Wednesday, April 27, 2022
The novel was hated by the critics. Critics had at best grudgingly accepted the popularity of Fleming’s books but they strongly disapproved. It just seemed somehow wrong that ordinary readers should be allowed to make up their own minds what books they enjoyed, rather than liking the books that critics told them to like. It seemed especially wrong that the public should insist on enjoying exciting books and sexy books rather than the worthy but dreary books that critics loved. So critics were desperately anxious for Fleming to make a misstep so that they could pile on and put the boot into him.
The Spy Who Loved Me seemed to be that misstep. Even better, from the point of view of critics, it was more sexually explicit than previous Bond books. That meant the critics could accuse Fleming of spreading moral degeneracy.
The novel has been treated even more venomously by modern critics and reviewers. I have a theory that if you approach a book with enough prejudices and preconceptions you can end up not actually reading the book at all. You end up reading the book that your prejudices convinced you that the author had written. What you have to do with The Spy Who Loved Me is something modern readers find very difficult to do - you have to just sit down and read what Fleming actually wrote, without making any assumptions about his attitudes towards women, towards sex or towards violence.
The subject of the book is an encounter between James Bond and a young French-Canadian woman named Vivianne Michel but that encounter does not happen until roughly the halfway point. The first half of the book gives us Vivianne’s backstory and explains what she’s doing in a run-down motel in the Adirondacks.
Despite what some reviewers would have you believe this first half does not dwell obsessively on Vivianne’s sex life. In fact she doesn’t have very much of a sex life. She’s had a couple of tentative unsuccessful relationships with men. Fleming thought that in 1962 it would be possible for a British writer to approach the subject of sex in a calm and fairly grown-up way. He was wrong. Britain in 1962 was still a repressed guilt-ridden puritan society eager to condemn anyone who wanted to suggest that maybe sex wasn’t dirty and wrong. Fleming is not the least bit judgmental towards Vivianne. He describes her emotional life sympathetically. It’s the guilt-ridden puritanism of society that has made Vivianne unable to have a successful relationship with a man.
While there is no action at all until halfway through the book when the action does start it’s fast and furious. The second half of the book is pretty much action scene after action scene. And by making us wait Fleming has built up the tension very effectively. We know this is a Bond novel. We know there’s going to be action. We know that Vivianne will be caught in the middle of it. And once the two thugs make their appearance it’s obvious that this is going to be a kill-or-be-killed situation. Bond and Vivianne are not going to be able to talk their way out of this situation, and they’re going to have to handle it themselves.
And while Vivianne is a kind of damsel in distress, she’s not entirely passive. Bond gives her his spare gun and she gets to use it.
There’s actually a lot more action in this book than in You Only Live Twice. By Bond novel standards The Spy Who Loved Me is not at all deficient when it comes to mayhem. The long wait gives the action scenes extra impact.
How successful is Fleming in telling the story from a female point of view? I’d say that he’s a lot more successful than you might expect. What a lot of modern readers object to is that Vivianne is not a 21st century feminist and the book is not a 21st century feminist powergirl tract. Vivianne belongs to the world of 1962. She feels guilty about sex because in 1962 people (especially women) were raised to feel bad about sex. Up to a point she understands that her upbringing has damaged her and has prevented her from living her life fully. But she still feels guilty. Perhaps the shock of the events at the motel will make her more determined to embrace life.
The Spy Who Loved Me is certainly an experiment but I think it’s an experiment that succeeded. Fleming was shocked by the hostile reception the book received and later described it as a failed experiment. I think he was being much too hard on himself and on the book. It’s not quite true to say that Bond is reduced to the status of a supporting character, but it is true to some extent. Having Bond viewed so completely from outside was an intriguing idea.
So I’m going to swim against the tide and say that I rather enjoyed The Spy Who Loved Me. It is an untypical Bond novel and you should not even contemplate reading this one until you’re read half a dozen of the earlier Bond books, but if you have read the earlier books then I recommend giving The Spy Who Loved Me a chance.
Thursday, April 21, 2022
Gardner achieved enormous success in the 30s with Perry Mason but he started his career in the pulps so a series of hardboiled private eye novels was just the sort of thing he would be likely to be good at. And he was. The Cool and Lam PI novels were extremely successful.
