Friday, August 28, 2009

James Bond Daily: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is implicitly the second book of a trilogy; it follows Thunderball and precedes You Only Live Twice in what I'm sure someone has called "the SPECTRE trilogy." This time, Bond actually comes face to face with his supposed nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, though Blofeld doesn't really stack up well against Doctor No and Goldfinger, or even Hugo Drax from Moonraker.

SPECTRE doesn't seem all that dangerous, either -- it popped up out of nowhere in Thunderball and was smashed at the end of that book, with Blofeld himself fleeing ignominiously (though entirely offstage) a few steps ahead of the world's gendarmes. In this book, he's got a new scheme, but we don't see it from his point of view, and SPECTRE is never officially revived. For Bond's supposed nemesis, Blofeld and his organization are pretty darn wimpy.

And their plot -- which isn't revealed until late in this book, so I won't spoil it -- is fairly thin as well, particularly after the nuclear terrorism of Thunderball. The fact that he may be doing it all to make a killing on currency arbitrage, as M suggests at one point, also makes Blofeld smaller and less exciting, like some overgrown swinging-dick bond trader. The movies did many things to the Bond stories, good and bad, but they definitely succeeded in making Blofeld more interesting, important, and dangerous.

As Secret Service opens, Bond has been chasing Blofeld -- without having any real leads, and to the exclusion of any other work -- for nearly a year, and is so sick of it that he's drafting resignation letters in his head. But then he meets La Comtesse Teresa di Vicenzo on the road to the Casino in Royale-les-Eaux, and is captivated by how willful, self-destructive, and damaged she is. (Royale, as Fleming makes sure to mention on p.15, is where Bond fell in love with Vesper Lynd, who betrayed him and died for it.) Bond falls for "Tracy" for insufficient reasons in insufficient time -- or, at least, Fleming declares that Bond falls in love rather than going to the trouble of dramatizing it -- but he sees her very little in this novel.

Tracy's father, Marc-Ange, is the Capu of the Union Corse -- the tight fraternity of Corsican criminals who are the dominant force in French organized crime. (This gives Fleming an opportunity to drag out his racial theories, which are creaky to a 21st century reader but relatively progressive for a grumpy Englishman born in 1908.) Marc-Ange wants Bond to marry his daughter -- on the evidence of their one semi-forced night together -- but Bond begs off, getting merely a lead to Blofeld's location.

Secret Service ambles on amiably from there, not picking up much momentum until Bond finally has to flee Blofeld's Swiss mountaintop ski chalet/allergy clinic/fortified camp at night on skis. Then there's another period of lassitude, while various boffins explain to each other and the reader what, precisely, Blofeld is trying to do.

Finally, there's a flurry of activity, back on that Swiss mountain, and Bond is left free to marry Tracy. The last chapter of Secret Service takes place right after their wedding, and it's the best part of the novel, and one of Fleming's most touching scenes. But it's not really earned by the preceding novel: again, Bond seems to marry Tracy on a lark. (And she seems flightier and less stable than most of the women he's attracted up to this point...unless that's what made him choose to marry her.)

Secret Service is a solid entry in the series, but it can't help but be disappointing. Tracy is thinly characterized and mostly offstage, making her a poor Great Love of Bond's life. Blofeld is not particularly menacing, and the Bond of this novel has no particular monomania in chasing him. (In a replay of the "Letters from Fred" in Thunderball, Bond grumps about the first couple of chapters, wishing he was playing cat-and-mouse with his real enemies, the Soviets.) Secret Service is entertaining, but it's only middling Bond.
Listening to: Rilo Kiley - Always
via FoxyTunes

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