Ian Fleming Fleming, Ian (Lancaster) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ian (Lancaster) Fleming 1908–1964

English novelist, short story writer, essayist, scriptwriter, and journalist.

Fleming's secret agent James Bond is one of the most widely known characters in popular fiction. The fourteen books in the series—including Casino Royale (1953), From Russia, with Love (1957), Doctor No (1958), and Goldfinger (1959)—have sold millions of copies and all of them have been made into successful films. Bond's immense popularity has been attributed to his appearance at a time when readers were especially receptive to a glamorous and heroic character with whom they could identify. In addition, the Bond books have three elements basic to their appeal: beautiful women, grotesque villains, and extravagant plots. Fleming intended Bond himself to be a "dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened"; thus Fleming gave him no extraordinary characteristics or achievements. However, their exotic backgrounds, elegant surroundings, and Bond's dangerous exploits made the novels an effective focus for readers' wish-fulfillment. Critics also attribute the success of the series to Fleming's ability to blend convincingly realistic details into the preposterous elements of his stories.

From 1939 to 1945, Fleming was personal assistant to the director of British naval intelligence and he sometimes used his own wartime experiences as the basis of Bond's escapades. Fleming once attempted to take the money of some German agents in a card game just as Bond did with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale; however, where Fleming failed, Bond succeeded. Critics have been tempted to see Bond as the personification of his creator. They do have certain interests in common, such as gambling, sports, and cars, but Fleming maintained that Bond is simply the incarnation of his own adolescent fantasies.

Critical response to Fleming's books has varied. Some reviewers have commended Fleming's ability to build suspense and his sense of place and atmosphere; others have castigated him as a purveyor of bad fiction and an offensive code of moral principles. In a 1958 attack on Fleming's work, Bernard Bergonzi criticized the Bond adventures as morally destructive. Paul Johnson focused this attack when he called Doctor No the "nastiest book" he had ever read, and then went on to denounce Bond and his creator for excessive displays of "sex, sadism, and snobbery." Kingsley Amis's book The James Bond Dossier is an extended defense of Fleming and a laudatory examination of his works. The Bond books have also been analyzed as modern treatments of ancient myths and legends. Despite this attention from critics, Fleming insisted that his intent was not to write "literature," but to keep the reader turning the page.

(See also CLC, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Something about the Author, Vol. 9.)

R. D. Charques

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Casino Royale. An alternative title, I suggest, having never quite known how baccarat is played, would be The Gambler's Vade-Mecum. A Secret Service thriller, lively, most ingenious in detail, on the surface as tough as they are made and charm-ingly well-bred beneath, nicely written and—except for a too ingeniously sadistic bout of brutality—very entertaining reading. Bond, a bold and all but heartless British secret agent, versus Le Chiffre, an enigma of a Soviet agent wrapped in M.V.D. mystery. The scene is a rakish small gambling resort near Dieppe, where, with really terrific aplomb on Mr. Fleming's part, the first desperate round is fought at the baccarat table. Enter—or, more exactly, exit—at this point the stunning Vesper, blue-eyed and sensual-lipped, Bond's No. 2 chosen by headquarters. It is, as it happens, the cue for (the prettily imagined) Smersh, the pinnacle of the Soviet secret police structure, a name derived from two words meaning—not "roughly," by the way, but quite literally—"Death to Spies." There are spills and thrills, stratagems and surprises still to come, and at any rate for Bond, by now not quite so heartless, there is a shattering and awful eye-opened at the very last. The public schoolboy in him, I suspect, would be inclined to murmur, "Well done, Smersh!" In its kind, Casino Royale is equally well done.

R. D. Charques, in a review of "Casino Royale," in The Spectator, Vol. 190, No. 6512, April 17, 1953, p. 494.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Ian Fleming's first novel [Casino Royale] is an extremely engaging affair, dealing with espionage in the [L.] Sapper manner but with a hero who, although taking a great many cold showers and never letting sex interfere with work, is somewhat more sophisticated. At any rate he takes very great care over his food and drink, and sees women's clothes with an expertness of which Bulldog Drummond would have been ashamed…. [The] especial charm of Mr. Fleming's book is the high poetry with which he invests the green baize lagoons of the casino tables. The setting in a French resort somewhere near Le Touquet is given great local atmosphere and while the plot itself has a shade too many improbabilities the Secret Service details are convincing. Altogether Mr. Fleming has produced a book that is both exciting and extremely civilized.

