Bond in miniature: Octopussy and The Living Daylights

 

(c) Vintage Books

 

When, as a boy, I read most of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, the one I was least enamoured with was For Your Eyes Only.  Actually, FYEO wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories featuring Bond.  In one of them, Quantum of Solace – which had nothing to do with the 22nd official Bond movie, made with Daniel Craig in 2008 – all 007 did was sit and act as a listener while somebody else narrated a story about a different set of characters.

 

The problem, I felt, was that Bond was too big for the confines of a short story.  For me at the age of 11, a good Bond story needed a super-villain with a suitably imposing HQ, and a nefarious scheme involving espionage, criminality and / or terrorism, and a love interest, and a number of action set-pieces in which said super-villain tried, unsuccessfully, to bump Bond off.  And of course, with Ian Fleming as writer, there’d also be a wealth of background detail culled from Fleming’s experiences as a globetrotting journalist, naval intelligence officer and bon viveur and from his research – research was something he was scrupulous about.  Obviously, cramming all these things into a short story was not viable.  And the truncated slices of Bondery that appeared in FYEO seemed to me, well, a bit weird.

 

I recently read a comment made by esteemed poet Philip Larkin about Bond’s suitability for a short-fiction format: “I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels.  James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that require elbow room and such examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.”  I’m delighted to see a personage like Larkin backing up my thoughts on the subject – great minds think alike and all that.

 

Larkin, however, wasn’t talking about FYEO but about Fleming’s other collection of James Bond short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which was published in 1966, two years after Fleming’s death.  This book constitutes Bond’s final appearance in print, as penned by his creator.  It originally consisted of just the two stories mentioned in the title, although subsequent editions beefed it up with the addition of two more, The Property of a Lady and 007 in New York.  Nonetheless, it remains a slim volume.  Even with four stories, it comes to a mere 123 pages.

 

Since then, of course, Octopussy and The Living Daylights have lent their titles to Bond movies, in 1982 and 1987 respectively.  A film has yet to be made called The Property of a Lady and to be honest I think Adele or even Shirley Bassey would have difficulty wrapping her vocal chords around the title in a Bond-movie theme song.  (“The proper-TEE… of a la-DEE…!”  No, I can’t imagine it.)  Obviously, 007 in New York wouldn’t cut it as a movie title at all.  Mind you, there was a TV movie made in 1976 called Sherlock Holmes in New York starring, God help us, Roger Moore as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective, so anything is possible.

 

Octopussy and The Living Daylights was one of the few Fleming-Bond books I hadn’t read in my boyhood, so when I encountered a copy of it in a bookstore recently I thought I’d give it a shot.  How would I get on with it?  Three-and-a-half decades after I’d read FYEO, would I find the short-story James Bond any more palatable?

 

The opening story, Octopussy, is the longest one in the collection but Bond is only a secondary character in it.  Rather, the story concerns a Major Dexter Smythe, described acidly by Fleming as “the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man…”  Now “he was fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks.  And he had had two coronary thromboses…  But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbours why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.”

 

The North Shore mentioned in that excerpt is the north coast of Jamaica.  During the post-war years Smythe and his wife, now deceased, established themselves there after escaping from hard-pressed, austerity-era Britain: “They were a popular couple and Major Smythe’s war record earned them the entrée to Government House society, after which their life was one endless round of parties, with tennis for Mary and golf (with the Henry Cotton irons!) for Major Smythe.  In the evenings there was bridge for her and the high poker game for him.  Yes, it was paradise all right, while, in their homeland, people munched their spam, fiddled in the black market, cursed the government and suffered the worst winter weather for thirty years.”

 

Yet this easy, comfortable and enviable life in Jamaica didn’t fall into Smythe’s lap.  Gradually, Fleming enlightens us on how Smythe was able to afford it.  In a back story that has echoes of B. Traven’s 1927 novel and John Huston’s 1948 movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we learn that in the Austrian Alps at the end of World War II, he stumbled across something immensely valuable that he hoarded for himself.  To do this, however, he had to commit murder.  Octopussy describes what happens when Smythe’s ‘ancient sin’ finally catches up with him.  The bearer of the bad news – that the authorities have found out what he did back in the war and intend to arrest him – is a ‘tall man’ in a ‘dark-blue tropical suit’ with ‘watchful, serious blue-grey eyes’.  It’s Bond – though Bond isn’t just carrying out a professional errand.  Eventually we discover that he has a personal stake in bringing Smythe to justice.

