the luxurious airplanes smelled strongly, one cigarette followed another, and every trip was an exotic adventure. Our cauterized and neutered era seems bland and gray in comparison. It really pays off, by the way, to read the books and stories if you haven’t. They are similar, but never the same as the movies based upon them. You will recognize the dashing Bond you already know, but will spend more time with him driving through England thinking more conservative thoughts than you would expect and fussing around in a prissy way about how his eggs are prepared. In the books you will be amused to learn that Bond harbors a particularly strong dislike for tea:
I don’t drink tea. I hate it. It’s mud. Moreover it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire.
Fleming wrote twelve novels and two short story collections, all of them great fun: a mixture of adventure, espionage, travelogue, women, and luxurious eating scenes. I challenge everybody to read the “Blades” chapter in Moonraker or the stone crab chapter in Goldfinger without feeling pangs of hunger and the urge to spend lots of money in a luxurious restaurant.
Well, there is no decadent eating scene in Golden Gun, that’s for sure. While Bond orders, the day before, “. . . lobsters. Broiled with melted butter. And a pot of that ridiculously expensive foie gras of yours,” by the time the novel’s actual dinner scene comes around, the food isn’t mentioned even once. The book is relatively short—in many ways it is closer to Fleming’s short stories than his other novels—and is, so to speak, frugal; so straightforward that it is told at almost a hurried pace (while trying to keep spoiler-free as far as possible, of course). Bond is sent to the Caribbean on a mission to find the eponymous golden-gun-wielding killer, Scaramanga, who seems to be in cahoots with the K.G.B. Bond catches up with Scaramanga in Jamaica and manages to get hired by the gangster. He travels to a hotel near the sea, and the action culminates in a showdown in the mangrove swamps.
I am not claiming that Golden Gun is a masterpiece. I agree with its critics that it is often lackluster in tone and lacking in details, mostly likely for the reasons mentioned above, and that a rewrite would have injected more “oomph” into it. But the novel has a soft spot in my heart because, despite all this, it still has a lot of things going for it.
First of all, it is a crackling spy and adventure story set in Jamaica, and whenever Fleming writes about Bond in Jamaica, you are guaranteed to find the exotic holiday mood turned out in full force. This is, of course, because Fleming wrote the novels while actually living in the villa (which he named “Goldeneye”) on his fifteen-acre estate in Jamaica, with brief interruptions for snorkeling. The descriptions of nature, of the streets, the houses—especially in one chapter about “Sav’ La Mar”—are simply wonderful. I am also rather thankful for the straightforward plot. Its immediate predecessor, the praised-to-the-heavens You Only Live Twice, is more of a mythical knight story, which has lots of travel writing stuff and Japanese culture but no classic spy action. Golden Gun’s pace and plot carry the reader like a fresh breeze after its (slightly overblown with its own importance) predecessor.
Second, the opening of the novel (connecting it with the ending of You Only Live Twice), wherein a brain-washed Bond, returning from months-long travels through Russia, works his way patiently into the Secret Service building in order to assassinate his beloved boss “M.” (always with a dot in the novels) is absolutely brilliant and nothing similar can be found in any other Fleming book.
Then, the “Bond girl” in this book is as resourceful as she is beautiful: Mary Goodnight, Bond’s own secretary of many years, is put on a different posting in the Caribbean. She has one of the funniest lines ever said by a Bond girl (about a cyanide pill in a string of pearls) and is all-around delightful. She and Bond do not clutter up the plot by needlessly tumbling into bed in this novel—but the possibility of romance remains in the wings. There is also a guest appearance by another beloved character from the series whom the reader is unlikely to expect. Some very nice touches of humor, too, are interspersed, as in a scene at the beginning where “M.” tries—and manages—to whistle.
I admit that main villain Scaramanga himself is a bit of a let-down. He is deadly, yes, but snarls all the time like a second-class crook and twirls his gun far too often. His hiring of Bond (on which the plot hinges) is far too risky and, honestly, stupid—but then, Bond villains have always made stupid decisions, and many of Fleming’s plots rely on coincidences that have to be forced into the plot kicking and screaming. (See Goldfinger, and many others).
The conspiracy orchestrated by the gangster and his mafia-cum-K.G.B.-related allies throws us directly into international politics around 1964, involving drugs, sugarcane fields, and Soviet geopolitical interests. Thanks to the internet, I was actually able to date the exact copy of the Jamaica Daily Gleamer that Bond reads when arriving at the airport—announcing De Gaulle’s recognition of Red China: January 28, 1964—post-dated by Fleming to May 28 of the same year. When Bond talks with Scaramanga, he asks him whether he is “Castro or Batista” when it comes to Cuban affairs. So consider this a holiday post-Cuban-Missile Crisis. And the final confrontation between Bond and the Man With the Golden Gun is as twisty, violent, and surprising as it gets—a fight to the death in classic Bond style. (We also finally learn the real name of “M.”) The final paragraphs are a fitting coda to the entire Bond canon, without which the novel, whatever its flaws, would not be complete:
She looked surprised. “Yes. How did you know?” When he didn’t answer, she hurried on. “And James, it’s not far from the Liguanea Club, and you can go there and play bridge, and golf when you get better. There’ll be plenty of people for you to talk to. And then of course I can cook and sew buttons on for you and so on.”
Of all the doom-fraught graffiti a woman can write on the wall, those are the most insidious, the most deadly.
James Bond, in the full possession of his senses, with his eyes wide open, his feet flat on the linoleum floor, stuck his head blithely between the mink-lined jaws of the trap. He said, and meant it, “Goodnight. You’re an angel.”
At the same time, he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him. It would be like taking “a room with a view.” For James Bond, the same view would always pall.
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