Book Review: The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

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.


Guilty Pleasure No. 35: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Way back in January, I took the time to read the 1966 novel, Valley of the Dolls.  While I had already seen the film that this work inspired, this was my first time to read the actual book.

Before I even opened to the front page, I knew that Valley of the Dolls had been a best-seller, that it inspired a countless number of imitations, and that it had a reputation for being really, really bad.  As soon as I started to read the first chapter, I discovered that the book’s reputation was well-earned.  To call author Jacqueline Susann’s prose clunky was a bit of an insult to clunky prose everywhere.

Opening in 1945 and covering 24 years in cultural, sexual, and drug history, Valley of the Dolls starts with Anne Welles leaving her boring home in New England and relocating to New York, where she promptly gets a job at a theatrical agency.  Everyone tells Anne that she’s beautiful and should be trying to become a star but Anne says that she’s not interested in that.  (You’ll be thoroughly sick of Anne’s modesty before reaching the tenth page.)  Everyone says that Anne is incredibly intelligent, even though she never really does anything intelligent.  Everyone says that she’s witty, even though she never says anything that’s particularly funny.  In short, Anne Welles is perhaps the most annoying literary character of all time.  Anne spends about 20 years waiting for her chance to marry aspiring author Lyon Burke.  When she does, Lyon turns out to be a heel and drives Anne to start taking drugs.  I assume it’s meant to be somewhat tragic but who knows?  Maybe all of the pills (or “the dolls” as the characters in the book call them) will give Anne a personality.

They certainly worl wonders for everyone else in the book.  Neely O’Hara is constantly taking pills and she’s the best character in the book.  Unlike Anne, she’s never modest.  She’s never quiet.  She’s actually funny.  Even more importantly, she doesn’t spend the whole book obsessing over one man.  Instead, she’s always either throwing a tantrum or having an affair or abandoning her children or getting sent to a mental institution.  Neely’s a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, we don’t really get to see much of Neely until after having to slog through a hundred or so pages of Anne being boring.

The other major character is Jennifer North, a starlet who was apparently based on Marilyn Monroe.  The parts of the book dealing with Jennifer are actually about as close as Valley of the Dolls actually gets to being, for lack of a better term, good.  In fact, if the book just dealt with Jennifer’s tragice story, it would probably be remembered as a minor classic.  Instead, Jennifer is often overshadowed by Neely (which is understandable since Neely’s insane and therefore capable of saying anything) and Anne (who, as I mentioned before, is the most annoying literary characters of all time).

Why is Valley of the Dolls a guilty pleasure?  A lot of it is because of all of the sexual melodrama and pill-popping, the descriptions of which are often so overwritten that they’re unintentionally hilarious.  Most of it is because Neely O’Hara goes crazy with so much overwrought style.    Whenever the book focuses on Neely, Susann’s inartful prose is replaced with a stream-of-consciousness tour of Neely’s paranoid and petty mind.  Interestingly enough, some of the most infamous scenes from the movie are also present in the novel.  Remember that scene where Neely rips off Helen Lawson’s wig and then flushes it down a toilet?  That’s actually in the book!

Anyway, it’s an incredibly silly but compulsively readable book … or, at least, it is if you can make it through all the boring stuff with Anne at the beginning.  Then again, as annoying as Anne is, she doesn’t exactly get a happy ending.  Perhaps that’s why Valley of the Dolls is such a guilty pleasure.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen
  31. Hail Caesar!
  32. It’s So Cold In The D
  33. In the Mix
  34. Healed By Grace