Monday, May 22, 2017

Moonraker (James Bond #3)


Moonraker, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1955)

I had a hard time with this third volume of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, friends. I brought my copy of the Signet paperback edition to work and left it here to read at lunch. But gradually I found that I had to push myself to read it, each day. I mean, there were days I would’ve rather done actual work stuff than read the book, and that is the biggest criticism I could ever level at a work of fiction. It wasn’t until the final quarter that I started to enjoy it – I think I even enjoyed Casino Royale more, mostly because it was shorter.

If anything I think this novel proves that, if you’re the trendsetter, the creator of a movement, you can pretty much do whatever you want and fans will still dote on it. Imagine if a modern Bond continnuation author turned in a manuscript similar to Moonraker, a slow-moving tale in which Bond does practically nothing in the first 100+ pages except for get involved in an overlong game of bridge(!), doesn’t get in a single shootout, doesn’t kill a single villain in a fight, and doesn’t even get the girl!!!

But no, you will read glowing endorsements of Moonraker from devoted fans, proclaiming its introspective nature and character-building charms. To be sure, the highlights of the book are the in-depth peeks into the personal world of James Bond; it’s as if Fleming realized he’d done little to flesh Bond out in the previous books, and decided to do so this time around. But he did so a little too thoroughly, at the expense of the action and suspense and the other stuff you might expect when you read a James Bond novel.

It’s not too long after Live And Let Die; Bond even still has a slight suntan. The book opens with Bond at the target range, working on his marksmanship with a .38 revolver; sadly, this will be the only time Bond fires a gun in the novel. Fleming hops perspectives without shame throughout Moonraker, and here, thanks to an abrupt shift into the perspective of the marksman instructor, we learn that Bond is the best marskman.

Indeed Fleming is at pains to bring to life Bond’s close-knit community of intelligence agents. We learn that his office is on the 8th floor of the United Exports building and we meet his lovely-but-spinsterish secretary, Loelia Ponsonby. We also learn about the two other Double Os on the force (008 and 0011). Bond occasionally frets about the safety of 008, but by novel’s end we learn he’s okay. There’s lots of info-dumping in these first pages, even down to Bond’s annual salary; as I say, it’s as if Fleming realized he hadn’t told us much about Bond before and went into overkill.

We’re also given a more elaborate intro to Ms. Monneypenny and M, who have adjoining offices on the top floor of the United Exports building; here we also meet M’s Chief of Staff, one of Bond’s “friends,” though as Kingsley Amis wrote it’s hard to imagine James Bond just hanging out with anyone. M calls Bond in on a personal assignment – the manager at the club Blades suspects one of the members is cheating at cards, and has asked M to look into it. M in turn has drafted Bond, as he’s the most adept card player in the service. Here M calls Bond “James” for the first time in the series (I think), and Bond knows when this happens it means the old man’s about to ask a personal favor.

This brings us to the novel’s villain, Sir Hugo Drax, a man with a mysterious background. He is the classic Fleming villain as defined by Amis (who also ranked Drax as his favorite Bond villain, but I have to disagree with him on that one): big, burly, red hair, loutish. But Drax is beloved by the people of England, as he has vowed to create a super missile to procect them from foreign powers: this is the Moonraker, a massive ICBM sort of deal. Bond puzzles over why someone so famous and well-loved would stoop to card-cheating.

Bond himself gets in on the rampant info-dumping that comprises the first quarter of the novel; during the M briefing Bond relates Dax’s history, even though M himself is already aware of it; this is just a taste of the page-filling Fleming resorts to throughout. I’m pretty sure it’s the most Bond has ever spoken at once in the series yet, three-plus pages of bald exposition. One realizes the character is more interesting when he keeps his mouth shut, otherwise Bond comes off, as he does here, like a bore.

Highfalutin Fleming well brings to life the swank club that is Blades, and apparently its is an amalgam of a few different real London clubs which Fleming often visited. But I think I’ve mentioned before how gambling stuff just isn’t my thing (my sole gambling experience was once in Vegas, where I put twenty on the line, lost, and thought to myself, “Well, that was really damn dumb!” and just went for the free drinks). The central event here is the pages-long game of bridge Bond engages Drax in, Bond’s goal to determine if Drax is really cheating.