It’s not absolutely essential but it helps a good deal if you start with the first of the Cool and Lam novels, The Bigger They Come (published in 1939). It gives you useful backstory information on this unusual PI partnership. Bertha Cool is middle-aged, overweight, penny-pinching and ruthless. Donald Lam is a young disbarred lawyer down on his luck but he proves to be the ideal operative for the Bertha Cool Detective Agency. Donald is a runt. He couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. He’s an easy guy to push around. But pushing Donald Lam around is a seriously bad idea. He’s smart and devious and he knows nasty ways to get even.
Turn On the Heat starts with a fairly routine missing persons case. Dr Listig and his wife disappeared twenty years earlier. Now someone wants to find Mrs Listig. The obvious place for Donald to start looking is the small town in which the couple used to live, Oakview. They were part of the younger set in what was then a thriving town. Oakview isn’t thriving any longer.
Donald does pick up the trail and then the plot twists begin. Finding Mrs Listig is easy. Much too easy. Cool and Lam don’t have to find Dr Listig but they do find him and that complicates things. A murder complicates things even further. And that’s not the end of it. There’s blackmail and political chicanery.
Bertha and Donald don’t always see eye to eye. Mutual deception and manipulation are par for the course for these two. They also both tend to take the view that if they know something that doesn’t mean they should share that knowledge. Bertha doesn’t always know what Donald is up to and Donald often doesn’t know what game Bertha is playing. Despite this they make an effective team. They’re both very good detectives.
This gives Gardner’s crime fiction of the 30s and 40s a decidedly cynical hardboiled edge, and even a touch of noir fiction sensibilities.
As usual with Gardner the plotting is intricate and effective.
The real drawcards here though are Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. They really are delightful characters. They have lots of character flaws but one can’t help liking them and being amused by them. There’s plenty of barbed hardboiled dialogue, and there’s humour as well.
And there are hints of romance. Bertha is constantly amazed by Donald’s ability to charm women. In this case he romances Marian Dunton, a reporter on the local Oakview paper and also, incidentally, a key witness to that murder. Is Donald merely using Marian or does he really care for her. It’s hard to be sure and it’s probably a bit of both. He’s cynical enough to manipulate women but decent enough to try not to hurt them.
Gardner used small California towns as settings to great effect in some of the Perry Mason stories. It works extremely well here. I think it’s fair to say that Gardner was not a big fan of small towns.
Turn On the Heat is a fine fast-paced hardboiled PI yarn with an excellent mystery plot as well. What more could one ask for? Highly recommended.
Monday, April 18, 2022
The story takes place some time after the Moon has been reached successfully. Every attempt to go beyond the Moon has however ended in disastrous failure. The most recent attempt led to the loss of the three-man crew commanded by John Masters. Rex Blaine is to command the next mission, his crew being radio operator Ned Kline and technician George Carter. Understandably they’re somewhat anxious in the hours before their spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from the Moon.
They’re even more anxious when the missing astronaut John Masters suddenly materialises on the lunar base, delivers a terrifying but cryptic warning, and then apparently vanishes into thin air.
Rex Blaine is determined to go ahead with the next launch anyway. Now at least he has some inkling of what they’re up against and he knows that Earth is in terrible danger.
The threat comes from the planet Thallom, in our own solar system. This is puzzling because there’s no such planet, or at least nobody ever suspected the existence of such a planet. But Rex Blaine and his crew soon discover that it does indeed exist.
Thallom is ruled by Queen Lura, a woman whose astonishing beauty is matched only by her astonishing evilness. What Queen Lura wants is a large supply of men from Earth. They have to be men. You see the men of Thallom are no longer capable of performing certain functions which the women of Thallom deem to be essential. Virile Earth men are desperately needed. While not performing the aforementioned essential tasks the men will be used as slaves in the robot factories.
Queen Lura has other ambitions as well, and they’re the sorts of ambitions you’d expect from a sinister megalomanical queen. Rex Blaine and his crew are the latest additions to her man collection. Rex suspects that he is intended for her personal use.
Rex may have one ally on Thallom - the beautiful slave girl Noreen. But overthrowing Queen Lura’s power seems impossible, thanks to the obedience drug she uses on her captives.
There’s not even the most token attempt to provide any kind of scientific plausibility to any of the events or technologies described. There’s a gigantic wall in space, there are heat rays and paralysing rays. The author’s understanding of the mechanics of space flight was clearly non-existent. Of course nobody knew very much about the other planets in the solar system in 1951 so perhaps he can be forgiven for the fact that Thallom is a planet vastly bigger than Jupiter but apparently with normal Earth gravity.
This is really just a stock-standard adventure yarn about a square-jawed action hero, a beautiful but evil queen and a beautiful slave girl. This is pure pulp fiction with nothing very much to offer in the way of originality or imagination.