 

Once you accept that the story is about Smythe rather than Bond, it proceeds very agreeably.  The plump and comical Smythe, who paddles about the reef in front of his villa and rather pathetically talks to the fish that swim there – plus a unfriendly, tentacled mollusc whom he’s christened ‘Octopussy’ – gradually loses our sympathy as Fleming peels back the layers and we discover the cruel, and unnecessary, deed he committed to enrich himself decades earlier.  Bond is hardly a paradigm of virtue but, equipped with a conscience and a rough-and-ready code of ethics, he’s the antithesis of what’s represented by Smythe.  The scene where the flaccid and weak-willed Smythe confesses his crime to Bond is admirably low-key, but Fleming infuses it with a cold, sadistic tension.

 

The Property of a Lady, on the other hand, is a conventional Bond adventure in miniature.  It has 007 turn the auctioning at Sotheby’s of an artwork designed by Carl Faberge – according to the catalogue, “(a) sphere carved from an extraordinarily large piece of Siberian emerald matrix weighing approximately one thousand three hundred carats” – into a trap to catch the KGB’s director of operations in London.  Also involved is a female Russian double-agent working in the British Secret Service, whom the service is aware of and uses to feed fake information back to Moscow.  To be honest, the plot didn’t make sense to me – I didn’t see how Bond, by snaring London’s top KGB man at Sotheby’s, could avoid alerting Moscow to the fact that British intelligence had cottoned onto the double agent’s existence and were using her for their own ends.

 

Still, the story is readable and the scenes set in Sotheby’s allow Fleming to show off his knowledge – acquired through research or through personal experience – of the world’s most famous broker in fine art.  When Bond expresses surprise that the auctioneer doesn’t bang his gavel three times and declare, “Going, going, gone,” an expert informs him, “You may still find that operating in the Shires or in Ireland, but it hasn’t been the fashion at London sales rooms since I’ve been attending them.”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Elements from both Octopussy-the-short-story and The Property of a Lady turn up in Octopussy-the-1982-film, which starred Roger Moore.  In the film, the title character is not an octopus but a beautiful and mysterious woman played by Maud Adams, whose father, it transpires, once received a visit from Bond similar to the visit that Major Smythe received in the original story.  (The revelation that Bond knew her father serves, uncomfortably, to underline the 17-year age-difference between Moore and Adams, especially during the inevitable scene where they go to bed together.  By 1982 Moore was getting a bit long in the tooth and really shouldn’t have been doing love scenes.)  The film also has a proper octopus in it, an unfriendly one, and there’s some business too about a Faberge artwork being auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

 

However, if you’ve seen Octopussy-the-movie and don’t remember these things, it’s hardly surprising, because scriptwriters Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum and George McDonald Fraser managed to bung everything into it bar the proverbial kitchen sink.  It has a plot involving the explosion of a nuclear warhead in West Germany, and a circus, and an exiled Afghan prince, and feuding Russian generals, and a sidekick called Vijay played by the real-life Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj, and a Sikh henchman armed with a blunderbuss, and knife-throwing identical twins, and the latest piece of cutting-edge hi-tech equipment developed by Q, which is a hot-air balloon.  It sees Roger Moore disguised as a circus clown, disguised as a gorilla, disguised as a crocodile and pretending to be Tarzan, complete with a Tarzan-esque yodel.  Much of it takes place in a version of India that combines Indiana Jones with Carry On up the Kyber.  (“Sounds familiar!” quips Moore when he hears a snake charmer play a snatch of Monty Berman’s James Bond Theme on his flute.)  Actually, Octopussy is a terrible film.  It truly belongs in the 007 Pit of Shit alongside 1979’s Moonraker and 2002’s Die Another Day.

