The James Bond Dossier, by Kingsley Amis
July, 1966 Signet Books
Published in hardcover in 1965, The James Bond Dossier was one of the first studies of the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, following O.F. Snelling’s 007 James Bond: A Report by one year. Unlike Snelling, Dossier author Kinglsey Amis was not only friends with Ian Fleming, but also benefited from having all of Fleming’s published Bond novels at his disposal; Snelling’s book went to press just as penultimate volume You Only Live Twice was being published.
This is a cogent, humorous, and engaging overview of Fleming’s Bond novels; Amis’s enthusiasm for them carries through the page. While he’s never critical of the books (he admits at the outset that he’s a huge fan), Amis does occasionally poke fun at things, but in a way that would even make the most ardent Fleming defender chuckle. In many ways, The James Bond Dossier is more entertaining than the Bond books themselves; Amis’s wit and keen eye bring out so many details that multiple readings would no doubt be rewarding.
In a brief preface Amis states that his original intention was to write an article about Bond, but in the end decided to produce a short book on the subject. This is to every Bond fan’s benefit, but be forewarned that the Dossier has become collectible on the second-hand market (it’s long out of print, sadly). A little researching will no doubt turn up an affordable copy; I got this Signet edition, which follows the design of Signet’s Bond paperbacks of the early ‘60s, at a nice price. The book could also be read while reading the novels themselves; Amis occasionally gives away big details, but most people are familiar with everything thanks to the film versions (which are no doubt seen a lot more than the original novels are read); thus, no concerns about “spoilers.”
“The Man Who Is Only A Silhouette” is the first chapter, and gives a brief rundown on Bond and his literary ancestors. Warning for American readers: Amis refers quite often to British character Bulldog Drummond and his exploits. It’s clear that, at the time of this book, Drummond must’ve been more popular to the average reader in England than perhaps Bond himself was; throughout Amis will make references to this or that moment in Drummond’s history with little embellishment or explanation, as if assuming his readers know what the hell he’s talking about.
The first three chapters go over Bond, from personal details to his life as a secret agent, and on this latter point Amis makes the argument that Bond is not and has never been a “spy,” given that his assignments usually entail everything but spying. Amis argues that Bond would more accurately be described as a secret agent. Amis also looks into the supposed superpowers of Bond, arguing that, within the context and world of the novels themselves, his abilities are not so unbelievable – it would be common sense, for example, to accept that a top British agent would also be a top marksman. Bear in mind that throughout Amis solely refers to the literary Bond, with only a few mentions of his film counterpart; Amis was no fan of the films nor star Sean Connery, at one point even mentioning “Sean Connery’s total wrongness for the part” of Bond.
In these opening three chapters (“Sit Down, 007” and “Going Slowly To Pieces” being the titles of chapters two and three), Amis defends the “wish fulfillment” of the Bond novels, mocking critics who bemoan the pulpy nature of the series. “No adult ought to feel adult all the time,” Amis asserts, in just one of the book’s many quotable lines. Amis also makes the valid point that we readers want to be Bond, not invite him over for dinner or have drinks with him – the fact that Bond himself is almost a cipher is beside the point. He is the man all other men aspire to be. This includes Bond’s herculean smoking and drinking habits; despite being written long before the anti-smoking movement held sway, the Dossier admits that Bond’s 60-cigarettes-a-day habit might be pushing things a bit, but hell, Bond goes through a lot and deserves his indulgences.
Amis also defends Bond’s views on women in the fourth chapter, “No Woman Had Ever Held This Man” (the chapter titles cribbed from Fleming, obviously). Every Bond reader is familiar with Bond’s attitudes on women, as shown for example in Casino Royale. Amis excerpts four such examples from this novel, then defends them within the context of the book itself – Bond’s mood at the time, etc. Even Bond’s “the bitch is dead” line from the end of the book is defended as justifiable, given the revelation of Vesper’s traitorous duplicity. It goes without saying that this chapter would raise the hackles of the modern (or at least progressivised) reader. But Amis is never funnier than when he’s defending Fleming’s more “outdated” views, like Bond’s one-woman-a-novel track record:
Bond’s success with women is totally explicable within the terms of the novels. Women take to him because he likes them and knows how to be kind to them. He has, of course, further advantages. Other things being equal, women prefer handsome men to ugly and brave men to cowardly. There seems nothing to be done about that. Any number of us, however, could afford to take a couple of leaves out of Bond’s book. Unlike many heroes of more ambitious fiction, Bond is good-tempered and not moody. Women appreciate that in a man. And as Tatiana [in From Russia, With Love] notices at once, Bond looks very clean.