In his Bedside Bond Companion, Raymond Benson describes the bridge sequence as “exciting, suspenseful, and fascinating.” Personally, those are not the three adjectives I would use. In fact this endless bridge game made me wax melancholic for the video game battle in Never Say Never Again. What I found more interesting here was something I’m not sure other Bond commentators have noted, though surely they have (at least Amis didn’t in the Dossier): that M in the Blades sequence serves as Bond’s customary sidekick. Usually it’s a foreigner of some sort – Felix Leiter, Karim Bey, Quarrel, etc. But here M himself, removed from behind his desk, serves the function of those other, more customary sidekicks, and it was interesting to see the old bastard in a different light.

Drax is indeed cheating, and Bond succeeds in winning heavily from him. Drax is properly incensed and makes a veiled threat on Bond’s life. And herein lies one of the greatest issues with Moonraker: James Bond is pretty stupid in it. When he first meets Drax Bond instantly suspects the man is cruel, villainous, but after the Blades bit Bond is assigned to act as security chief at the Moonraker site in Kent, due to the death of the previous chief. When Bond meets Drax again, he’s drawn in by the man, doubts his first impressions about him, and figures he’s a great guy, after all. Even when attempts are made on Bond’s life, he still puzzles over who might be behind it, giving Drax the benefit of the doubt. To say the least, Bond comes off buffoonish as a result.

I already know the defense the Fleming fan might make: the author was going for realism, and Bond doesn’t know that Drax is a supervillain, etc. Thus in the real world a person like James Bond would tread carefully and wait to ensure Drax was really behind the attempts on his life, etc. But the thing is…in the previous book, Bond went up against a villain who was a self-styled voodoo god who had a desk-gun. James Bond does not exist in “the real world,” full stop. It’s for this reason I will always prefer Imitation Bonds like Nick Carter: Killmaster to the real thing. I mean, you won’t find a single person (other than myself) who would argue that, say, The Sea Trap is vastly superior to Moonraker, and yet for me it’s as clear as day that it is – I mean, that novel moves, it has no pretensions, and it entertains, which I feel is key to any piece of pulp fiction (which, despite what any apologists might claim, is exactly what Fleming was going for).

But Bond ignores his honed instincts, mostly so the novel can continue to drift along at its own measured pace. At the Moonraker site Bond meets up with the undercover agent from Scotland Yard: Gala Brand, this volume’s “Bondgirl” (to again quote Amis), who despite being more self-reliant and capable than the Bondgirls in the previous two books, is actually less memorable than either. She is of course gorgeous and phenomenally built, but unlike the past two Bondgirls she’s a trendsetter in that she’s a strong woman; Bond even suspects that she could kick his ass, but really just about anyone could kick the literary Bond’s ass. But if you do fight him, just be sure to watch out for your shins; that’s his go-to attack zone.

But then it’s this characterization and moody introspection which seems to fire up most Fleming enthusiasts about Moonraker; I have a hardcover book, My Name Is Bond , edited by Simon Winder and published in the UK only in 2000, which is solely made up of excerpts from the Bond novels. Having glanced through it, it appears that Winder takes a lot from Moonraker, and there are some colorful patches of description and whatnot throughout. But for me, personally – I’d still rather read The Sea Trap. I mean, I wouldn’t put that novel off to do work stuff.

Luckily, the final quarter is a bit more entertaining; the stakes are ramped up to life-or-death situations, though again Bond himself doesn’t do anything to the caliber of the film franchise. Speaking of which, Fleming I kid you not pulls the exact same copout as in Casino Royale; there’s a part where Bond, back in London and having (gradually) discovered that Gala has been abducted by Drax and his henchmen, grabs a pistol and gives chase – and, once again, not only does he not even fire the gun, but he also crashes and gets captured…AGAIN!!

Bond you see at length has realized that Drax really is a villain (in other words, Bond’s instincts were correct from the get-go), and that he’s planning to launch the Moonraker into London itself. This element by the way is exposited via hardcore data and Gala’s flight calculations; Fleming has done his research and by god, he wants you to know it. But Bond using his teeth and a blowtorch to free Gala and himself from the rope that binds them is pretty cool, and an esnsuing sequence where the two hide in a missile silo while scalding water is shot up at them is pretty thrilling.

