Book Review: Moonraker, by Ian Fleming

Moonraker Book Covers“’They want us dead,’ said Bond calmly. ‘So we have to stay alive.’”

The film adaptation of Moonraker is legendary for being awful. I called it the worst Bond movie ever, so you can understand that I was very curious to see how the book would fare. Thankfully, aside from the title and the villain’s name there are precious few similarities (for more on that, check out my full comparison of the book and movie here).

Moonraker the novel is essentially a mystery–moreso than the first two books in the series at least, which played with noir but focused primarily on the action side of things. In the opening James Bond is enjoying a stretch of desk work as he finishes recovering from the events of Live and Let Die. That all ends when M asks him a favor: he suspects that a man at his club has been cheating at cards. Not just anyone, mind you, but Sir Hugo Drax, a wildly popular millionaire building a weapon system called Moonraker that is supposed to keep England safe from nuclear threats. It’s a delicate matter that the club needs handled with discretion, so Bond goes in to check out the situation to see if he can figure out what Drax is up to.

That simple little excursion snowballs when the chief of security on the Moonraker project is murdered days before a crucial test launch of Moonraker’s rocket. With all the money and time the government is spending to build Moonraker they can’t afford a scandal or a delay, so MI6 is brought in and James Bond is sent to work with Gala Brand, a mole from Scotland Yard who has been undercover as Drax’s secretary for a year. Their investigation into whether or not there is a plot to sabotage Moonraker eventually uncovers a much wider conspiracy–and a much more fiendish scheme that would devastate England if they can’t stop it from happening.

As fate would have it, the book that gave us the worst movie in the film series is actually one of the best books in Ian Fleming’s series. You could argue that this book’s incorporation of a doomsday device raised the stakes to an impossibly high level, setting off the unfortunate obsession the film series has with putting the fate of the world on the line, but the novel’s tight focus on the mystery aspects of the plot keep it from veering into the outrageous. So yes, it’s up to James to save the fate of his country, but Fleming made sure the story came first, not the stakes.

Gala Brand (rechristened Holly Goodhead in the film) is a tad wasted in that she never has the opportunity to do much of consequence. She’s basically constantly being saved by James despite the constant assertion that she’s a very capable police officer. Still, she’s never treated like a silly girl the way Vesper Lynd was and she narrowly avoids becoming the sex object Solitaire was. That definitely represents progress, and it makes her different from the other Bond Girls in the books. Interestingly enough, the James Bond of the novels seems to be a hopeless romantic despite himself in the books. He fell hard for Vesper, he seemed to have feelings for Solitaire, and his heart aches for something more with Gala. Bond is not quite the stone-hearted cad Fleming makes him out to be.

It’s a deep shame the film adaptation was so disappointing, because I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Grade: A-

For more on 007’s adventures check out my James Bond page. Up next: Diamonds Are Forever.


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