As can be seen, Amis here too defends the “fantasy” nature of Bond’s appeal to women; this element, apparently criticized by reviewers at the time as more of that “wish fulfillment,” is proven to be no big deal; Bond becomes intimate with one woman a novel, and given that Fleming wrote one novel a year, this is easily believable – it isn’t like we’re talking about the three or more women Bond conjugates with per movie. Amis also points out that Bond, despite his “sexist” attitude, is seldom ever mean to women (other than, he specifies, ugly villainesses Irma Bundt and Rosa Klebb; but they deserved it!). In general, Bond treats women with kindness and respect.
The wonderfully-titled fifth chapter, “Beautiful Firm Breasts,” is all about the “Bond-girl,” as Amis refers to Fleming’s central female characters. “Bond-girl shows a strong tendency to make her debut naked or half-naked,” Amis writes, and “Her most frequently mentioned feature is her fine, firm, faultless, splendid, etc, breasts.” (“I find this inoffensive, too,” he adds.) We have a rundown of the Bond-girl archetype, including Fleming’s apparent favored hair and eye colors, as well as the recurring motif that, despite her beauty and curves, Bond-girl usually has some impediment – Honeychile Rider (from Doctor No) with her broken nose, Domino Vitali (from Thunderball) with her one leg shorter than the other, etc. “Honeychile Rider is the most appealing incarnation of Bond-girl,” Amis asserts, and I agree with him. Despite talk of the magnificent curves and looks, Amis also details how Bond-girl has her own heroic makeup, and how she brings more to her respective novel than just being Bond’s latest good time. He also mentions how Kissy Suzuki in You Only Lives Twice actually saves Bond’s life.
Chapter six, “A Glint of Red,” focuses on Bond’s enemies. Amis again proves his keen eye with the observation on the “peculiar unpleasantness” of the mandatory Bond-villain confrontation in each novel, as in each case there is a father vs son dynamic at play. Amis nominates Doctor No as the “most archetypal Bond villain,” not to mention “the most fun” (and I agree on both counts). But Doctor No isn’t Amis’s favorite, as he finds him a bit too pulpy; Amis himself prefers Hugo Drax, from Moonraker. Amis likes how Drax can go from insane to casual in a heartbeat.
“Damnably Clear Gray Eyes,” chapter five, is dedicated to M, Bond’s cantankerous boss. Make no mistake, Kinglsey Amis hates M. Indeed, it would appear Amis wrote the later Bond continuation novel Colonel Sun (1968) precisely so he could abuse M in the opening chapters. We get a rundown of how poorly M treats Bond, usually sending him off into horrible situations with hardly enough information. Again and again M has Bond risk his life, usually not even giving him a “thank you” for his troubles. The observation that M’s world is like a family is compelling, particularly Amis’s notion that Miss Monneypenny and the other girls in the office are like Bond’s “sisters,” thus Bond’s relationship with them can never go beyond harmless repartee. Amis wraps up the chapter with a laugh-out-loud observation that, given the frequency of M’s ignorance, the reader must gradually come to the conclusion that “no thought is taking place behind those damnably clear eyes.”
“Warm Dry Handshakes” follows, this time looking at Bond’s allies in each novel. Amis finds Darko Kerim of From Russia, With Love the “most appealing” of them all. You Only Live Twice’s Dikko Henderson is also okay, “but goes on and on.” Better yet is the following chapter, “We May Be Slow, But…”, in which Amis defends the colonialist attitudes of Fleming, particularly his frequent use of foreigners as villains: “Some forms of prejudice may be sinister, but not these.” While “unenlightened,” it’s “perfectly harmless to lump people together by nationality.” My favorite observation is that, in Fleming’s world, Americans are only “semi-foreigners, very nearly as good as ourselves.” Otherwise this entire chapter would send today’s PC advocates into fits of rage, meaning of course it’s a blast of a read.
“Elegant Scene” details the luxury settings and opulent foods of the Bond novels, though here Amis sees no snobbery, and only occasionaly the “copywriting” vibe critics often complained about in Fleming’s work. This chapter also features one of the few mentions of the Bond movies; Amis states that, as of the time of his writing, only the first three films had been released, Goldfinger being the most recent. He calls the movies a “send-up” of Bond, which I think is a bit unfair; anyone who has seen the first two films will know they aren’t send-ups at all. They play it straight and stay true to Fleming’s novels. It’s only with Goldfinger that the movies began moving toward camp. Regardless, Amis ends the chapter with another notable observation: that, even though Ian Fleming might’ve laughed when he came up with his stories, he “didn’t laugh in his writing. I approve.”