"Spices and Charlatans," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2672, April 17, 1953, p. 249.∗

Anthony Hartley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Ian Fleming's latest thriller [From Russia With Love] will be another shot in the arm for addicts, and it would be unfair to him and them to reveal the plot beyond saying that its author has undoubtedly studied Sherlock Holmes and that a lot of it takes place in Istanbul. These new surroundings, however, bring with them no slackening of tension. Perhaps we could have done without the conducted tour of the Russian Secret Service which Mr. Fleming provides in his early chapters, but guns and knives are used freely later on, and there are plenty of those little touches, so revelatory of character, which Bond's fans have learned to look for….

For, after all, the strength of these thrillers lies in the man Bond. Mr. Fleming's plots have deteriorated a good deal since Casino Royale. He now no longer even tries to obtain from his readers that willing suspension of disbelief which we accord so readily to Eric Ambler. In the Amberland south of the Danube and east of the Adriatic his local colour stands up particularly badly to the comparison. I never feel that Mr. Fleming really knows what it is like to beard a Macedonian Komitadji in his den, and the political background of his novels is not so much shaky as non-existent….

In style Mr. Fleming could do with some transatlantic lessons. Raymond Chandler's descriptions of furniture or clothing invariably help the plot along by establishing either character...

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Dan Jacobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The substance of Mr. Fleming's book [The Diamond Smugglers] is a series of reminiscences by a pseudonymous 'John Blaize,' describing his experiences as an official of the International Diamond Security Organisation…. The trade in illicit diamonds is described as 'the greatest smuggling racket in the world'; and it is clear there are many people and a great deal of money involved in the business.

When we get down to cases, however, the difficulty is—as Mr. Fleming himself admits—that realistic writing about such matters is likely to be 'full of loose ends, and drabness and despair'; and the reader who goes to the book in search of high adventure may find that the malefactions of 'Sammy Silberstein' and 'Henry Orford' and the rest are no more necessarily thrilling to read about than a place like Kimberley, say, is to visit. On the other hand, Mr. Fleming has not given himself nearly enough space to individualise—and thus make interesting, for another reason—the very drabness and shabbiness of the people and the operations he describes. The author does try hard to generate the thriller atmosphere, with many significant asides, and even more significant reticences; but the material he has gathered together is recalcitrant. (pp. 844-45)

The most interesting section of the book is that dealing with the situation in Sierra Leone. Apparently there are hundreds of square miles of bush in that country being cheerfully worked by gangs of illicit African diggers…. [There] was nothing that the Diamond Corporation could do but to surrender some of its rights, legalise the squatters—and then buy the diamonds from them, as it was already doing with those diamonds smuggled by the squatters across the border into Liberia. This is the stuff for a large-scale farce … or for some serious political reflection; but Mr. Fleming's book seems to indicate that there really isn't much in it for a writer of thrillers. (p. 845)

Dan Jacobson, "Not So Sparkling," in The Spectator, Vol. 199, No. 6755, December 13, 1957, pp. 844-45.

Bernard Bergonzi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A reviewer in The Listener described Casino Royale as 'Supersonic John Buchan', and a comparison between the two authors is extremely revealing. Fleming's hero, James Bond, like Buchan's Richard Hannay, is a Secret Service agent, continually either chasing or being chased by enemy spies, often at the point of death but always saved by some improbable turn of events. Hannay's adversaries, before and during World War I, were the somewhat casual and heavy-handed emissaries of Imperial Germany: in the Bond stories, which are set against the background of the Cold War, the enemy is the far more efficient and deadly Soviet counter-espionage organization called S M E R S H (except in Diamonds are...