Speaking of Gala, Bond tries to put the moves on her here and there, but fails spectacularly; there’s a nicely-written part where the two go swimming one day and, as usual, Fleming brings to life any sequence that has to do with water or the sea or etc. But she is pretty much a cipher when compared to the Bondgirls before and after her, and what’s more, reveals to Bond at the finale that she’s about to be married! Fleming has developed the chemistry between the two from the initial frostiness on Gala’s part to her warming up to Bond, even kissing him during the swim, so that the reader too feels properly jilted at novel’s end when she says so long. Bummer!

While the climax is thrilling, with Bond and Gala escaping Drax’s men at the Moonraker site, it lacks the action-pulp one might expect. Which is to say, there’s no part where Bond appropriates a gun and starts dishing out bloody payback. Rather, the two hide out in Drax’s office, nude and beneath the pounding spray of a showerhead, as the Moonraker makes its monumental launch – the shower to counteract the effects of the blast, which mostly works. Meanwhile Gala –not Bond, mind you – has set the Moonraker to head out to sea, where it conveniently blows apart the Russian submarine Drax has escaped on…off-page. Yes, the villain is killed off-page, my friends. Off-page!

This is another Bond novel I didn’t get to read as a kid, and it was probably for the best – I’m certain the 11 year-old me would’ve enjoyed it even less than the 42 year-old me did. I do however friggin’ love the movie version, which I’ve gone this long without mentioning – to me it’s not only the logical progression of Connery’s ‘60s movies (I mean, “Bond in space” was exactly where the franchise appeared to be going after You Only Live Twice), but it’s got a helluva lot more charm than the recent “oh so serious” Daniel Craig crap. And more balls, too – the modern Bond producers are too busy trying to redo the Bourne franchise to even consider something as brave or out-of-the-box as having James Bond go into space.

9 comments:

Steven Johnson said...

+1 on Bond in Space. Esp. the space shuttle with "MARINES" on the side.

But Jaws? How do you feel about him?

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Moonraker was one of the earliest James Bond novels I read because it had not yet been made into a movie at the time and I wanted to go into a story that was completely new in the Bond universe. I was in my early teens and I remember thinking it was pretty exciting at the time. I must warn you, if you hated Moonraker, wait until you get to From Russia With Love. I recently re-read Russia and Dr. No and really liked them both a lot. From what I understand Fleming was getting burned out on his hero by the time he wrote From Russia with Love. Anyway, this was a fun review about Moonraker and you make a great point in contrasting the pulp excitement of Nick Carter vs the supposedly "real world" of James Bond. I agree with you in guessing that most of the world would prefer Moonraker to The Sea Trap while they miss the point that they're both supposed to be escapist pulp. One just has better manners and taste while the other makes no apologies for its lack of pretensions.

Stephen Mertz said...

Books vs. movies. I love the first 3 Bond films but can find little reason to watch any of the others more than once. Those who love the books generally dismiss the later films & vice versa. This is one of the best Bond novels for the reasons you cite, despite the shortcomings you cite. Frankly, I found Fleming an odd choice for a review here. The snobs called him trash but I think most regarded him as high quality and still do.

Applebetty said...

This is why I like the John Gardner Bond novels more. When I think of Fleming, I think of hedonism, locales, and not much going on. Gardner wrote good and bad Bond books, but they were always page-turners no matter what: there was always something going on and Bond always got his hands dirty. You should give them a try and talk about them on the blog to compare them to the Fleming books you've read thus far.

License Renewed was the closest we ever got to a Gardner Bond film: they took a bunch of setpieces from it for A View to A Kill, although the book handles the story way better. I think Nobody Lives Forever is right up your alley as well.

Johny Malone said...

R.I.P. Roger Moore.

Zwolf said...

Well, you give Moonraker a negative review, and Roger Moore dies! I hope you're happy, mister! ;)

I still haven't managed to try another Bond after Casino Royale. I was so underwhelmed by that, every time I think of trying the next one, I pick up a Nick Carter or Matt Helm instead. So, I guess the cover blurbs are true - Nick Carter out-Bonds James Bond.