On to “The Shertel-Sachsenberg System,” which looks at Fleming’s love of shoehorning technical terms and equipment into his narrative; here too we are reminded of the occasional copywriter vibe. Amis asserts that these technical details make Bond’s fantasy world more believable; we might not know what the hell a “Shertel-Sachsenberg System” is, but if Fleming writes that it’s the best there is we’ll take him at his word. In this chapter Amis coins the phrase “the Fleming effect,” which he defines as Fleming’s “imaginative use of information.” Amis names Thunderball as being filled with the Fleming effect. For the effect to work properly, Amis stipulates that it “has to be geared into the action,” otherwise it comes off as bland info-dumping. The chapter also discusses the increasingly fantastical nature of the villains’s plots, with another humorous observation: “Blofeld’s schemes...were never conceived in a fit of caution.”
“Y*B**NNA Mat!” (the title taken from an apparently-unprintable Russian oath in From Russia, With Love) discusses how “Putting Fleming to right has become a minor contemporary sport.” This chapter I didn’t find very compelling; it goes and on about various mistakes in Fleming’s novels, with Amis at one point detailing his own theory on how Fleming goofed up with the entire SMERSH concept, claiming that such an organization wouldn’t be doing any of the stuff Fleming has it doing. The chapter “Upas-Tree” follows suit, Amis stating that “Every writer of action stories sooner or later finds himself with an implausability on his hands.” Here Amis defends the “conventions” of the Bond novels (ie the Bond-villain confrontation, the appearance of Bond-girl, etc) as a catering to an accepted form.
The fourteenth and final chapter, “The Beautiful Red And Black Fish,” is one of the longest in the book and is comprised of a solid defense of Fleming’s style. This too was an interesting read, implying that in his day Fleming’s work was apparently considered subpar, at least when compared to other espionage fiction, in particular Deighton’s work. However today Fleming’s Bond novels come off as downright literary, to the point that you figure the haughty style might be off-putting to someone coming to the books from the movies. Here Amis reveals that the majority of his text was written just before Fleming died; Amis knew that, even though the critics of his day dismissed Ian Fleming, history would remember him and his work – not to mention his style, which Amis also knew no other author would be able to duplicate. “He leaves no heirs.”
Amis includes three brief appendices: “Science Fiction” details the use of gadgets in the novels, and only here did it occur to me that, in Fleming’s world, it was the villains who most often used them – Mr. Big’s desk-gun in Live And Let Die, Rosa Klebb’s poison-blade shoes in From Russia, With Love, etc. “Literature And Escape” doesn’t have much to do with Bond at all, and is more so about how one can seek escape in the world of fiction. The final appendix, “Sadism,” speculates on if Fleming himself got off on writing about violence (Amis having earlier made it clear that Bond himself doesn’t get off on being tortured!), and contains lenghty excerpts from the work of Mickey Spillane, an author whom Amis states really did get sadistic in his work. We also get brief rundowns on all of the Bond novels, with locales, villains, Bond-girls, and highlights listed for each.
In sum, The James Bond Dossier is required reading for the Bond fan, and I’d say it should be mandatory reading for anyone hired to write a Bond continuation novel, at least one that’s set within the timeframe of Fleming’s original novels. Amis throughout naturally captures the pre-PC mindset that has disappeared from today’s mainstream thriller writers but should be a necessity for any author trying to duplicate the vibe of Fleming’s work; most of the new Bond novelists, in particular Sebastian Faulks and Anthony Horowitz, have taken great pains to remove themselves from the politically-incorrect world of the Fleming originals. However, I’m wondering if Faulks did read this one, as Amis uses the phrase “devil may care” throughout, and that’s the title of Faulks’s Bond novel. (Amis also uses the phrase “carte blanche” at one point, a phrase which Jeffrey Deaver used for the title of his own Bond novel.)
In 1965 Kinglsey Amis published another Bond study: The Book Of Bond: or Every Man His Own Bond, released under the pseudonym William “Bill” Tanner (ie, the name of M’s chief of staff in the novels). I also have this one, but haven’t read it – it’s even more collectible than The James Bond Dossier. By all accounts it’s is more jokey than the Dossier, but no doubt still compelling and certainly worth a read.
More notably, Amis was the first author contracted to continue Fleming’s legacy: Colonel Sun as mentioned was published in 1968, when Gildrose (owners of the Bond books) briefly attempted to start a new line of novels under the house name “Robert Markham.” That’s another one I have but haven’t read, though I do recall flipping through a library copy many years ago. While well-regarded by Bond fans today, it appears that Colonel Sun didn’t do very well at the time (Fleming’s widow hated it, by the way), and was the only “Markham” book ever published. But at least Amis wrote a Bond novel of his own, and if The James Bond Dossier proves anything, it’s that Kingsley Amis was the man for the job.