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Martin Dodsworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr Bergonzi's extremely interesting essay … 'The Case of Mr Fleming' [see excerpt above] raises two important points about the examination of popular culture. The first is the necessity of getting close to the audience for the particular form under study. We often speak of the literature of wish-fulfilment, without considering how seriously the public takes this sort of thing. I think that Mr Bergonzi is guilty of this fault in castigating the New Statesman public for its approval of Mr Fleming's books, which, he claims, rely for their appeal on sex, snobbery and violence.

How could the New Statesman call Casino Royale 'a thriller for an intelligent audience', Mr...

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Simon Raven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have just been reading a long complaint, in the monthly The Twentieth Century, about the unsatisfactory tone of Ian Fleming's novels. The author of this complaint, Bernard Bergonzi [see excerpt above], having remarked that these novels are similar to John Buchan's in subject (spies and pursuits), then goes on to say that, whereas Buchan's books are fundamentally decent and do depend on an ethic of sorts, Commander Fleming's tales are without any ethical frame of reference and have an 'affective superstructure' of a perverted and anti-social nature….

Now this is a quiet and well-argued article, but it does appear to reach a most naive conclusion. I mention it here because this type of...

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Paul Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read. It is a new novel entitled Dr No and the author is Mr Ian Fleming…. By the time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away, and only continued reading because I realised that here was a social phenomenon of some importance.

There are three basic ingredients in Dr No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: 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. Mr Fleming has no literary skill, the construction of the book is chaotic, and entire incidents and...

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Robert Hatch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fleming's tradition is sub-literary. Since 1954 he has written novels at the rate of one-and-a-half a year; you can read them without undue strain at the rate of one-and-a-half a night. His field is the secret service thriller—a well-recognized, well-paid, almost routine English trade. Why then should his books have sold more than a million copies, why should the responsible English critics be in a state of outrage; why, for example, should Paul Johnson devote a leading article in The New Statesman [see excerpt above] to an attack of boisterous passion against this entertainer? (pp. 566-67)

[Americans] are not going to be so taken by surprise. We have had Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The cruelly sophisticated yet boyishly winsome mask of British intelligence agent James Bond (007) conceals the identical mask of Commander Ian Fleming, RNVR. In this collection of frivolous travel articles about thirteen cities around the world ["Thrilling Cities"] …, the fictitious mask is off, but the inner one remains impenetrable. Fleming really tells very little about the essence of his experiences abroad while ostensibly telling all. Nevertheless, for the countless people who enjoy the squeaky-clean, anxiety-free hazards and the smear-proof Playboy sex of the Bond novels, here is a sizable package of raw materials for do-it-yourself escapism….

Ian Fleming's thrilling clichés invoke a...

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O. F. Snelling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Spy Who Loved Me … is the most unusual [James Bond book] of all. It marked a new departure for Ian Fleming. Hitherto, he had played the part of God, so to speak, looking down upon his remarkable creation and describing Bond's thoughts and actions in the third person. He did it well, better than any of his contemporaries, in my submission. I think there is little doubt that he could have gone on for many years doing much the same sort of thing…. (pp. 94-5)

I admire Ian Fleming for attempting what he did attempt. But when I first read the book I did not. Conditioned to expecting narratives written to something of a formula, as far as the broad plot is concerned, this book had a...

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Kingsley Amis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Man with the Golden Gun is] a sadly empty tale, empty of the interests and effects that for better or worse, Ian Fleming had made his own. Violence is at a minimum. Sex too…. And there's no gambling, no gadgets or machinery to speak of, no undersea stuff, none of those lavish and complicated eats and drinks, hardly even a brand-name apart from Bond's Hoffritz safety razor and the odd bottle of Walker's de luxe Bourbon. The main plot, in the sense of the scheme proposed by the villains, is likewise thin. Smuggling marijuana and getting protection-money out of oil companies disappoint expectation aroused by what some of these people's predecessors planned: a nuclear attack on Miami, the dissemination...

