For Your Eyes Only was Ian Fleming’s first volume of James Bond short stories. This 1959 collection includes five stories.
The first story is From a View to a Kill. It’s not a bad idea. British motorcycle despatch riders carrying top-secret documents are being killed. There seems to be no explanation - no trace of the killers or their crimes. The secret to how these slayings are carried out is clever enough. The main problem is that there’s no memorable villain.
I have to say that after reading this first story I was not convinced that the short story format really suited Fleming. One of the strengths of the novels is the subtle and patient battle of wills (and wits) between Bond Bond the villain and this takes time to develop. The relationships between Bond and the various women who figure so largely in the novels also need to be woven together gradually.
For Your Eyes Only opens in Jamaica. With Castro poised to take power rich Cubans are trying to get their money out of Cuba and are buying up properties in Jamaica. One of these rich Cubans wants a property belonging to a Colonel Havelock and the Colonel is made an offer that he literally cannot refuse. A month later a slightly embarrassed and hesitant M asks Bond to take on a case that is a purely personal matter of no official interest to the Secret Service. This is more than unusual, it is unprecedented.
One thing that has always struck me about Bond is that he’s a man out of sync with his age. He really doesn’t approve of the modern world at all. This aspect of his character (which might surprise those who are more familiar with the Bond movies than the books) comes through quite strongly in this story. Bond is irritated by the sound of lawn mowers because they’re motor mowers - he doesn’t approve of such horrors. He has to fly to Canada by jet and he dislikes it because it’s too fast - he liked flying the Atlantic in the old piston-engined aircraft because the journey was leisurely and civilised.
It’s not just modern technology that bothers Bond. He is uncomfortable with the changes in British society since the war. He is in some surprising ways a very old-fashioned man. He likes craftsmanship. He likes good manners. He admires stability and he believes in hierachies. He even, oddly enough, believes in marriage (in theory at least). He is a traditionalist and the Britain that he loved, the Britain in which he grew up, is passing away. His tragedy is that he knows he does not fit in in the modern world. This old-fashioned outlook is implicit in the novels but, unusually, in this short story it is made quite explicit.
For Your Eyes Only works rather well. It has an effective build-up and an excellent action climax. It also has (within the limitations of the short story format) a reasonably sinister villain and an interesting heroine.
Risico is a nicely plotted tale. M, much against his wishes, has been forced to send Bond on an operation targeting a drug smuggling operation in Italy. M strongly disapproves of having the Service used for straightforward criminal investigations. This mission turns out to be not quite so straightforward after all. There’s a good little plot twist and another well executed action climax. And there’s a hint of piracy!
The Hildebrand Rarity is something of an odd man out here, not really a typical James Bond story. Bond, having completed a very routine case in the Seychelles, is invited to spend several days on the luxury yacht of American tycoon Milton Krest. The yacht ostensibly belongs to the Krest Foundation, to be used for scientific purposes. In this case the scientific purpose is to find a specimen of a very rare fish, known as the Hildebrand Rarity. Milton Krest turns out to be a decidedly unpleasant individual and his beautiful young English wife has discovered that marrying a man for his money is not always such a great idea. Of course the last thing Bond needs is to get mixed up in someone else’s marital dramas but it seems increasingly likely that this is just what is going to happen.
So where does the action adventure part of the story come in? Where indeed? An odd little story that may have been intended as something of an experiment. It has the typical Fleming atmosphere and the typical Fleming touches of sadism and cruelty but this time mixed with perhaps just a dash of black comedy. Milton Krest is certainly going to get his rare fish but he may get more than he intended. It’s a throwaway story that gives the impression of having been included in the collection as a filler.
Quantum of Solace is even more unusual. In 1928 W. Somerset Maugham had broken new ground with his classic spy thriller Ashenden, or the British Agent. Based on Maugham’s own experiences as a British spy in the First World War this was the world of espionage without the glamour, and with a certain ruthlessness and cynicism and a degree of blundering. Fleming’s approach to spy thrillers may seem to have been the polar opposite of Maugham’s but no-one of Fleming’s age setting out to write spy fiction could have avoided being influenced to some extent by Ashenden. Quantum of Solace has been described as Fleming doing an homage to Maugham.
It certainly has a very Somerset Maugham flavour although it’s the flavour of Maugham’s short stories rather than his spy fiction. Maugham was a master of melodrama in the tropics. Not just melodrama, but a very superior variety of literary melodrama. And tropical melodrama is exactly what Quantum of Solace is. While Bond makes an appearance the story is not about Bond at all, and it’s not a spy story. It’s a tale of domestic unhappiness set against the background of the diplomatic service. Maugham was so good at what he did that trying to equal him at his own game was a risky undertaking but Fleming carries it off pretty well. Perhaps Fleming was trying to prove that his literary range was greater than critics supposed or perhaps he just thought it would be amusing to try something different. I liked Quantum of Solace but as I said, it’s not a spy story.
This is overall a slightly curious collection. Of the five stories only three are true spy stories and two of them (For Your Eyes Only and Risico) are extremely good. The two non-spy stories are Fleming experimenting a little and they’re certainly interesting. While it’s not as good as the novels For Your Eyes Only is still worth a look.