It does however have a certain perverse so-bad-it’s good quality and there is a certain luridness that is amusing. The first thing Rex Blaine notices about Queen Lura is her breasts swelling against her very flimsy blouse. The first thing he notices about the slave girl Noreen is her swelling breasts. There are a lot of swelling breasts in this tale. And of course there’s the fact that the captured Earth men are destined to become sex slaves.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that S.N. Tenneshaw never existed. The name was just a house name that was used at times by quite a few writers (including Robert Silverberg, Milton Lesser and Edmond Hamilton) published by Ziff-Davis. No-one seems to know which of those writers was responsible for Beyond the Walls of Space.
Beyond the Walls of Space really doesn’t have a whole lot going for it and even the luridness is not quite lurid enough to make things interesting. In all honesty I find it hard to recommend this one.
Beyond the Walls of Space is paired with Donald A. Wollheim’s The Secret of the Ninth Planet in one of Armchair Fictions double-header paperback editions.
Wednesday, April 13, 2022
The book is told in flashback. Richard Harland recalls the events of six years earlier which left him a broken man.
Richard is a 30-year-old novelist. He is unmarried and his parents are dead. His only relative is his twelve-year old brother Danny. Danny has all but lost the use of his legs, the legacy of a bout of polio. The two brothers are unusually close. Richard is a kind of father as well as big brother to Danny.
The story started on a train, heading for a holiday in on a ranch in New Mexico. On the train is a beautiful young woman and she’s reading one of his novels but it sends her to sleep. This annoys him but the girl fascinates him. When he gets to the ranch he finds that the same girl is also going to be a guest there.
Her name is Ellen Berent. Her father, to whom she was devoted, was a bird collector. He died a year ago. Ellen is at the ranch with her adoptive sister Ruth and her mother. Harland becomes increasingly obsessed with the 22-year-old Ellen. Everyone says Ellen is an odd girl, and she is. She is strong-willed to the point of being a control freak. The only person for whom she really cared deeply was her father. She had a bit of a fixation on him (this was 1944 and authors were Freud-crazy at the time).
Ellen seems to transfer her father fixation to Richard Harland. He reminds her of her father in a way that no other man has done. She needs a replacement for her father, and she chooses Harland. She falls in love with Harland, but it’s a particular kind of love. It’s passionate but it’s intensely possessive. She had always wanted to have her father all to herself. Now she has decided she’s going to have Richard all to herself. Richard isn’t sure he wants Ellen but then they get caught in a wild storm and they’re in real danger and suddenly he feels close to her.
They marry immediately. Ellen has what she wanted, but there are two problems. The first is that she broke an engagement to State’s Attorney Russ Quinton in order to marry Harland. She had never taken the engagement seriously but Quinton took it very seriously indeed and he’s a man who holds grudges. The second problem is Danny. The two brothers are very close and Danny is now utterly dependent on his older brother. Ellen will have to share Richard with Danny. That might not work out so well.
It works out very badly indeed. And then a terrible event occurs.
But while Richard is in a state of shock Ellen announces that she is pregnant. There are more shocks in store for Richard Harland. And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, they get much worse.
This is a murder mystery of sorts, but with complications. There are two deaths. The circumstances of both are unusual and ambiguous. This is not detective fiction. We, the readers, know too many of the circumstances of the deaths beforehand although we don’t know everything. There is some mystery, but not much. It’s also a courtroom drama of sorts. I dislike courtroom dramas unless they’re written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Courtroom dramas are inherently dull but he knew how to make them gripping and exciting. Willians throws in a few surprises but the courtroom scenes are still a hard slog. And they go on and on.
The movie version arouses controversy over whether it qualifies as film noir or not, and it can also be debated whether the novel is noir fiction or not. In both cases the main argument in favour of noir status is Ellen, who certainly has some major femme fatale qualities.
She’s not quite a typical femme fatale. She is however a monster. We come to understand her motivations even while we are horrified by her behaviour.
The major problem is that the impression given by the novel is that the author thought he was writing Serious Fiction rather than a mystery. He actually has a rather brilliant mystery/crime plot but he gets bogged down with lengthy descriptive passages, and unnecessary details about minor characters. The book is much too long. The movie tightened things up a great deal and this is one of the reasons the movie is superior to the book. The movie also made Ellen slightly more sympathetic, or at least slightly more ambiguous, and this made her more interesting.
