First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the most controversial of all of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.
The Spy Who Loved Me was not the first of the Bond novels to keep James Bond off-stage for the majority of the story. From Russia With Love, one of the best of Fleming’s novels, keeps 007 offstage until about halfway through the book. The difference is that, even before he makes his first appearance, everyone else in From Russia With Love is obsessed with Bond. As well, From Russia With Love dealt with a world that Fleming knew well, the world of international intelligence operations.
The Spy Who Loved Me, on the other hand, is mostly about a young Canadian woman named Vivienne Michel who spends most of the novel discussing her background until, eventually, she finds herself being held prisoner by two cartoonish American gangsters named — I kid you not — Sluggsy and Horror. Fortunately, James Bond eventually shows up and rescues her. Vivienne not only narrates the novel but Ian Fleming even gave her co-writing credit on the title page.
In the book’s prologue, Fleming explains:
I found what follows lying on my desk one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman, evidently beautiful and not unskilled in the arts of love. According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically, with the same James Bond whose secret service exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed ‘Vivienne Michel’ assuring me that what she had written was ‘purest truth and from the depths of her heart’. I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of the Official Secrets Act I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication.
So, The Spy Who Loved Me is a bit of an experiment. That Fleming often grew tired of Bond as a character is well-documented. Not only did Fleming have to come up with a new adventure every year but Bond himself couldn’t change from being who he had been since the early 50s, a serious-minded civil servant who occasionally saved the world. With this book, Fleming largely used Bond as a plot device, a deus ex machina.
Instead, the novel is dominated by Vivienne. Oddly, for someone who wants to tell us all about James Bond, Vivienne spends a good deal of time focusing on her life before she ended up at that hotel. We find out about her first boyfriend, an insincere British boy named Derek and also about her second boyfriend, an autocratic German named Karl. The scenes with Derek and Karl almost feel like a parody of the coming-of-age genre. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t compelling scenes to be found in The Spy Who Loved Me. Fleming was too good of a storyteller for anything that he wrote not to have some sort of value. But, at the same time, it’s still obvious that the story is being written by a British man in his 50s who is trying really, really hard to sound like a Canadian woman in her 20s.
And then — oh my God! Sluggsy and Horror show up! I’m sorry but there’s no way that you can take anyone named either Sluggsy or Horror seriously. They are, without a doubt, the weakest villains since Diamonds are Forever gave us the Spang Brothers.
On the plus side, Horror did apparently inspire Jaws, the henchman played by Richard Kiel in the film versions of both this book and Moonraker. And, even if the experiment didn’t quite work, it’s still interesting to see Bond through someone else’s eyes.
Fleming was so dissatisfied with this novel that, when he sold the film rights, he specifically required that the film not use any material from the book. While The Spy Who Loved Me may not be Fleming’s strongest work, he would follow it up with the last great Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
We’ll look at that one tomorrow.