Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the tenth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and was published in 1963.

By this time Fleming’s health was definitely failing. He would complete just one more Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, in 1964. Fleming had completed only the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun when he died in 1964.

Fleming had been on a roll in the 50s, producing six successive top-notch Bond novels - Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia, with Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger. After that it was not that he seemed to be growing tired of Bond but he did seem to be growing tired of just churning out Bond novels to the same basic formula. In 1962 he wrote The Spy Who Loved Me, a highly experimental Bond novel (an experiment which Fleming considered to be a total failure), and he wrote several short stories which were also somewhat experimental.

In some of the stories (notably For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights) we see Bond becoming bitter and disillusioned. In For Your Eyes Only he loses respect for M. In The Living Daylights he hopes to get fired.

There are traces of this taste for doing something slightly different in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which opens with Bond drafting a letter of resignation from the Secret Service. The novel also focuses quite a bit on Bond’s emotional life. He has fallen in love before, but not like this. In fact the love story proves to be more important than the spy story and we really do get to see a different side of Bond.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the second novel in the Blofeld Trilogy. After the events recounted in Thunderball Ernst Stavro Blofeld appears to have vanished off the face of the Earth. He may well be dead. His sinister criminal organisation, SPECTRE, has ceased to exist. But the Secret Service is not satisfied. They want to be able to close the file definitively. So Bond finds himself spending a boring frustrating year hunting Blofeld even though he personally thinks Blofeld is dead. This is the reason for his letter of resignation.

Then he meets Tracy. She speeds past him in her Lancia sports car. Pretty girls who speed past him in sports cars are always of interest to Bond. Pretty girls who drive so well that he cannot catch them are even more fascinating.

He then encounters her in the casino (it’s the Casino Royale). Pretty girls who gamble with money they don’t have also interest Bond. And women who react in the bizarre fashion that Tracy reacts after he beds her are really intriguing.

Then Bond discovers who Tracy is. Her father Marc-Ange Draco is the head of the Union Corse, the Corsican equivalent of the Mafia. Bond meets Draco and likes him. Draco asks him for a favour, a favour involving Tracy, which Bond is willing to grant at least partially. In return Draco gives Bond some information. Blofeld is alive and he’s in Switzerland.

Fleming loved researching obscure subjects for his novels (after doing the research for Diamonds Are Forever he wrote a non-fiction book on diamond smuggling). In this book the obscure subject is heraldry. Blofeld has decided he wants the respectability that a title will bring and he may even genuinely believe that he is a member of the nobility. To track Blofeld down Bond goes undercover as Sir Hilary Bray, a member of the College of Arms. Bond has to take a crash course in heraldry.

When he arrives at Blofeld’s new headquarters in the Alps he gets to meet the girls. There are ten of them. They are all young and pretty. They’re patients at Blofeld’s private clinic where they are being treated for their allergies. Ten pretty girls are always going to attract Bond’s attention but it won’t be until much later that he realises their significance.

Bond’s cover is quickly blown and he faces a battle for survival.

This is a fine spy thriller, not quite up to the standard of those six earlier books I mentioned earlier but still with plenty of excitement.

And then there’s the ending about which I can say nothing without revealing spoilers other than to say that it packs a punch.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is highly recommended.

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