28 May 2019

Review: Thunderball by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 336 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1961)
Acquired April 2018
Read July 2018
Thunderball by Ian Fleming

Like a lot of Bond novels, this one has a somewhat daffy pre-adventure. You know the films always start with him, like, skiing to recover tapes in Antarctica, or rappelling down dams? Thunderball begins with M sending Bond to do a cleanse at a health clinic. It's connected to the main plot of the book by the thinnest of threads, a thread so thin Bond even calls it out as being a ridiculous coincidence from a poorly written thriller! Still there are some good jokes; Bond suddenly has a comedy Scottish housekeeper I don't remember from previous books, but she's a delight. Bond, it turns out, despises tea ("that flat, soft, time-wasting opium of the masses") and desires spaghetti bolognese more than any other food.

The actual plot is one of Fleming's best, I reckon. It's interesting how different the kind of things book Bond does are to what film Bond does. Book Bond is an investigator, a man who works subtly and slowly. The world is being blackmailed by stolen nuclear warheads, and still Bond has to check out a potential suspect slowly and subtly, verifying his suspicions by posing as a would-be property buyer before calling in the big guns. But Fleming excels at this kind of detail work; it plays to his strength as a writer, which is to use minutiae to be utterly convincing. This is the reason SPECTRE (finally introduced in this book, though Bond doesn't meet Blofeld, or even know he exists) works; their operations are depicted with such thought and precision that they seem plausible even in their absurdity.

As always, Bond is kind of obnoxious. There's a bit where he and Felix complain about overpriced food and watered-down drinks and they're total snobs. There's another bit where Bond ruminates on what makes female drivers so bad. But that leads into the fact that this female driver drives like a man, and Fleming is so good at this kind of thing that you instantly understand how sexy that makes her. Just from the way she drives a car, and short but meticulous description of her outfit, and Fleming reels you in.

If you think about it, not a lot actually happens, but it happens carefully and suspensefully (as always the fight scenes are physical and engrossing; this one has a particularly good final showdown) and the gambling scenes put you on the edge of your seat, and that's the hallmark of an excellent James Bond novel.

Next Week: Vivienne Michel tells us about The Spy Who Loved Me!

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