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Gene Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I do not care for Mr. Bond. I do not care for him at all. In this I am at variance with Mr. Amis, who in The James Bond Dossier convicts me and all like me of being perishing little snivelers [see excerpt below], nearsighted 20th-century weaklings whose sexual inadequacies lead us, twisted little devils that we are, to condemn a fully committed man who does things his way and only his way. Priggish Puritan prude snipes at never-bend stout English oak. Red glare gleams in eye—Mr. Amis points out that all Bond-villains have a red glare in their eyes—as cheapmake Everyman says bad things about keen hero.

With the lines drawn, and with only a wistful thought about the jokes that could be made...

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Anthony Lejeune

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"ENDIT": this single cablese word, prophetic and appropriate, is the title of the last chapter of the last James Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun. From the hospital bed where he lies recovering from bullet wounds, Bond cables M, refusing the knighthood which a grateful government has offered him.

In You Only Live Twice we left Bond, bemused from the holocaust which closed his duel with Blofeld, heading blindly for Vladivostok. We now learn what happened to him there, and in what strange condition he returned to London. This opening sequence is the most interesting part of the book. Afterwards, Bond is perfunctorily de-brainwashed and sent, good as new, to hunt down "Pistols"...

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Kingsley Amis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What Bond is, obviously enough, is a secret agent. He sees himself in these terms, rather self-consciously, at a climactic point in Moonraker. Bearers of this designation, which no doubt belongs more to fiction and imagination than to life, have flourished at least since the turn of the century. It's a nebulous calling, ranging from the almost completely freelance status of a Bulldog Drummond to the straight Foreign Office employment of William le Queux's Duckworth Drew, one of the earliest practitioners. This breadth of scope makes the idea more evocative, so much so that it probably focuses more daydreaming and fantasy-spinning than any other semi-mythical occupation. (p. 2)


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Alex Campbell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Octopussy] Commander James Bond, British Secret Service Agent 007, shows himself to be the dove some of us had long suspected. Dispatched by his frosty-eyed chief, "M," to Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin to kill a Soviet sniper. Bond disobeys for sentimental reasons….

Without further question, Bond now joins the knightly company of story-book heroes. All of them are athletic, daring and handsomely virile, but their chief mark of distinction is that their patron saint is George and they chivalrously spend much of their time saving pretty girls from dragons of one kind or another. That, in essence, is what Bond does in his last adventure, at Checkpoint Charlie.


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Bernice Larson Webb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The legendary Teutonic superman Beowulf would seem to have a counterpart today in the teenagers' culture hero James Bond, secret agent 007…. [An] essential similarity exists both in general framework of the narrative and in plot details of the two bodies of work.

Elements common to traditional hero-romances are present, of course, in both the Beowulf epic and the Bond novels: improbable adventures, heroic ideal of brave leader and loyal followers, concept of the hero as representative of good, pagan culture with overlay of Christianity, and absence of romantic love. But in addition to these general correspondences, interesting similarities in detail strengthen the strange parallelism found in the...

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Ann S. Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don't try to read any of the Bond adventures seriously! To read Bond as a scholastic exercise surely would smack of what's been termed "comic incommensurability." Bond was meant for fun, for escape, and legitimately requires the "willing suspension of disbelief"! Just like the fairy tale of the princess and the pea, real literary critics can't sleep very well when they try to read Fleming just like they'd read James Joyce. If Fleming was interested in what Kierkegaard termed "indirect communication," the least we can do is to read him the way he intended! The only real value in rereading Fleming is to discover that there is more to his series of thriller adventures than one originally might suspect. (p. 26)


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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The perspective given by eighty-odd years of spy novels shows Ian Fleming to be a minor writer who, himself, did little to advance the form. Fleming possessed only meager talents as a maker of plots, and he fails absolutely when compared with the men who are popularly assumed to have been his teachers—Buchan and Sapper. He fails to render more than cartoon reality in his characters, either major or minor. With setting Fleming does do a bit better, as he needs to create settings to cover the lacunae in these other areas and to pad out his books in order to make them novels, and short novels at that. Finally, he has little to say in the way of theme: his conservatism is inarticulate and muzzy-headed when compared to,...

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