by Jordan M. Poss
According to Ian Fleming, writing in 1963, “the craft of writing sophisticated thrillers is almost dead.”
This provocation, the opening line of his essay, “How to Write a Thriller,” may be evergreen. It was difficult then and is difficult now to find a widely available thriller that is not overlong, badly written, and peopled with flat, clichéd characters. Fleming wrote from a deep affection for the genre, a genre in which, from 1953’s Casino Royale on, he found immediate and lasting success.
But when he is remembered simply as the creator of James Bond, the films overshadow his achievement, especially as a writer. Kingsley Amis and Anthony Horowitz, accomplished authors who have also written “continuation” novels for Fleming’s estate, have extensively praised his skills. Fleming was, Amis wrote in 1991, “a masterly action-story writer,” and Horowitz has summarized Fleming’s novels as “small masterpieces … brilliantly written, wonderful descriptions, great characters.”
The key word in understanding both Fleming’s success and the admiration of other writers is right there in Fleming’s opening assertion: craft. Fleming as a craftsman, as both “a distinguished writer of English prose,” in the words of novelist Anthony Burgess, and a gifted constructor of plot, is underappreciated.
Fleming wrote forcefully and succinctly, aiming for 60,000 words per novel. His style, sharpened by his work as both a journalist and military man, is marked by precise observation, judicious use of concrete detail, and clear, unaffected diction. He excelled at description. Though Fleming’s characters, especially the villains, are often remembered for their physical deformities—shortness, baldness, protruding teeth, missing earlobes, prosthetic steel claws, a supernumerary nipple—most often they evince his eye for the telling detail, the revealing throwaway gesture, the tic. He had a corresponding knack for narrating vivid and energetic action, and his explanations and descriptions of processes, of men purposefully undertaking complicated tasks, are clear, his pacing and suspense superb.
He wrote not only skillfully but beautifully, something seen most clearly in his settings. His most vividly realized locations, those of the Caribbean, combine the tactile and the visual in a manner that also establishes tone. Thus, in the short story “Octopussy,” the same reef can be a place of beauty, wonder, and comforting familiarity at the beginning and a place of inescapable horror at the end.
Fleming’s talents extended to another crucial element of the thriller—plot structure. Fifty years of moviegoers have become familiar with the “Bond formula,” a reliable but predictable and easily parodied form. Fleming’s novels are much more varied. He plays with structure to create tension and construct surprises, such as killing the villain two-thirds of the way through, as in Casino Royale; delaying the start of the action with a seemingly unrelated low-stakes adventure, as in Moonraker, Thunderball, or Goldfinger; or shifting between tones and genres—detective story, survival story, travelogue, horror—as in Dr. No or You Only Live Twice.
The most daringly structured novels leave Bond out for long passages, allowing him to loom in the background. From Russia With Love begins with SMERSH plotting to assassinate Bond. The scheme—to lure Bond into a honey trap and eliminate both him and the female cipher clerk offered as bait—is worked out across several chapters, long before Bond enters. The result is a carefully manipulated dramatic irony and a steadily increasing tension as Bond, wary and skeptical but with clear orders to return with the clerk’s code machine, works his way deeper into what the reader knows is a trap. And just when the reader thinks the plot has been resolved, Fleming brings the novel to a crashing stop with his greatest cliffhanger ending.
Even Fleming’s only real failure, The Spy Who Loved Me, in which Bond does not appear until just before the climax, is interesting in this regard. The only Bond novel narrated in the first person, the only one primarily about a female character, and the only one with a clear didactic purpose, the story is as elegantly written as any of Fleming’s other stories and full of evocative vignettes. But its component parts do not hang together, its plot meanders, and its female narrative voice is not remotely convincing. Fleming had finally overreached. Readers neither cared for the experiment nor got the book’s “cautionary” message. Reviews were savage. “The experiment,” Fleming wrote, “has obviously gone very much awry.”
But it is easy to see the appeal of such experiments, especially to a writer who was otherwise so good at toying with structure. One sees Fleming’s strengths in their clearest and most concentrated form in the nine Bond short stories. Of these, some are Bond novels in miniature, like “For Your Eyes Only” and “The Living Daylights,” or excellent character studies, like “The Hildebrand Rarity.” Others show Fleming at his experimental best.
