Monday, August 24, 2009

James Bond Daily: Thunderball

Thunderball is to the Bond novels what For Your Eyes Only would later be to the movies -- a moment where the series steps back from cartoonish excesses, integrating some of the new baroque elements and dropping others to return to the strengths of earlier works.

In the case of the novel, it hearkens back to From Russia With Love, before the double supervillain exercises of Doctor No and Goldfinger. The stakes are still high -- the evil, and previously unknown, criminal organization SPECTRE has hijacked two nuclear weapons and is demanding a huge ransom from the US and UK -- but there's no larger-than-life supervillain chortling at Bond during the climax and explaining his evil schemes, just a nasty but realistic criminal bureaucrat carrying out his orders with intelligence and care.

If the reader didn't know that Fleming had a house in Jamaica, she might begin to suspect something of the sort by this point in the Bond series. For a sequence of novels about international espionage at the height of the Cold War, they take place surprisingly often in Caribbean paradises (and secondarily in the USA), and hardly ever in the real war zone of Europe. In Thunderball, Bond even notes to himself that he'd rather have had the "Iron Curtain beat," assuming that the real action would be closer to the Soviets (whom he half-suspects is really behind the plot).

That's only one of several "Signals from Fred," which could be conscious or unconscious on Fleming's part, but that all tend to call attention to themselves and seem to act as special pleading. (Another is when Felix Leiter -- Bond's CIA friend from Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever, who has been dragged back into the shop for this situation -- repeatedly points out that supervillain-style plots, including the one he and Bond are trying to track down, don't actually happen in real life.) Given that Thunderball is notably more grounded than the previous two books, it feels like Fleming's conscience nagging him about the kind of books it thinks he should be writing.

In any case, there really is a plot against the free world, Bond really is in the right place to foil it, and he and Leiter do so, with the aid of an American nuclear submarine. (Which could be taken as realistic or not, as you wish: it's a big, shiny piece of war hardware put at their disposal with very little care for the chain of command, but it's also one of the newest, and most deadly, tools of the Cold War -- and the literary Bond is entirely a creature of the Cold War.)

Thunderball is slightly disappointing, in the end -- SPECTRE is more mysterious than SMERSH, and Bond doesn't have any strong reason to hate it, and Emilio Largo isn't terribly exciting as a villain -- but it's clear that Fleming thought that the Cold War was settling down, and possibly going away, leaving Bond and men like him to cast around for other things to do. It falls between the two stools of Bond -- it's not a Cold War thriller like From Russia With Love or Casino Royale, but it's not as over-the-top as Doctor No or Goldfinger. It's still very entertaining, and Bond himself is as compelling as ever, but this reader wished that nuclear blackmail would have been a bit more exciting than this.
Listening to: The Deathray Davies - She Can Play Me Like A Drum Machine
via FoxyTunes


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to the party, but which are your favorites?

Andrew Wheeler said...

So far, I'd say Moonraker (which has a nice structure), From Russia With Love (the definitive Cold War Bond), and Doctor No (the stronger of the two supervillain books). But I'm not done yet, so that list could change.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I've actually got a collection of -real- James Bond stuff (the ornithologist), but haven't read Fleming's in a looong time.

And I'm hoping you tackle Modesty Blaise next!


Howard said...

I read this one out of order, and thought it was wonderful. I think I liked it about as well as Moonraker.

Still need to read further...

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