The book is worth reading if you’re a fan of the movie. I've reviewed the movie Leave Her to Heaven (1945) as Classic Movie Ramblings.
Thursday, April 7, 2022
Glen Chase was one of the pseudonyms used by Gardner Francis Fox (1911-1986), a prolific writer for comic books who became a prolific pulp writer. In the 70s he found a lucrative niche for himself churning out sexy paperback crime/spy thrillers with very heavy lacings of sleaze and more than a dash of kinkiness.
We think of the 1950s and 1960s as the period in which television came to dominate popular entertainment but it’s not as simple as that. Television took a huge chunk of the entertainment market away from Hollywood but the book market was thriving as never before. The period from 1945 to the end of the 70s was the period of the paperback boom. Books went from being a luxury item to being ridiculously cheap. The public developed a voracious appetite for books.
The 50s and 60s was also a period in which TV and movies were subject to extraordinarily strict censorship. Sex was a subject that could not be addressed. Sex did not exist. As far as TV and movies were concerned married couples slept in separate beds and never saw each other naked. The book market was much more lightly censored. Booksellers and publishers were occasionally prosecuted for obscenity but in practice you could get away with dealing with sex in books without much danger. You could even get away with dealing with illicit sex and kinky sex.
The result was an explosion of sleaze fiction in the United States. There were numerous publishers specialising in sleaze. Writers, if they had the ability and the discipline to write a lot of books very quickly, could make a good living from sleaze fiction.
Censorship in movies was slowly relaxed in the 60s but censorship of books became even lighter, in fact almost non-existent. Paperback sleaze fiction continued to be lucrative because over the course of the 60s sleaze writers were able to keep pushing the edge of the envelope. Descriptions of sex went from moderately graphic in the early 60s to very graphic indeed by the early 70s.
Sleaze fiction was popular but it was even more popular when combined with crime, espionage or adventure.
Which brings us to Cherry Delight. Our heroine is Cherise Dellissio but she has red hair so inevitably everybody calls her Cherry Delight. Cherry is a professional crime-fighter. She doesn’t work for the F.B.I., she works for a top-secret agency which employs methods that the Bureau would consider to be highly unorthodox, probably immoral and possibly illegal. The agency’s job is to combat the Mafia, and they can’t do that effectively if their hands are tied by a bunch of pesky rules and laws.
The agency is the New York Mafia Prosecution and Harassment Organisation, or N.Y.M.P.H.O. as it is generally known. Cherry works for the elite Femme Fatale squad. The Femmes Fatales are highly trained with advanced martial arts and firearms skills but their main weapon is sex. As such their bedroom skills are of a very high order. When it comes to bedroom skills Cherry Delight has no equals. The secret to Cherry’s success is that it’s not just a job to her. She really really loves sex. Some girls might not enjoy having to have sex with gangsters and sleazebags in the line of duty but this doesn’t bother Cherry. No matter what the circumstances and no matter who the guy is Cherry likes sex. And oh yeah, she doesn’t mind having sex with girls occasionally.
And she is always prepared for action.
It should be explained that, as a clever front for their crime-fighting activities, the Femmes Fatales work as call girls.
Cherry seems to be succeeding in her efforts. She quickly figures out that Turessi is kinky. His kink doesn’t have anything to do with coffins. It’s a particular kind of voyeurism, a very very kinky kind. Turessi is having a really good time and so is Cherry. Then something goes very wrong.
Cherry will have to find a different way to infiltrate the Mafia. Her new plan takes her to an orgy. She needs to blend in with the crowd (she is a trained secret agent) so she picks a man and starts having sex with him. The things a girl has to do for her country. But Cherry has never shirked her duty.
The Mafia have gained possession of a high-tech gadget which would give them even greater power than they already have. It is a threat to the whole world. This gadget is the McGuffin that drives the plot.
And yes, there is a plot. Cherry spends an astonishing amount of time having sex but in between she does find time to do some actual crime-fighting. The plot is serviceable enough and it has to be said that there are lots of action scenes. There are gun fights and fist fights and cat fights. Cherry is a sex machine but she’s a violence machine as well. OK, maybe her skills in marksmanship and unarmed combat are a bit too formidable to be entirely plausible but this is lighthearted pulp fiction which has zero interest in realism. The indifference to realism is something I applaud. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this writer is his ability not only to switch from a sex scene to an action scene in the blink of an eye but to combine sex and action in a single scene. In this novel love-making can be deadly, and unarmed combat can be sexy.
