The Spy Who Loved Me was the only one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I didn’t reread the second time round, in my early thirties. The reason I didn’t was probably the same reason the critics had panned it. Both they and I did the book an injustice.
You see, this is the Bond novel where James Bond doesn’t appear on the scene until over halfway through. When he does, he certainly makes an impact, on both the villains and the girl; but in this novel it’s the girl – Vivienne Michel – who’s the main character. Not only that, she narrates the story. It’s a young woman’s confession of her search for love with men who couldn’t love her as she deserved, and then suddenly finding herself totally out of her depth, trapped in a lonely American motel with a pair of psychos who have every intention to rape, torture, and murder her. The ultimate scenario of men’s disrespect for woman. And then, fortunately for her, unfortunately for them, the doorbell rings. James Bond’s car has a puncture and he needs to stay the night.
I think the reason the critics panned The Spy Who Loved Me was that it didn’t meet their expectations of what kind of book a Bond thriller should be. That was certainly my reaction when I read it when I was thirteen. Fleming wanted to try something different. But the critics and the fans didn’t want that. They wanted him to stick to the formula. Fleming took their reactions so much to heart that he demanded there be no paperback till after his death and that no film should be made using any of the plot; that’s the reason the film The Spy Who Loved has a completely new story. Even Douglas Kennedy, in his introduction to my 2012 edition, has the air of pointing out the redeeming features of an inherently weak book.
All of which is a shame. When I reread the novel after an interval of nearly forty years, I was swept away by how good it is. I read it compulsively, almost in one sitting. How often do I do that any more? Because of the omnipresence of the James Bond movie phenomenon, it’s easy to forget just how good a writer Fleming was. His style, his pacing, imagery, and choreography are superb. His villains are brilliant caricatures – if you can let go fretting about the class politics in play between them and Bond. And in this novel Fleming writes convincingly as a young woman. You feel for her naive dreams of what she wants in life. You share in what seems to her the exoticism of upstate New York in the off season, and then the terror and drama of what ensues in the motel.
So I’m glad Fleming wrote this book, even if he regretted it. It varies the texture of reading his Bond oeuvre. And it’s an object lesson in the power of expectations and how you sometimes have to defy them in order to do something original and good.