I wasn’t going to write this post. I really wasn’t. I just did a post on Sean Connery and the power of the original James Bond films. I had no real interest in writing another post on Bond but two things happened. Make that three.
In reverse order….1) I needed something to write a new post about 2) I started reading Fleming’s THRILLING CITIES 3) I bought all 14 original Flemming Bond books in one sitting. Yes, all of them.
The first point is pretty obvious. I was looking for something that I wanted to write about. Given what I was reading at the time, it just made sense.
THRILLING CITIES is a collection of essays from 1963 about Ian Fleming’s travels to major urban centers around the entire world. Those cities include, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Berlin and many others.
It was commissioned in 1959 by THE SUNDAY TIMES. They wanted to capitalize on the success of Fleming’s Bond books by encouraging him to write from a Bond-like perspective. That is, a focus on the women of each city, any crimes or criminal organizations that were colorful, gambling spots and luxury dining establishments of note.
This was the thrilling part of the title. It was combined with a semi-practical list of places to stay and a few key attractions to provide a somewhat half-assed travel guide. But no matter, it was, and is, damn entertaining.
It’s also somewhat weird.
The perspective of the book is very unique. At least from today’s viewpoint. It is a way of looking at the world very that is very much of its time, the very middle of the 20th Century. The part when the War was over but not forgotten, many great cities were being reborn from almost complete rubble into thriving, modern metropolises and American culture ruled the world.
It was also before things like sexism, racism, colonialism and so forth were fully recognized as not being OK.
For that matter, it’s before The Beatles, mini-skirts, landing on the moon, heavy American involvement in Vietnam and many of the other things we associate with the Mid-Twentieth Century. It’s that time just before that. As much the end of the 50s as the beginning of the 60s. More Sinatra than Stones. More LEAVE IT TO BEAVER than LAUGH-IN.
What’s interesting is that when Fleming doesn’t try so hard to be “thrilling” the book works much better. It’s not the exotic or unusual. It’s the things that Fleming puts in as a matter of common knowledge that are the most shocking. The way flying used to be. The way women were expected to act. The way Westerners viewed Asia…
And it’s fascinating.
Sexist. Racist. Shockingly narrow-minded in many ways. But fascinating.
It expresses a very distinct view of the world that is almost inconceivable today. One that is not only reflective of the attitudes of the day and Fleming’s views but captures the world as seen by Bond.
Which was why when I came across an opportunity to buy the full collection of the Fleming Bond books at a ridiculously cheap price, I did. This, in spite of already owning several of them in various other variations and forms. No matter. Now I have them all.
THRILLING CITIES made me want more Bond. Early Bond. The Bond before all the movies. One who drove a Bentley not an Aston. One still trapped in the 50s.
The books, like the movies, have an amazing repeatability factor. Just as I have watched the Connery Bond movies dozens of times, these books just have a way of getting reread.
I should mention something though. In many ways, the books are not very well-written. Even for thrillers. Their plots are sometimes poorly paced and usually somewhat ridiculous. They are not exactly shining examples of the use of language, either. None of which matters in the least.
They are clearly great on another level. The character. The atmosphere. The sheer fun of them. And that certain view of the world that is locked, forever frozen, to an earlier time.
The first Bond book, CASINO ROYALE was published in 1953. The last was published in 1966. The films that followed were made and released in a very different order.
This is the order of publication for the Fleming Bond books:
- CASINO ROYALE
- LIVE AND LET DIE
- DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
- FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
- DR. NO
- FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
- THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
- ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE
- YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
- MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
- OCTOPUSSY AND LIVING DAYLIGHTS (short works)
If you’re going to go all out and read them all (something I hope to do now, myself) I strongly suggest reading them in order. Not because there is some complex, over-arching plot you can only grasp reading them this way, there isn’t. It’s because the books change over time.
My favorite Bond book is CASINO ROYALE. This, in spite of the fact that half the damn book seems to be about a card game. For one thing, it introduces the character. Cool right there. But there is another reason.
The Bond books got more free-wheeling and less serious as they continued. CASINO ROYALE is played straight (within its world). By the time the series ends with MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and the shorter works, they are a far more self-aware and tongue in cheek.
My own preference is for the earlier ones. Maybe, like Bond, I am just too set in my ways and too unwilling to adapt.
The Ian Fleming Bond books are sexist, insensitive and politically incorrect to an extreme. They are clearly of their time. Yet somehow, not in spite of that, but because of that, they work.
Bond sees things as he sees them, take it or leave it. It’s part of what makes him such a great character.
The world may change but Bond, not so much.