The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

A review of the spy thriller adventure novel The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming.

The Spy Who Loved Me is often overlooked by critics and fans of the Bond franchise alike. It is certainly an odd fit within the wider series, with a dramatically different writing style and focus. Not to mention its protagonist.

Ian Fleming, often his own worst critic, was particularly sour towards this story and attempted to stop the book from seeing publication. Contemporary critics were equally hostile towards the novel, and many critics today consider it the weakest link in the Bond canon.

The public had already experienced nine novels, and another five short stories, with James Bond. Many people knew what to expect when sitting down with the new one, and while each book took the series and stories in unexpected directions, they mostly met the same milestones. Added to this was the inevitable down-curve of a long-running series, in which fans and critics will look for any flaw to be able to break the success of the successful.

There was also a new influx of fans entering the series for the first time in 1962, as the first trailers for Dr. No, the first Bond film, had begun to draw crowds into the world of the secret agent.

All of this only helped to distance people more from the novel that was released, which to the casual reader could have come from any of the prolific female writers of the age for the majority of its first half.

It is important, then, to address this novel as its own entity first, and as a chapter in the wider franchise second. Indeed, the novel hardly acknowledges its own place within the series, with James Bond only mentioning Thunderball in passing and then telling us about a new mission to explain his appearance at the motel.

The Spy Who Loved Me is the only James Bond book by Ian Fleming to be written from a woman’s point-of-view and it was the only story in the series to do so until Samantha Weinberg’s ‘The Moneypenny Diaries’ over five decades later.

Our lead is Vivienne “Viv” Michel, a Canadian Catholic experiencing life in London. Over half of the book’s contents is shown in flashbacks to Viv’s London life, and here Ian Fleming’s incredible detail comes into its own. With a very different background and personality, Viv doesn’t pick up on the usual features that Bond novels so often use to draw us in. Gone are the fine smells and expensive tastes that Fleming’s writing so vividly brings to life on the page. The claustrophobic presence of a casino at night or the thick fear and adrenaline of car chases never break up the story. However, where the 1950s’ masculine wants of gritty textures and fine living have been removed a more muted, but much more realistic detail is put into the everyday sights and sounds that Viv experiences. The writing from first person also changes how these details are presented to us, and this in turn makes them that more real and unpleasant for us to experience with her. Faces, locations, and smells are delved into more than usual, and they are seen as by a fresh-faced spectator rather than from Bond’s heavily distrustful attitudes. The early 60s attitudes of women are acknowledged but not flaunted, and although clothing and makeup is talked of, and the reactions to it are delved into, we never feel like Fleming is trying to insult or degrade these views.

This “kitchen-sink realism” also works to the book’s advantage when it goes into the more uncomfortable aspects of the plot. The horror of Vivienne’s first time in a dingy cinema, and the scenes surrounding it, is humiliating and invasive—like reading a diary—and Viv’s choices in men are presented to us in such a way that we can’t help but wonder how it will go wrong before it does. This cynicism benefits the novel and pushes it above the standard romance story fare, showing us an honest look at young love and the affects that bad relationships have on feelings and attitudes. To see this all through a woman’s eyes is particularly effective as it is a subject that many cannot get right even today. When Viv’s second relationship goes terribly—and unexpectedly—into authentic and painful territory and she is left alone, many romance and teen fiction writers would simply have her sit on the couch eating ice cream until her man changed his mind and came back to her.

This is where Ian Fleming shows off his true colours towards women. The Bond books are often criticised for their depiction of women, and people like to make them out as sexist and derogatory in the hopes of furthering their own agenda or standing with tired exposé. If you have actually read any of the novels however, you’ll already know that this is not the case. It is certainly true that Fleming’s novels are writings of their times, with all the poor phrasing and unintended arrogance that accompanies the social aspects and language of the era. It is also important to note that Fleming makes a point to represent everyone as equally as the situations allow. In this way Fleming shows himself as a something of a feminist, and generally avoids discrimination towards anyone. If discrimination is presented by a character it is shown as a fact about that character. Never is this clearer than in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Viv is the most realised of Fleming’s “Bond Girls”—which is to be expected with a point-of-view story such as this—but her attitudes are also inverted from the normal expectations of women of the time. She is naïve to begin with, but her coming-of-age backstory helps her to become confident, self-aware and independent. This character growth throughout the first half also helps her and Bond during the final act, when she uses her own strength of character to help them survive.

With all the realism and young adult drama of the first two thirds, which end with Viv on the road in America, looking after a motel for the night, you may be wondering how this novel could even tie into the Bond franchise at all. Certainly it feels to be cutting it close when reading. The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the shortest novels in Ian Fleming’s Bond canon, and by the time the main plot kicks in you find yourself lulled into a false sense of security with the handful of primary characters we’ve seen.

