Bond bows out: The Man with the Golden Gun

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

The Man with the Golden Gun was one of the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I read.  It almost put me off reading any more of them.  It was definitely not what I’d expected.

 

There were two reasons why the book bewildered me.  Firstly, I was ten years old and around the same time the 1975 movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun was showing in cinemas.  I’d seen clips of it on TV, which had Jolly Roger Moore battling hordes of karate-kicking, karate-chopping martial-arts trainees at a Far Eastern dōjō.  In the mid-1970s, popular culture was martial-arts-daft and so to me these looked like the most exciting movie-scenes ever.  So I was perplexed when I started reading The Man with the Golden Gun-the-novel and discovered that there wasn’t a single martial-arts fighter in sight.

 

It wasn’t even set in the Far East.  Most of the book’s action took place in Jamaica, which was Fleming’s main stomping ground in real life – he’d established Goldeneye, his house and estate, on Jamaica’s north coast.  (Later, briefly, Goldeneye belonged to Bob Marley and it’s now an upmarket hotel with an adjacent ‘James Bond Beach’.)  Fleming was obviously fond of using Jamaica as a setting, for he sent Bond there in the novels Live and Let Die and Dr No and the short story Octopussy as well.

 

More importantly, The Man with the Golden Gun was entirely the wrong book for a newcomer to Bond to start reading.  Fleming completed the first draft of it a few months before his death in 1964 and the manuscript was subject to posthumous revision by Fleming’s copy-editor William Plomer before it saw publication in 1965.  (I’ve heard claims that Kingsley Amis had input into the editing process too, although the book’s Wikipedia entry denies this.)  And as the last Bond novel, it carries a lot of back story.  By this point Bond had been married and seen his wife murdered (in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and had tracked down and executed the murderer, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (in 1964’s You Only Live Twice); but at the end of the latter book he’d also gone missing.  In reality, he’d been stricken with amnesia, but he was believed killed in action by his London-based boss M, who went as far as to pen an obituary for him in The Times.

 

When The Man with the Golden Gun begins, Bond has not only been fed through the wringer but he’s also – since You Only Live Twice – been captured and brainwashed by the Soviets and sent on a mission to London to assassinate M.  So not only is this a weary and jaded Bond, but also (in the early chapters, at least) a robotic and murderous one.  It’s a long way indeed from the cosy, jovial world depicted in the 1975 film version, where, for example, Roger Moore quips, “Who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?” and M retorts, “Jealous husbands!  Outraged chefs!  Humiliated tailors!  The list is endless!”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

However, a little while ago, I found a copy of The Man with the Golden Gun in a second-hand bookshop and thought that I’d give it another go.  How would it seem to me now, a good – my God, I’m old! – 39 years after I last read it?

 

So the book begins with a brainwashed Bond returning to London and trying to kill M: “A storm of memories whirled through his consciousness like badly cut film on a projector that had gone crazy.  Bond closed his eyes to the storm.  He must concentrate on what he had to say, and do, and on nothing else.”  M, however, realising “that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him,” thwarts the attempt on his life by activating a shutter of ‘Armour-plate glass’ that crashes down from his office-ceiling and shields him from his would-be assassin.  Then, with Bond in custody and receiving de-programming treatment, M has to decide what to do with the set of damaged goods that is 007.

 

He opts to send Bond on a suicide mission of his own.  This is to locate and kill one Francisco ‘Pistols’ Scaramanga, a hitman known as the Man with the Golden Gun on account of “his main weapon which is a gold-plated, long-barrelled, single-action Colt .45.”  Linked to Fidel Castro and the KGB, Scaramanga has lately assassinated half-a-dozen British secret-servicemen in the Caribbean and M is desperate to put him out of action.

