On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, by Ian Fleming: Book Review

On Her Majestys Secret Service Book Covers“Why not make it for always?”

You may remember that I nearly broke up with the James Bond series after the misogynist shit show that was The Spy Who Loved Me. I mean, truth be told, you probably don’t care, but let’s pretend for a moment that you do. To summarize, I had been willing to forgive Ian Fleming’s rampant misogyny in the James Bond books for a while and write it off as a product of the time he lived in, but when he attempted to reason that women love “semi-rape” I just couldn’t let it go any longer. To be honest, I would have been comfortable walking out and never coming back to another Bond book, but I confess I was haunted by the thought that I had come so close to the finish line. Well, that and I had already requested the next book in the series from the library and two weeks later I was notified that it had arrived. This book is itself significant because it’s the one where James Bond supposedly meets (and loses) the love of his life. Curiosity can be a wicked game, and it got the better of me.

Well almost immediately James Bond meets Draco, the head of the vast European crime syndicate the Union Corse, who is the father of a beguiling woman James has just rescued from a suicide attempt (and, naturally, taken to bed). While telling James of the woman, Theresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, and her family history, Draco lets out this little gem about the time he met Tracy’s mother: “She explained to me later that she must have been possessed by a subconscious desire to be raped. Well she found me in the mountains and she was raped – by me.”

Seriously, Ian Fleming, WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?!

Tracy’s mother becomes so infatuated with Draco, the man who just raped her, that she follows him around until he takes her in and marries her–kind of like a reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

Have I asked you what your problem is, Ian Fleming? Whatever it was, it must have been significant.

Well, I toughed it out to the bitter end. It wasn’t worth it. I’ve complained about Fleming’s tendency to write overly complicated schemes, and this one is no exception. It doesn’t even make any sense. When we were introduced to Ernst Stavros Blofeld in Thunderball he was an exceedingly calculating, patient, foe. He was so deadly in part because he had so cleverly remained in the shadows until his plan was ready to be executed–MI6 never even knew he or the threat of his organization existed until it was too late. He is a man described to us as so ruthlessly efficient that he even despises unnecessary words or ornamentation in language. He is utilitarian to the core, and he has remained hidden so successfully following the events of Thunderball precisely because of these traits.

So how are we supposed to believe that Blofeld is suddenly willing to risk all his coveted anonymity–his very cover in hiding–in order to reach out to The College of Arms to claim an old family title? We are supposed to believe that a man who so despises ornament that unnecessary words are a mark of shame has suddenly become so vain that he will do anything to procure a title for a name he’s already left behind out of necessity?

It doesn’t add up, Fleming. More than that, it critically weakens Blofeld as a nemesis. Instead of being the staunch antagonist he was, he’s suddenly a vainglorious fool. He’s certainly not an interesting match for 007 anymore, no matter how much Fleming overcomplicates the plot.

And while Bond’s grand romance with Tracy and his willingness to chuck his career in order to live with her may have been new ground for the film series, Fleming seems blithely unaware that we’ve been here before in the books. Bond has already mistaken Gala Brand for the love of his life, Tiffany Case moved in with him and 007 fancied the idea of leaving the service for a life with her until she cruelly left him for another man, and Bond fell head over heels in love with Tatiana Romanova–even though he knew her status as a defector from the Soviets would keep them apart. Point is: nothing about Bond’s love affair with Tracy is new or surprising or does anything to think this is anything other than another passing fancy. He’s been down this road several times. If not for her untimely death, it’s not hard to believe that both Bond and Tracy would have parted ways by the next book in the series. It’s only her death that makes Tracy stand out in the books (in the movie, it’s another story completely).

In the end, it wasn’t worth the return journey. Curiosity may draw me back to see how Fleming’s Blofeld saga ends in You Only Live Twice–then how the Fleming books themselves end in The Man With the Golden Gun–but it certainly won’t be with any sense of joy or urgency.

Grade: D

For more of 007’s adventures check out my Bond page–which has movie recaps and best-ofs. Up next: You Only Live Twice.


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