Cherry is basically a crime-fighter but the book does have some vague spy fiction overtones and there’s even a very slight science fictional element.
The sex is very graphic but it never seems crude. Perhaps that’s because Cherry is so clearly having such a good time. And even when she has to have sex with a bad guy or a deadly enemy she makes sure that he enjoys the sex. It’s a matter of pride for her. The violence is not graphic but the fights are fairly exciting.
If you’re looking for sleazy, sexy, lighthearted action-filled pulp fiction then The Italian Connection delivers the goods. This book might be trash but it’s incredibly enjoyable entertaining trash. Highly recommended.
Saturday, April 2, 2022
After the disastrous events of the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond seems to be all washed up. He’s moody and depressed, he’s making mistakes, he’s drinking too much and gambling too much. M has decided that he’s going to have to fire him but is persuaded that what Bond needs is an impossible mission, or at least a mission that is so unlikely to succeed that Bond will simply have to stop brooding about himself. The mission is to persuade the Japanese to give the British access to their MAGIC 44 top-secret intelligence material, and there is no logical reason why the Japanese would want to do that. In fact the Japanese would have very strong reasons to refuse. Bond’s job is to find a way to change their minds. M has no idea how this could be done. That’s up to Bond. It will be a formidable challenge that will require cleverness rather than action, and Bond needs to start using his brain in a productive way again.
Bond meets (and befriends) the head of the Japanese intelligence service, a man named Tiger Tanaka and discovers that as far as the Japanese are concerned the British Secret Service has no secrets worth trading for. But there is one possibility. If Bond would agree to carry out a mission for them they might trade. They want him to assassinate a Swiss scientist.
The scientist has created what Tanaka calls a garden of death. He has bought a large estate and filled it with deadly plants and animals. Japanese intent on suicide are using it to kill themselves. The Japanese want this Swiss scientist eliminated quietly.
Bond has to pose as a Japanese. Apparently a bit of skin dye and some work on the eyebrows will transform a Scotsman into a convincing Japanese. Bond’s base of operations is an Ama island, the Ama being a distinct tribe who exist by diving for shellfish and are best known for the fact that the diving is done by naked women, a practice of which Bond thoroughly approves. He naturally gets involved with pretty Ama diver Kissy Suzuki, his love interest in this novel.
And he will of course encounter Blofeld again.
The novel includes many of the themes that run through Fleming’s work, especially nostalgia for Britain’s lost greatness and bitterness about the contempt with which the U.S. now treated Britain. The story begins with the British Secret Service sending Bond on a delicate and embarrassing mission, to beg the Japanese to give them access to high-grade intelligence material. The Japanese have some extraordinarily valuable material but the C.I.A. will not allow it to be passed on to the British. M is hoping the Japanese will agree to pass on their intelligence material to Britain secretly. Bond arrives thinking that he has something worthwhile to trade, the Macau Blue Route material of which M is so proud, only to discover that the Japanese already have all of this material. Bond comes face to face with the harsh reality that Britain is a second-rate power and that the Japanese do not consider Britain to be an ally worth cultivating.
Personally I think this makes late Bond quite interesting. He’s starting to do things that his younger self would never have done. In the novel that preceded You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he does a number of things that the younger Bond would certainly not have done. In the later stories he seems to be often thinking about resigning from the Secret Service. He’s also developing a bit more emotional depth. He’s finding himself thinking about the future and about the consequences of his actions in a way that would have been out of character for the Bond of the glory years of the mid-1950s. But it’s done quite convincingly. Bond is getting older.
Fleming was also experimenting with downbeat endings. Casino Royale had ended on a note of bitterness, but it was a defiant bitterness. Bond had been hurt but he was a big boy and he’d get over it. A decade or so later later Fleming would end a Bond novel on a note of abject defeat and despair. In some of the later short stories the endings are rather cynical (The Living Daylights), or melancholy (Octopussy).
I think it’s simplistic to say that Fleming was growing tired of Bond, but he was growing tired of writing Bond stories to a rigid formula. After the modest success of his debut novel Casino Royale Fleming had found an incredibly successful formula and proceeded to write six brilliant spy thrillers one after the other. The 60s saw Fleming experimenting with variations on the formula.
The biggest problem with You Only Live Twice is the pacing. We have to wait a long long time for the action scenes. When they finally arrive they’re good but a bit perfunctory.
Bond completists will want to read this one. If you’re new to the world of the Bond novels you should definitely start wth the 1950s books. You Only Live Twice is recommended, with reservations.