The book is split into three parts. Each part shows a clear change in tone and pacing, and it is somewhat surprising when they transform so smoothly and yet so quickly between such wholly different genres. From our mild-mannered love drama first half, the novel quickly morphs into a slasher horror, as two thugs descend upon the motel and Viv. The horror is amplified here by the writing, which still uses the same descriptive language as the first half, and the tone is still very realistic. Horror is even more stark here due to its bizarre fit within the universe of the Bond novels themselves.

Up until now the series had only dabbled in the horrific to heighten the tension of Bond’s missions, but this was the first time a Bond book had been so personal. Whereas the typical novel would be dealing with world-wide threats or large corporate dangers, this was a one-person rescue mission. Before James Bond arrives, it’s not even that. There are truly moments where you cannot see a way this will end well for Viv, and that uncomfortable tension draws you in even further. Viv still isn’t a damsel in distress though, refusing to give up even when it’s become painfully obvious what the thugs intend for her. Even the villains are more realistic than the typical Bond fare here, presented as second-rate mobsters, which once again gives the story a more grounded feeling that makes it more tense. When it finally reaches a peak, James Bond arrives as a full and unashamed Deus ex Machina.

It is interesting to note the changing tone again here, as during part two the writing begins to give us clues as to the novel’s true purpose through its language which begins to draw ever more upon the pulp fiction genre; the setting and situation, the mobsters and their bizarre nicknames (“Sluggsy” and “Horror”) and the reliance on the grimy detail that pulps are best known for. This pulp magazine style also aids part three when the story becomes a George and the Dragon battle of good versus evil. The tonal change to action here is most like the Bond movies, with gun battles and crazed villains, and that final ferocious appearance by the secondary villain you thought was dead, all broken up with the fleeting passion between Bond and Viv. Viv refuses to be cast aside during this part as well, remaining a part of the action and helping Bond defeat the thugs. She also openly accepts her role as the Bond Girl, and acknowledges that he will be gone in the morning, which he is. However, she doesn’t expect the amount of help he will give her, setting her up well for her future travels.

Although Bond is given very little character development throughout, being treated more as the archetypal hero of the piece, there is no denying the vulnerability of the character that still shows through. Unlike the majority of the Bond movies, the book Bond is very unsure of himself, and often doubts his own decisions. Similar to his writer, Ian Fleming, the novels’ James Bond is his own worst critic and even through this short piece we get glimpses of that. His morality is also particularly clear in this novel, with him attempting to capture the mobsters without killing them first, until he needs to. This question of morality in Bond’s line of work is brought up rarely in the novels, in order to allow us to more closely follow James through his adventures, with the first novel, Casino Royale, being the only one before this to talk about it. As we are following a different character, and considering her young age and naïvety, it was probably wise of Fleming to put in a short piece about it. Delivered by a police chief at the novel’s conclusion, the paragraph discusses the dangers of being with a man that kills for a living, and is just as much written to call out to those with dangerous partners in real life as it is for the benefit of Viv. However, there is no denying that this is the closest that Ian Fleming’s Bond ever gets to the character he would later be defined as in film. Physically at his prime and mentally fast enough to outwit his opponents.

Speaking of Bond in film, The Spy Who Loved Me and Ian Fleming’s total lack of love for the piece continued into the filmmaking process, where he requested that the film should have nothing in common with the novel. The character of Horror was partially adapted into the infamous Jaws, but the rest of the novel was left alone. This is also why the 1977 film adaptation received its own novelisation. It is one of only two films bearing the Ian Fleming book titles to go through this.

We can certainly learn a lot from reading novels such as The Spy Who Loved Me, ambitious ideas that are seen through to the end that explore something outside the writer’s comfort zone. There is also a lot to be learnt from this book in regards to the correct way to represent women in fiction, and it is somewhat ironic that it should be in the form of a Bond novel. Regardless of your personal feelings towards the novel, whether you agree with Ian Fleming and his contemporary critics, or whether you enjoy the change of pace and the down-to-Earth plot telling, The Spy Who Loved Me stands out as a rare example of a writer that refused to stay within his comfort zone, and I think we can all respect and learn from that.

Michael-Paul Thompson is a creative and critic whose artistic vision and identity have been shaped by the local area.

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1 Comment

  • Seb Reilly says:

    I really liked this book, not only because it was well-written and personal, but also as it turned the Bond style and narrative on its head. Some of Fleming’s short stories were written in a similar way, including Octopussy, and the idea of playing with readers’ expectations in an established series is bold and adventurous.

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