Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

My first foray into the works of Ian Fleming has not significantly altered my image of James Bond, that most iconic of fictional playboys, but I don’t imagine it was intended to. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, first published in 1963, was the tenth of twelve Bond novels penned by Fleming, and by this point in his career he knew he had hit upon a winning formula. After all, he wrote it from his private Jamaican estate, Goldeneye, while the very first Bond film, Dr. No, was being filmed nearby, and print runs of previous Bond novels were continually selling out.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service begins with a car case in the south of France, as Bond is overtaken by a young woman (“If there was one thing that set James Bond really moving, it was being passed at speed by a pretty girl…”), and ends in the Swiss Alps, where Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld has built himself a winter compound for purposes Bond must uncover. As in the movies, these rapid changes of scenery are accompanied by – marked by – sex scenes, as if Bond must bed a new woman in every country he enters. There is a funny circularity at work here: Bond is irresistible to women, and this makes him a figure of aspiration for men, for whom he is no less irresistible. These sex scenes would not make a modern reader blush, except perhaps at the dialogue (“That was heaven, James. Will you please come back when you wake up. I must have it once more”); in fact, they are less gratuitous than some of the action scenes, which contain, in embryo, all of the excesses that characterize the worst of the Bond films. In the novel’s climax, for example, Bond must race an avalanche down a mountain.

And yet, for all that, the writing is compelling, the novel well paced, and we follow Bond as eagerly through these pages as we do through the 20-odd films inspired by him. Partly, this is thanks to the access the reader has to Bond’s psyche. Fleming’s 007 is frequently afraid, often self-critical, and at least somewhat aware of his personal flaws. On the other hand, it is an understatement to say that his female characters are poorly drawn. Many of them exist only as caricatures, with names like Pearl Tampion and Caresse Ventnor; the rest are either sexless shrews, such as Blofeld’s secretary, the aptly named Irma Bunt, or objects of Bond’s desire. A new secretary at MI6, Mary Goodnight, is described with her measurements (37-22-25, for the curious), which manages to be both jaw-droppingly sexist and immensely lazy writing. These moments – not the mid-20th century technology, cars, or politics – prove to be the most anachronistic, the most antiquated. All the same, approached in the spirit of humour with which this book was written, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service entertains.