“Octopussy” follows Major Dexter Smythe, who has been whiling away his postwar retirement in Jamaica, snorkeling and imagining himself the kindly patriarch of the creatures that live on his reef, a lifestyle he enjoys thanks to a single terrible secret. Bond’s arrival at the beginning of the story, most of which is told in layers of flashback, signals that Smythe’s secret is out, that the day of judgment is come. This effectively shows how threatening Bond can be. In “Quantum of Solace,” a frame tale, Bond is the passive, irritated recipient of a story told to him by the Governor of Jamaica. Told in imitation of Somerset Maugham, it relates a bad marriage marked by infidelity and cruel revenge, and ends with a wry, offhand revelation that leaves Bond chastened and reflective—a sign that Bond can grow.
This growth is perhaps most underappreciated of all, and points toward Fleming’s greatest artistic legacy: James Bond himself.
A heavy smoker and drinker (but not a drunk), handsome (but also cruel and subtly frightening), a gambler and risk-taker, impatient with abstraction and bluster, and a great enjoyer—of cigarettes, food, women, cars, games, and fighting an evil opponent—Bond appears fully formed in Casino Royale. But he has another overlooked quality not so much hinted at as declared in the novel’s opening sentences:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
This is Bond’s world-weariness, already pronounced in his first adventure. Bond’s “accidia,” as Fleming once called it in a reflection on the Seven Deadly Sins, “a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy,” is one of the two great continuities in his character across the novels. It builds in Bond, as it built in his creator, alongside a profound resentment, for nothing Bond does can stop the Empire’s slide into decadence, irrelevance, and decay. This sense of futility weighs on Bond as much as the punishment meted out to him over his decade of spying.
There is the most obvious punishment he endures, novel after novel—torture. The frequency with which Bond is captured, bound, and tortured has elicited titters about sadomasochism, but Fleming narrates these scenes without prurience. “There is no gloating,” Anthony Burgess observed, “only a kind of journalistic honesty,” an honesty rendered excruciating by Fleming’s descriptive skill. Bond’s injuries accumulate realistically. He takes weeks to recuperate from them, and the women of the later novels are shocked by the scars left on his body.
But beyond the physical there is psychological and moral damage. Bond begins Casino Royale tired and has considered resigning his post even before that novel’s brutal downbeat ending. He considers quitting throughout the series, especially when assigned to kill someone—about which Fleming’s Bond, unlike the film versions, is not cavalier. By the beginning of the penultimate novel, You Only Live Twice, Bond is thoroughly sick of his job, often drunk, either late to or absent from work, mentally unfocused, and nearing physical collapse. At the end Bond has so exerted himself in the defeat of the villain that he emerges in a fugue state, living for months as an amnesiac in a remote Japanese village.
What all this pain dramatizes is the admirable flipside of his world-weariness, the quality that more than any other makes him heroic—a deep reserve of endurance. Bond is courageous, intelligent, loyal, well-trained, capable of great violence if necessary, and he is also callous, cruel, lustful, prone to indolence and addiction and despair, but when all else fails he endures.
That endurance has not proven limited to the world of the stories, thanks in no small part to his creator.
When Fleming first began Casino Royale at his Jamaican estate, aged 44, listless, and anxious about his decision to marry, Fleming aimed to write what Graham Greene called “an entertainment,” a book only meant “to get the reader to turn over the page.” Despite his skill and the admirers that it attracted even within his lifetime, Fleming remained self-deprecating to the last. “I have no message for suffering humanity,” he explained in “How to Write a Thriller,” claiming that his books “do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something.… I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.”
By the time of his premature death in 1964, the pleasure had mostly gone. Fleming, feeling ill and out of ideas, never got his final novel into what he considered presentable shape. The result, The Man With the Golden Gun, is a clearly unfinished book. But this sad finale throws into relief what Fleming had accomplished in the meantime. Through his technical skill as a writer and his gifts of invention and experimentation, Fleming remade the spy thriller. Like Conan Doyle and Shakespeare before him, Anthony Burgess wrote, both working writers hoping for wide readership—and, yes, pay—Fleming “concentrated on a fairly lowly genre and perfected it.”
The thriller, like Bond, endures. But in an age when “sophisticated thrillers” are as rare as they were in Fleming’s, Bond’s creator can offer a model of what to look for now, and of what to hope for in each new generation of craftsmen.
Jordan M. Poss is a historian and novelist. A native of Georgia, he currently teaches at Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and children. His most recent novels are the Civil War story Griswoldville and the Second World War thriller Dark Full of Enemies.