I don't mind the Daniel Craig movies as much, because I have this thing about not mixing too much comedy with action or horror movies. I don't mind if a character is witty or whatever, but the violence ought to be grim. Tongue-in-cheek takes me out of the moment. That said, the Bourne-like editing they do in the Craig movies completely sucks. They would've had a pretty good car chase in Quantum of Solace if they'd just let you look at anything for more than a quarter of a second. Like, compare it to Bullitt... a good car chase doesn't need all that much editing. Hold a shot, let us look at it. Hardly any movies remember that lesson anymore...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Steven -- glad to hear someone else appreciates Moonraker. My childhood buddy Jimmy Stevens loved this one and proclaimed it the best Bond ever. He had the VHS and watched it all the time. I disagreed with him -- I liked the Connerys better -- but these days I really do like Moonraker a lot. But Jaws I was never crazy about...I mean even the attempts at making him a hero in Moonraker didn't do much for me. I look forward to reading Christopher Wood's novelization of The Spy Who Loved Me; supposedly Jaws is a more memorable, more nightmarish character in it. My favorite Bond "henchperson" would have to be Fiona Volpe, from Thunderball -- I'd take HER over Jaws any day!

Kurt -- From Russia With Love is one I read as a kid...it was the earliest novel I read in the series, and I think I read all of them from that point on, except for Thunderball, which I really wanted to read but could never find. But I recall loving FRWL, and Doctor No was my favorite...or was it On Her Majesty's Secret Service or You Only Live Twice? I'm looking forward to re-reading all of them.

Stephen -- You make a good point...these books don't really fit with the theme of the blog, but really they were considered "trash" at one point. The few books on Bond from the day all go out of their way to apologize for them...and they also mock Fleming's writing, which at the time was considered garbage, but which today, to your point, seems downright literary when compared to the average escapist fiction.

Applebetty -- Your comment brought back a lot of memories! I was a huge fan of the John Garnders and in fact they were what led me to read the Flemings as a kid. I've now picked all of them up and look forward to getting to them. My favorite by far was Nobody Lives Forever; I have vivid memories of reading the paperback edition of that one in the summer of '87, when I was 12 -- that was one I bought fresh off the racks at Waldenbooks. And my mom kept nagging at me that I should be "outside doing something," what with it being summer and all, so I just took the book outside and read it there!

Johny -- I agree...was sorry to see that. He was the Bond I grew up with, though I do remember being very excited when Timothy Dalton became Bond. That happened right during my Bondmania phase, and I recall thinking this guy could be THE Bond -- but like most other people, I kinda wished they'd gotten the dude from "Remington Steele" instead. But as for Moore, I might be one of the few people who genuinely LOVES The Man With The Golden Gun.

Zwolf -- Your first line cracked me up. And yeah, Nick Carter really DOES out-Bond James Bond! To tell the truth, the Daniel Craig movies don't exist in my world. Casino Royale was the only Bond movie I ever stopped watching midway through. But then, the producers have made it clear he is not intended to be the same character from the previous films -- different background, etc. Makes one wonder why they didn't just do a whole separate film franchise based on this character, but then they wouldn't have been able to capitalize on the Bond name. Sort of like those Tom Cruise vanity vehicles that call themselves "Mission: Impossible" -- they just capitalize on the orginal series's name and theme music. And of course I agree with you entirely on how modern action movies are edited. I doubt we'll ever return to the days where there was no such thing as "herky-jerky cam."

Applebetty said...

With some of the recent good action movies like John Wick it seems like at least a few people are starting to realize herky-jerky cam and rapid editing should be thrown out. Maybe we'll see less and less of it over the next few years.

I started with Bond the same way! My first Bond read was Scorpius by Gardner, followed by License Renewed, Brokenclaw, and Win Lose or Die. Dalton was my favorite Bond actor and still is. I never much liked the goofy Moore run, but Octopussy is one of my favorites and certainly my favorite of Moore's. I like Bond to be pulpy, but not campy; but I can't stand when they make him super srs like in the Craig films, either. Barring the terrible fourth-wall-breaking gags, Octopussy was a great balance.

Goldeneye is probably the best of all time, though.

Grant said...

Oddly enough, in spite of Bond and The Saint, I always associate Roger Moore with those early - to use a real label - "pretty boy" roles of his, in things like THE SINS OF RACHEL CADE and THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS. But either way, I've always liked him.

Obviously I agree with you about Fiona in THUNDERBALL. I can just imagine that your reaction was like mine when you finally DID read the book - turning page after page and finding no Fiona, which meant no "black widow" stuff done by her, no "steamy" scene between Bond and her, no showdown scene between Bond and her!