 

The third story in the book, The Living Daylights, sees Bond assigned a mission in Berlin.  He has to kill a Soviet sniper whom the KGB have lined up to shoot a defecting scientist while he flees from the east to the west of the city – the story is set shortly before the creation of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  Bond has a crisis of conscience when he discovers that the enemy sniper is a woman, an attractive blonde whom he’s seen posing as a member of an orchestra that’s performing on the Communist-Bloc side of town.  This story is incorporated, more or less intact, into the early part of the 1987 movie The Living Daylights, which was the first one to star Timothy Dalton as Bond.  In the film, however, the action is moved to Bratislava, the defector is a KGB officer and his defection is planned to take place during an orchestral performance in a concert hall.

 

Although the rest of the plot of The Living Daylights-the-film is rather convoluted and unsatisfactory, and there are a few daft moments left over from the previous movies in the series (such as one where Dalton and Maryam D’Abo ride down a mountainside using a cello as a sleigh), at the time it seemed to me a breath of fresh air.  It was an attempt at a slightly more sensible Bond film and it had an actor in the lead role trying to depict Bond as the moody, occasionally conscience-stricken character that Fleming had originally written.  (In fact, when he took on the role, Dalton made a point of reading Fleming’s books.)

 

(c) Eon Productions 

 

Alas, Dalton received a rough ride from the critics.  After spending years deriding the Roger Moore-era Bond movies for their campness and silliness, as soon as Dalton appeared those same critics discovered they’d been unconscious Moore-fans all along.  They started moaning about the films becoming too ‘humourless’ and started pining for the good old days when jolly Roger would fight off a giant henchman with steel teeth on top of a cable car with a shaken-not-stirred Vodka Martini and a raised eyebrow, or would escape from the villains in a gondola that cunningly transformed into a nuclear-powered submarine…  Gah!  It just wasn’t fair.

 

The final story, 007 in New York, is a trifle – Bond is sent to the Big Apple to warn a former Secret Service member that the man she’s cohabiting with is actually a Soviet agent, though he spends most of the story’s eight pages planning the shopping, eating, drinking, clubbing and wenching that he’s going to do while he’s there.  This allows Fleming to show off his knowledge of the city – Bond decides to visit “Hoffritz on Madison Avenue for one of their heavy, toothed Gillette-type razors, so much better than Gillette’s own product, Tripler’s for some of those French golf socks made by Izod, Scribner’s because it was the last great bookshop in New York and because there was a salesman there with a good nose for thrillers, and then to Abercrombie’s to look over the new gadgets…  And then what about the best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers and Miller High Life at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central?  No, he didn’t want to sit up at a bar…  Yes.  That was it!  The Edwardian Room at the Plaza.  A corner table.”

 

Fleming was known to have a predilection for sado-masochism, so it’s telling that 007 in New York also sees Bond considering a visit to a bar he’s heard about that “was the rendezvous for sadists and masochists of both sexes.  The uniform was black leather jackets and leather gloves.  If you were a sadist, you wore the gloves under the left shoulder strap.  For the masochists it was the right.”  Bond has an old flame in New York whom he intends to meet up with and enjoy some nightlife with, including the S-&-M-themed nightlife, and it’s here that a tiny sliver of 007 in New York makes it into the movies too.  The old flame’s name is Solange, which is the name of the character played by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, which saw Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond, in 2006.

 

The story also had an influence on Solo, the Bond novel recently written by William Boyd.  While Solo includes ‘James Bond’s recipe for salad dressing’, 007 in New York treats us to a recipe for ‘scrambled eggs James Bond’.  I should say, though, that I have my own special recipe for making scrambled eggs and I think it’s way better than Bond’s one.

 

007 in New York is tied up with a gentle, though unexpected, twist that’s worthy of Somerset Maugham – a writer whom Fleming was a big admirer of.  And that, unfortunately, is it.  Fleming had passed away prior to this collection’s publication and no further Bond material appeared under his name.  Thus, Octopussy and The Living Daylights marked the end of James Bond as a literary phenomenon…  For all of two years, until 1968, when Kingsley Amis published Colonel Sun.