 

A restored but still-fragile Bond arrives in Jamaica and finally encounters Scaramanga in the lobby of a local ‘bordello’.  He manages to convince the assassin that he’s a private security man called Mark Hazard and, conveniently, Scaramanga hires him to oversee security during an upcoming weekend when he’ll be meeting some business associates at his new investment, a luxurious (but still-under-construction) hotel.  It turns out that this weekend conference is really an assemblage of American gangsters, plus one KGB operative, who are planning various criminal operations in the region that’ll both line their pockets and boost the standing of Fidel Castro.

 

Bond learns what’s going on with the help of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter, who’s managed to secure an undercover position in Scaramanga’s hotel too; and of his former secretary, Mary Goodnight, who’s working now in British Intelligence’s Jamaican station (and who, inevitably, ends up as Bond’s love interest in the book).  At the same time, however, Scaramanga and his guests cotton on to Bond’s true identity.

 

In the novel’s climax, Scaramanga treats his weekend visitors to a ride on a local light railway line and then a hunting and fishing trip.  Bond is forced to accompany them, aware that later in the day he’s likely to be the main quarry being shot at.  But Leiter comes to his rescue – he stows away in the train and once it’s moving a gun-battle breaks out on board.  (An added complication is that, according to Scaramanga, Mary Goodnight has been captured and tied to the railway tracks ahead.)  Bond and Leiter crash the train and Scaramanga is the only survivor among the villains.  Injured, he flees into the bush and Bond pursues him.  The pair meet up for a final showdown in “a small clearing of dried, cracked black mud” that’s infested with snakes and land-crabs.

 

As my synopsis makes clear, the plot of The Man with the Golden Gun is as simple and one-track as the little Jamaican railway line on which its climax takes place.  What’s more disappointing, however, is the lack of detail and colour with which Fleming customarily embroidered his plots – making their fantastical goings-on seem a little more grounded and believable.  Fleming tended to insert more detail when he was working on later drafts of his books but in this case he didn’t live long enough to produce a later draft.  The Man with the Golden Gun feels rather drab as a result.

 

At the same time, when it comes to describing what Scaramanga and his friends are up to, the book is muddled.  Fleming seems unable to decide on one nefarious operation for them to work on, so he has them engaged in a mishmash of things.  They’re conspiring to destroy cane-fields in Trinidad and Jamaica in order to boost the Cuban sugar industry; to use arson attacks to wreck the Jamaican bauxite industry; and to destabilise Jamaican society by bribing local politicians to grant a licence for a ruinous new casino franchise.  (“There’ll be incidents.  Coloured people’ll be turned away from the doors for one reason or another.  Then the opposition party’ll get hold of that and raise hell about colour bars and so on.  With all the money flying about, the unions’ll push wages through the roof.  It can all add up to a fine stink.  The atmosphere’s too damn peaceful around here.”)  And for good measure, they intend to flood the US coast with narcotics too.

 

Meanwhile, credibility departs when Felix Leiter turns up as a supposed accountant working at Scaramanga’s hotel.  Scaramanga has just hired the most legendary agent in the British Secret Service, which suggests that he badly needs to overhaul his vetting procedures.  But to have also recruited one of the top bods in the CIA suggests that it’s not just his vetting that’s non-existent – his brain’s missing too.  This is particularly so as Leiter has ‘a bright steel hook’ instead of a right hand, thanks to a savaging he received from a shark in an earlier book.  Sporting an appendage like that, Leiter must be the most identifiable CIA agent in the northern hemisphere.

 

But The Man with the Golden Gun’s biggest let-down is its lack of characterisation.  Mary Goodnight is perfunctorily drawn.  She’s a feisty but obviously well-bred young English gal and, well, that’s it.  Britt Ekland was criticised for portraying Goodnight as an archetypal dumb blonde in the 1975 film version.  But to be fair to Britt, if she’d looked in the book for inspiration about how to play her character, she wouldn’t have found any.

