Fleming, Ian 1908–1964
Fleming was a British adventure writer who affected no literary pretensions. He is best known as the creator of James Bond, Agent 007. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Ian Fleming's James Bond is the most famous spy since Mata Hari. The indomitable secret agent reaches every level of literacy: Presidents to popcorn chewers. Not only has the author become a kind of subliterary lion in Time, The New Yorker, and The Saturday Review, which have devoted interviews and articles to his work, but his opinion was solicited on a major network show about the U-2 affair, the producers seeming to consider Mr. Fleming something like the Walter Lippmann of espionage.
Yet there is no puzzle to solve, no criminal to discover, no brilliant method to reveal. Fleming has no view of a corrupt society in the manner of a Cain, a Hammet or a Chandler; his style and outlook are facile and pedestrian. Unlike Mickey Spillane, he doesn't write pornographic thrillers. Unlike Graham Greene, he offers no metaphysical or psychological insight, no significant comment on the nature of good and evil….
To put it plainly, James Bond, despite his lean good looks, his taste in food, wine and women, his high standing in the British Secret Service, his license to kill, is stupid. He disobeys orders and blunders into situations he should have anticipated chapters in advance. He is almost always known to the enemy as soon as he arrives, undercover, on the scene of action. He usually flounders around long enough for his adversaries to disrupt his elaborate plans and capture him.
His only genius lies in an infinite capacity for taking pain. He has suffered (and survived) bombing, shooting, stabbing, poisoning and automobile attack. He has managed to (barely) escape castration by carpet-beater; bi-section by buzzsaw; rocket blast; shark, barracuda and octopus attack; a near-fatal increase in height on a health farm stretching apparatus; and a dose of poison from the sex glands of a rare Eastern fish. Such bizarre punishment is oddly requited: Bond has enjoyed the charms of the expensive Tiffany Case; the Bahamian nature girl, Honeychile Rider; the mystic Solitaire; and the ineffable Pussy Galore.
No secret agent could behave with such incompetence and still achieve such high renown, such titillating rewards. Fleming's characters are grotesques, the much-publicized sex is chrome-plated, not at all shocking, and the plots are repetitive from book to book. The solution of the paradox of James Bond's popularity may be, not in considering the novels as thrillers, but as something very different, as historic epic and romance, based on the stuff of myth and legend….
Bond fights epic battles, taking seriously what Pope used humorously in his mock epic, The Rape of the Lock—the epic game of cards. James Bond has won harrowing games of blackjack, baccarat, bridge, even canasta. Like Ulysses, he travels far, from Turkey to Las Vegas, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, even Miami Beach. He makes the obligatory trip to the underworld when he skin-dives in the Bahamas, travels through the sewers of Istanbul, visits the domain of Mr. Big in Harlem, negotiates Dr. No's cruel tunnel of terror. His name indicates further facets of his character: he is entrusted with the mammoth task of safeguarding an entire civilization; the free world depends on his actions….
Perhaps centuries from now, scholars will trace assiduously those references to Yardley soap, Kent brushes, Lanvin perfume, Sanitized toilet seats. Perhaps there will be a variorum Fleming, and "Fleming men" as there are "Milton men."… For James Bond is the Renaissance man in mid-century guise, lover, warrior, connoisseur. He fights the forces of darkness, speaks for the sanitary achievements of the age, enjoys hugely the fruits of the free enterprise economy. He lives the dreams of countless drab people, his gun ready, his honor intact, his morals loose: the hero of our anxiety-ridden, mythless age: the savior of our culture.
George Grella, "James Bond" (originally titled "James Bond: Culture Hero"; copyright © 1964 by George Grella), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 138-44.
Fleming is the heir of Buchan and Sapper, and James Bond was a more sophisticated version of Bulldog Drummond. The ethos which orders his actions is very much the same. As Kingsley Amis has pointed out, "Throughout all Bond's adventures nobody English does anything evil," and Amis found this quite acceptable, just as he thought that to use foreigners as villains was merely "a convention older than our literature." In essence, the Bond pipe dream was the Sapper pipe dream tuned to a mood of the fifties. So although Bond is a patriot prepared to suffer torture for his country, he is also a killer who works for pay, and his brand-name code of behavior does not prevent him from laying all the girls. All this, in the fifties, was acceptable, and readers responded to Bond because he provided in a peculiarly modern way an excitement lacking in their lives. Into the British postwar atmosphere of virtuous puritanism he brought a celebration of physical pleasures including those of sadism and masochism. He was a perfect pipe-dream figure for organization man because he was an organization man, too, but unlike the standard model he was individually powerful. He could act, he could destroy, he appeared to be free….
But it would be wrong to see the Bond books chiefly in sociological terms. In cruelty he had already been exceeded by Chase, and in brutality by Spillane. Fleming's insistence that Bond was satisfied only by the very best, and his desire to put a brand name to everything, seems in retrospect harmless vulgarity. The books are blood-and-thunder thrillers, done at first in a strongly personal style and with a convincing appearance of expert knowledge. If it is true, as his biographer says, that he relied for technical details on other people, and that "it is hard to think of a single subject on which he was a genuine expert," then he was a very skillful assimilator. The first half-dozen Bond stories are extremely lively sensational entertainments. They are very much on a level, and to pick out Casino Royale and From Russia with Love (1957) is to state a personal preference. Later, Fleming became bored with Bond, and the books lost the freshness that was their chief charm.
Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 242-43.