Ian Fleming refused to take his work seriously and had few pretensions about its literary merit, although he was always thoroughly professional in his approach to writing. He claimed that his sort of fiction reflected his own adolescent character: “But they’re fun. I think people like them because they’re fun.”
Critics, however, seldom take authors at their own word. Ernest Hemingway, countering those who were searching for hidden meanings in his The Old Man and the Sea (1952), snapped, “If you want a message, go to Western Union.” Similarly, Fleming had to protest against those who insisted that his works were more than entertainment. “My books have no social significance, except a deleterious one; they’re considered to have too much violence and too much sex. But all history has that.”
This disclaimer has not prevented critics from analyzing the Bond books in terms of Freudian psychology, or as a reflection of the decline of Western society, or as a working out of the “phallic code,” or even as an expression of an intent “to destroy the modern gods of our society which are actually the expressions of the demonic in contemporary disguise.”
Reviewers have split into two general camps: those who refuse to take the stories seriously and those who do. The former category might be represented by L. G. Offord of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote of Doctor No (1958): “Hardly anything could make critics look sillier than to fight over a book like this. . . . [It is] so wildly funny that it might almost be a leg-pull, and at the same time hair-raising in a loony way.” Representing the other point of view is Paul Johnson, who, also writing about Doctor No in a lead article in the New Statesman, said that he had never read a nastier book. He criticized it specifically for pandering to the worst forms of English maladies: “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult.”
Though he may not have realized it, Johnson’s attack explains Fleming’s popularity. Most James Bond readers would probably agree with Fleming’s own statement that his work possesses no special significance, and they would see nothing reprehensible in reading about cruelty. Maybe they would even find adolescent sex-longings desirable and the possession of a bit of snobbery attractive and necessary. In any case, what difference does it make as long as the work provides suspense and fast-paced action? One of Fleming’s greatest admirers, the writer Kingsley Amis, remarked that the strength of Fleming’s work lies “in its command of pace and its profound latent romanticism.”
Fleming—as he would have been first to admit—does not rank with the major writers of his age, but he wrote well and with great individuality, and he especially knew how to set a scene with style. Note, for example, his description of the dining room at Blades just before the famous bridge game in Moonraker (1955):The central chandelier, a cascade of crystal ropes terminating in a broad basket of strung quartz, sparkled warmly above the white damask tablecloths and George IV silver. Below, in the centre of each table, branched candlesticks distributed the golden light of three candles, each surmounted by a red silk shade, so that the faces of the diners shone with a convivial warmth which glossed over the occasional chill of an eye or cruel twist of a mouth.
Moonraker was Fleming’s third Bond adventure. By this time, his main character had achieved his definitive persona—that of the suave, dashing, indestructible, not-so-inconspicuous secret agent—the quintessential cop of the Western powers. Fleming originally had intended him to be otherwise. “When I wrote the first one [Casino Royale] in 1953,” Fleming related, “I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be the blunt instrument.” Fleming explained that the name of his character was taken from the name of the author of Birds of the West Indies, and that he had chosen it because it struck him as the dullest name he had ever heard. “Now the dullest name in the world has become an exciting one.”
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