“Never send a man where you can send a bullet.”
Unlike the previous James Bond books by Ian Fleming, For Your Eyes Only is a collection of five short stories, not a single adventure (two of the stories, “Quantum of Solace” and “The Hildebrand Rarity” had been previously published in Cosmopolitan and Playboy, respectively). Elements of the stories were adapted for the film franchise, but in Frankenstein-like patches that were cobbled together. Like all short story collections the quality varies from story to story, so let’s take a look at this collection a bit more closely, shall we?
“From a View to a Kill”
When a dispatcher for SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) is killed during a run on his motorcycle, M dispatches James Bond (who happened to be nearby in Paris) to assist the investigation. Actually, M’s motives are a bit murkier. SHAPE and MI6 have been having a sort of Cold War over whose purpose is more relevant to the world at large. If an agent from MI6 can show up the officers from SHAPE by cracking the case and eliminating the threat, it will deal a crucial blow against them and prove MI6’s worth. Naturally, when 007 shows up on scene he is met with polite resistance. Still, since the investigation appears to be a dead end, he is allowed to have a look. And naturally again, even faced with what seems to be a dead end James find a lead that will take him right into the lair of three assassins.
Fleming packs a surprising amount of meat into a story merely thirty pages long. Right away, he sets a tone that justifies short adventures for his intrepid creation, 007. “From A View to a Kill” would peter out if stretched to full novel length, but it packs a neat punch as a short. Fittingly then, the film A View to a Kill only took a portion of the title as inspiration, with absolutely no similarities in plot. Still, it’s a little curious that the primary tension in the story isn’t so much centered on the facedown with the assassins as it is on Bond getting the better of SHAPE on behalf of MI6. That neuters the suspense a bit, even though the story still has heft to it.
“For Your Eyes Only”
This time, the film adaptation did take its namesake story’s premise, and it’s easy to see why. “For Your Eyes Only” is a tale of revenge, and one that could easily stretch itself out to full length (to help that along, producers lifted the crime saga and deception from “Risico” to flesh the story out). When the Havelocks, British expatriates living in Jamaica, are killed for their lush property, M finds himself in a moral quandary. He was the Best Man at their wedding, so understandably he feels angry about their murder and has a desire for revenge. But as a responsible authority figure, he questions whether or not sending 007 out would be a personal (and therefore inappropriate) course of action for him to follow. 007 helps him along by pointing out that the murder of the Havelocks could be viewed as merely the first offensive action against the British people, legitimizing the mission to an extent. Bond, who has no personal stake in the mission, finds himself questioning the morals behind exercising his license to kill (something that has always been lacking in the movies but is actually common in Fleming’s writing). Meanwhile the Havelocks daughter, Judy, has set out on her own personal mission to avenge her parents and will be forced to deal with the moral ramifications in the aftermath.
For 44 pages, those are dense parallel themes surrounding the morals of revenge and murder. Fleming focuses on the action in order to propel the story along so one could be pardoned for not picking up on them, but the questions are definitely there. It’s just one of the things that makes Fleming’s Bond adventures multilayered entertainments that are quite profound if you stop to consider them.
Less successful is Fleming’s treatment of women–a continued problem in his writing that bubbles up here. Bond immediately writes Judy Havelock off as a silly girl. He alternately infantilizes and sexualizes her so quickly you could get whiplash. And when she shrugs off his advances to take a stance as a strong, independent character who will not bend to his will, Bond resorts to his typical stance and acts hostile–calling her a silly bitch (not the first time in the series he has done so to a woman). At first it is refreshing that Judy stands out as the rare Bond Girl who refuses to fall under 007’s spell or allow him to take charge. Unfortunately, once the blood has been spilled she immediately reverts back to a childish/sexualized state in which she allows Bond to tend to her wounds and inexplicably begin kissing her. It’s a shame.
“Quantum of Solace”
Reading the story, it’s easy to see why in this case “Quantum of Solace” has been adapted to film in name only. There’s no action to be found in “Quantum of Solace.” No espionage to be carried out, no shots to be fired. Instead, Bond attends a dinner party as a polite gesture before he can return home following a mission. The dinner party nearly bored him to tears and now he must continue to make nice with the Governor by staying for drinks afterward. The Governor ends up telling him the story of an unhappy marriage to get across his theory that any relationship can survive so long as the participants maintain even a small degree of compassion or respect for each other (as he would say, every relationship requires at least ‘a quantum of solace’ in order to continue). Once that is gone, all that is left is bitter anger and resentment.