 

Equally poor is the characterisation of Scaramanga.  Although the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun is regarded as one of the worst Bond movies, critics agree that its single redeeming feature is Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain.  Lee invests Scaramanga with suave and sardonic menace.  He’s charming and sophisticated but these traits are tempered by his obvious lethalness and intimidating physicality.  (You only have to look at the stills of Bond and Scaramanga together to see how the six-foot-four-inch Lee looms over Roger Moore.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

So it’s a shock in the book when Scaramanga first opens his mouth and comes across like a macho / braggart lowlife in a Martin Scorsese film: “I sometimes make ’em dance.  Then I shoot their feet off.”  Talking in crass gangster-isms, the literary Scaramanga is a simple thug.  He’s no smarter or more cultured than the pack of Mafiosi – the amusingly-named Sam Binion, Leroy Gengerella, Ruby Rotkopf, Hal Garfinkel and Louie Paradise – who later turn up at his hotel.  In a normal Bond novel he might make a serviceable henchman.  But the big villain?  No way.

 

And yet, paradoxically, it’s Scaramanga who inspires Fleming’s best writing in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Two-dimensional he may be, but he at least gets an intriguing backstory.  He started off as a sharpshooter in his father’s circus and his first victim was a policeman – whom he shot dead after the policeman killed his favourite circus animal, an elephant that’d gone berserk and trampled circus-goers in a rampage.  This backstory was impressive enough for the scriptwriters to use it in the film version and they have Lee relate it to Moore when they first come face to face.

 

The initial encounter between Bond and Scaramanga in the book is memorable too.  On a hot Jamaican evening, the two square up in the reception area of a dilapidated brothel called Number 3½ Love Lane and Scaramanga treats Bond to a sudden and shocking display of his shooting prowess – he blasts two tame ‘kling-kling’ birds (Jamaican grackles) a moment after they take panicked flight from a nearby counter-top.  “The explosions from the Colt .45 were deafening.  The two birds disintegrated against the violet back-drop of the dusk, the scraps of feathers and pink flesh blasting out of the yellow light of the café and into the limbo of the deserted street like shrapnel.”  And Bond and Scaramanga enjoy a good final encounter too.  At Bond’s mercy, Scaramanga pleads for a minute’s stay of execution so that he can say his prayers.  Bond is unable to refuse – Watch out, James!  It’s a trick! – and the scene acquires a strange, almost Graham-Greene-like intensity.

 

Elsewhere, it’s fun to spot signs that the then-nascent Bond movie series was influencing Fleming – Dr No had been filmed in 1962 and From Russia with Love in 1963.  There’s a movie-like emphasis on gadgetry – notably the glass shutter that saves M from the brainwashed Bond – and Fleming slips in a reference to Honeychile Rider, the heroine of Dr No whom Ursula Andress had immortalised in the film version two years earlier.  We get a hint too that Fleming was impressed by the actor playing Bond onscreen at the time, the truculent working-class, Edinburgh-born, Scottish-nationalist, former-milkman Sean Connery.  He ends the book with Bond, recuperating after his showdown with Scaramanga, receiving the offer of a knighthood for his services to the Realm.  Bond not only turns down the offer, but sends back a surprisingly anti-establishment message via a cypher machine: I AM A SCOTTISH PEASANT AND WILL ALWAYS FEEL AT HOME BEING A SCOTTISH PEASANT…

 

It has to be said that when Sean Connery was offered a knighthood in 2000, he showed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He said ‘yes’ to the thing immediately.

 

I have no arguments with the many critics who’ve dismissed The Man with the Golden Gun as the runt of the litter among Fleming’s Bond novels – though its lowly status was inevitable considering Fleming’s state of health at the time of writing and the fact that he died before he could polish it up.  Still, I didn’t find the novel boring.  I kept turning its pages until the end.

 

And what a bitter-sweet end it is.  Fleming leaves Bond in the arms of Mary Goodnight but he indicates that it won’t be long before Bond is back in his old, wandering and philandering ways: “he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking ‘a room with a view’.  For James Bond, the view would always pall.”  So it looks like Bond will soon be saying ‘good night’ to poor Mary Goodnight.  But alas, it’s good night too for Bond himself in his most fascinating incarnation — the literary original, created by Ian Fleming.

 

(c) Eon Productions