(Penguin 2008, originally published 1963)
Like many of Fleming’s novels featuring James Bond, the book is good deal more reflective and less gung-ho than the filmed versions – though the film of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a good deal more touching than many in the series. It begins in northern France, where Bond is contemplating his resignation from the Service after the semi-success of Operation Thunderball and the escape of Blofeld. While lying on the beach he idly keeps an eye on a young woman whom Fleming reveals Bond had encountered the previous day. At his hotel the concierge told him that the “pretty girl” who had earlier “passed him at speed” was the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo; Bond later covered her losses at the Casino, and they slept together. This behaviour convinced Bond that something was badly wrong with ‘Tracy’: that she’s suicidal.
While trying to prevent her from killing herself by drowning, Bond and she are kidnapped; though it soon is evident that it’s not through any ill intent. Bond meets Marc-Ange Draco, Tracy’s father, who happens to be head of the Union Corse – a powerful crime syndicate. Draco, seeing how his daughter likes this English stranger, recounts some of her history – her marriage to a man who left her, having spent most of her money, and the recent death of her child from meningitis – which explains her behaviour to Bond, though he’s wary of Draco seeing him as the cure to Tracy’s problems. Draco is able to give him a clue to the possible whereabouts of Blofeld, and armed with this information, Bond and the agent at the Geneva Station come to be aware of the strange behaviour of a Comte de Bleauville. Help getting to this man – who may or may not be the former head of SPECTRE – is forthcoming from an unlikely source – the Heralds at the College of Arms. With the aid of one of the heralds – Sable Basilisk – Bond poses as a researcher from the College, Sir Hilary Bray, and travels to Switzerland to find out more. There he finds a plot to cripple Britain’s agriculture using biological warfare and by ingenious means.
In my opinion, Bond is at his most sympathetic in this book: in several of the Bond novels he is a hard character to like, cynical and selfish. In this book he is flawed and vulnerable, honest and pragmatic; his relationships with both Tracy and her father are realistic and interesting. Although Tracy appears little in the book, she has a strong personality, her reasons for behaving as she does are realistic, and I like that Bond recognises that she’s the woman for him so readily. She is a character whom one comes to like, and whose effect on Bond is extraordinary.
Parts of the book are extremely exciting – Fleming’s description of Bond’s desperate ski escape from Piz Gloria, for example, and the storming of Blofeld’s stronghold – but he equally finds time for digression into the harm biological warfare could do to a highly industrialised agriculture and the arcane world of heraldry, and which he makes interesting. There are flaws to Fleming’s creation, of course – Bond is snobbish, particularly about food and clothes – and despite Tracy’s sympathetic portrayal, Fleming is savagely unpleasant about Irma Bunt, Blofeld’s woman lieutenant. In the Bond world, villains are always ugly – proclaiming their ugliness of soul in their facial or bodily features. While Bond’s morals can be somewhat elastic, he does, nevertheless, have a code of honour: one can admire his motivations even if one doesn’t necessarily approve his actions.
The Bond novels are not, in my opinion, properly spy novels, especially those which feature Blofeld – they’re more like thrillers. Bond uses the apparatus of an intelligence service to root out threats to the stability of Britain (whether this is through extortion or currency devaluation), but many of these are not supported by foreign governments, and require individual villains, such as Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. If you only know Bond through the films, try one or two of the books: the literary Bond is a far more rounded character – as are his adventures – than his cinematic equivalent.