Monday, 22 October 2012

Moonraker Review

Ian Fleming

Much like the films, the James Bond series of books really hits its stride with its third entry. Although I expect it will be an anomaly in relation to the rest of the series, these differences set it aside as a book I would recommend on its own merits, the first  about which I could make such a statement.

The story is fairly pedestrian and low key and, tellingly, not one major element of it has ever made it into the films, bar the name of protagonist Hugo Drax. Fans of the ridiculous film version may be sad to hear they won't be reading about Bond fighting Jaws in space but it makes for a curiously underplayed story that is enjoyably slow burning in its reveals.

It is the only Bond story to be set completely in England. Essentially split in two (though set over five days), the first half sees Bond doing a favour for his boss, M down at his local bridge club. In a move that later resurfaces in the films (one of my favourite old-england touches: Bond uncovers that his supposedly English fellow spy is actually Russian, by virtue of the fact he orders the wrong type of wine to accompany his fish dish, something an english man would never do.) we see Hugo Drax, all round man of the people and toast of British Establishment fall under suspicion because he cheats at cards. What kind of man would do such a thing? In tense and well structured scenes, we see Bond slowly outwit Drax: a development of the card playing heavy sections of Casino Royale, and performed with much greater panache.

Drax himself is an intriguing villain here and his complex characterisation drives the book. Although sense dictates he must be a bad 'un, our journey mirrors Bond's as he tries to uncover what is going on, especially in the second section, during which Bond poses as a security expert at Drax's headquaters. See, he is a genius and has developed a new type of rocket, called the Moonraker, which will place The British Empire back at the centre of global politics once more. Drax is at turns, calm, manic, rude, focussed. Is he simply a dedicated man or is there more to him? For the majority, Bond believes the former and spends a lot of the story simply admiring him, making the final reveal all the more shocking.

The structure and pace differ because, unlike previous books, in which Bond is given an assignment and a target and simply has to investigate his way to the man at the top, Moonraker adds an ambivalence that makes for an interesting read. Although it certainly won't take a genius to figure out what is going on, the different style is welcome.

Elsewhere, we have Fleming's usual attention to detail regarding the food Bond eats and the clothes he wears. There's is also a notable increase in the violence inflicted upon Bond. He is crushed, his car crashed and even has his skin burnt by a steam hose, graphic scenes of his skin peeling off, his every movement an agony. It's something that has been there since the torture scene in Casino Royale, but here Fleming seems to revel in it, much in the style of Licence To Kill, the only 15 rated Bond film. It makes for a rougher, more satisfying journey.

A final anomaly is that this book features the only Bond girl Bond fails to have his way with. In fact, approaches to female sensibilities are notably improved upon. An early chapter, where Bond's secretary ponders her role within a highly male environment is surprising in its unflinching honesty and perhaps marks a sea of change taking place in the '50s. The closing exchange between Bond and his Bond girl is oddly downbeat, yet triumphant for the girl. Odd, because you are glad she made the right decision, and rejected Bond.

The contrast with the globe trotting of Live And Let Die couldn't be more marked. London gentleman's clubs and the Dover coastline act as a setting that is very much about Cold War paranoia, the legacy of empire and the spectre of World War II still hanging over England. The Brosnan / Craig era has often referenced modern England as being post empire, yet that was already in use fifty years prior. It may be because this had no elements later recycled, but it felt fresher than previous entries, and more than capable of standing up on its own two feet, aside of the James Bond legacy.

Dean Freeman

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