11 June 2019

Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 326 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1963)
Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

This was really good. After the events of Thunderball (allowing for Bond's American vacation in The Spy Who Loved Me), Bond has been tracking down Blofeld, but to little avail, and he feels like he's being wasted on detective work. Driving back from a mission, he meets Tracy, a damaged woman who captivates him, and he ends up helping her feel wanted for the first time in a long while, and her father-- leader of the Corsican underworld-- tries to get him to settle down with her. Then, following a lead, Bond ends up infiltrating an alpine Swiss resort where it seems Blofeld might be hiding; Blofeld's given himself away by writing to the College of Arms to get himself a title.

Fleming is firing on all cylinders here. Even though the book's two plots could feel only tenuously connected, they interact much more organically than the way books like Goldfinger or Thunderball open. Tracy is a convincing love interest for Bond; one can imagine that he would settle down with her because they clearly love each other for who they are, damage and all, rather than wanting each other to change.

The parts with Bond infiltrating Blofeld's clinic are good; Fleming's focus on pedantic detail serves him well when writing about heraldry, and when focusing on Bond as an infiltrator. I like how there's a countdown of sorts once the Secret Service agent from Station Z is captured by SPECTRE, and  Bond must work quickly and efficiently but unobtrusively to find a way out of the situation. The way Blofeld's plot slowly reveals itself is well-handled, and the action sequences are excellent, some of the most tense in the series, as Bond must make two escapes down a mountain, one via skis, the other via bobsled. Fleming makes you feel the intensity and the struggle of these escapes. As always, things are difficult and grueling for the literary Bond. The only thing I don't like is that Blofeld's plan feels like a reduction of stakes after the previous book, less grand and less interesting, while it should be bigger and bolder.

The very end is famous-- I knew what was coming even though I've never read the book or seen the film-- and it works, even if it's obvious. It really is devastating. Overall, this is probably the best Bond book, except for maybe the first one.

Some other notes: Bond using the phrase "Sucks to you" was not a thing I expected, nor was him being familiar with the St. Trinian's films. There is a nice callback to Casino Royale at the beginning (we are reminded how much Bond cared for Vesper), which sets up the more emotionally vulnerable Bond of this novel. This was the first Bond novel to be written after the film series began, and Fleming explains why Bond has a Scottish accent on screen by explaining that Bond's father was a Scot, something previously not mentioned. He also debuts the (real) motto of the (real) Bond family, "The world is not enough," which would give its name to a Pierce Brosnan film. The weirdest reference to the films, though, is that Bond sees Ursula Andress, who played Honey Ryder in Dr. No, in Blofeld's clinic!

Next Week: One last James Bond book, but not a novel-- I hit up some 007 comics!

Book Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
  3. Dr No
  4. Thunderball
  5. Moonraker
  6. For Your Eyes Only
  7. From Russia with Love
  8. The Spy Who Loved Me
  9. Live and Let Die
  10. Goldfinger
  11. Diamonds are Forever

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