Not to suggest that a Bond story can’t be “talky,” but there doesn’t seem to be much point to this story. If Fleming had taken the opportunity of a dialogue-heavy short to explore the questions of morality 007 frequently flirts at without actually exploring, that would have made sense. Instead we have a relationship saga whose only purpose seems to be to teach Bond a lesson about being quick to judge the people he meets–that dismissing a person as boring discounts the whole swaths of that person’s life you know nothing about.
No, a dialogue-heavy Bond story could definitely be made to work. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.
“Risico” technically has the dubious honor of being one of the only Fleming stories not to be adapted for film (along with this collection’s “The Hildebrand Rarity”). The title has never been used in a movie, at least. The premise, however, was fused with “For Your Eyes Only” to flesh out a full-length movie. As fate would have it, “For Your Eyes Only” is one of my favorite Bond movies–and not because of the part of the plot that comes from the other story. I loved the overtones of Greek drama it brought to what should have been a fairly standard story of betrayal and revenge. Unfortunately, in this shorter format you don’t get much of a sense of those qualities at all.
“Risico” finds 007 sent to meet with a man named Kristatos, who has been acting as an informant to the Americans and whose help is being enlisted by the British to find out who is responsible for trafficking heroin onto its shores. Kristatos fingers a man named Colombo and asks Bond to kill him at the end of his investigation. But when Bond takes a closer look he gets kidnapped by Colombo, who reveals that it is Kristatos who has actually been behind the trafficking. Kristatos wants Colombo dead because he’s one of the few people who knows what a sleazebag Kristatos actually is. So 007 instead teams up with Colombo to take down Kristatos.
With such a short page count, the twist comes very quickly. Far too quickly to have earned any sense of surprise or shock from the reader. Still, there’s a good adventure story here. If I hadn’t seen the story fleshed out more I probably wouldn’t complain–I wouldn’t know what might have been, after all.
“The Hildebrand Rarity”
I don’t know if producers will ever get around to appropriating the title of this story for a movie (Spectre has an Easter Egg in which a safehouse is located in a shop named Hildebrand Rarities, which is the closest it has come). But I can tell you that you’ll likely never see the plot repurposed. Unlike “Quantum of Solace,” “The Hildebrand Rarity” isn’t heavy with dialogue. It has action, adventure, and seduction to spare, in fact. But the plot is a great deal more in the mystery genre than in the spy/action thriller genre, and it doesn’t suit.
James Bond is in the Seychelles awaiting transport back and killing time. Knowing how bored he is, his wealthy friend Fidele Barbey gets him to follow along on a gig he’s gotten escorting an uncouth American millionaire to a small island in search of an incredibly rare fish named The Hildebrand Rarity. Not long after getting on Milton Krest’s boat, Bond is turned off by their host. Krest is aggressively mean–particularly to his English wife, Elizabeth. Krest is also not-so-casually abusive of Elizabeth, but in an atrocious but of reasoning 007 figures it’s really none of his business if Elizabeth wants to stay in a marriage that beats her or not. Because blaming the victim is so cool. Right off the bat, I was inclined to hate this story for that reason alone.
Krest’s behavior only gets worse as days go by. He manages to criminally insult Barbey’s family pride several times, and his beatings of Elizabeth escalate as it becomes clear she has a sexual magnetism thing with James. Then Krest ends up dead, with the body of the poisoned Hildebrand Rarity stuffed violently down his throat. James discovers the body in the middle of the night and dispatches it overboard–knowing the murderer would have to be either Barbey or Elizabeth. In the morning he waits for one of them to give themself away, but the story never gives a solid answer as to who did the deed. Instead, 007 finds himself increasingly repulsed by both suspects as they come into port, where undoubtedly the narrative that Krest fell overboard in the night will be pursued.
The set-up is dated, misogynist, and doesn’t feel like it serves a purpose. Fleming could undoubtedly write a great mystery story using his skills, but this isn’t it.
Fleming proves that there’s worth to putting out short adventures for 007 but the results are fairly scattered. There are some great ideas in here and some that don’t work. That inherently makes the collection fairly middle of the road. To be fair, though, let’s average out the scores from each story.