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“The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.”

My love of Agatha Christie is now well-documented on this blog, but we mustn’t forget that her detectives are not the only ones ever worth mentioning. One of my friends is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, which I still don’t really understand, and another, the librarian, is James Bond’s number one fan. Between us, we cover the three biggest detectives and spies of the last century and have started dabbling in one another’s areas.

Despite her love of Bond, however, this book actually came from my publisher who produced it from his bag as if by magic after a night out. The version I have is something pretty special. It’s from 1963, smells stunning, has a wonderfully outdated price on the front (2′ 6), and on the first page there is mention of how Eon Films are turning this title into the second James Bond film, starring Sean Connery. How times change.

I’ve seen a smattering of the Bond films – I got quite into them when Pierce Brosnan was in the role, my knowledge is otherwise somewhat limited – and always had an interest in the gadgets and gizmos he’s given to play with by Q, but I had never read any of the books, so this was my first foray into the literary world of James Bond. Many of you have probably already seen this film, but for those who haven’t, here is briefly what this story is about.

Somewhere deep within Russia’s Secret Service, SMERSH, in the mid-fifties, a plan is being drawn up. They feel that some of their enemies have become too complacent and they decide that an act of terrorism should shake people into action. They begin to decide which country they will attack, and then pinpoint an individual spy to defame and destroy. There is much discussion, but they soon decide that the British are a worthy enemy. Who will they attack? Well, it turns out there’s this fellow called James Bond…

Bond, meanwhile, is called into M’s office and told that somewhere within the folds of the Russian Secret Service is a young woman who has fallen in love with Bond through the photographs and reports she’s been looking through. If Bond can convince her that he loves her too and grant her safe passage to England, she will in turn bring a cipher machine that will greatly aid in codebreaking.

The suspicions that I’ve long held about Bond through the films and general cultural osmosis were proven to be mostly right within this book – he’s not a particularly nice man. Much is made of his “cruel smile”, and while perhaps he’s not quite as ruthless here as he can be in other stories, I still don’t think I’d want to meet the man. In fact, most of the characters are unpleasant, obviously because most of the focus goes on the antagonists. In fact, Bond doesn’t even turn up for the first third of the book; instead, Fleming deals with the background and the Russians’ plot. He paints vivid pictures of sadistic, torture-loving lesbian Rosa Klebb and psychopathic murderer Red Grant. In fact, Kerim Bey, the head of British Intelligence in Turkey, is just about the only person you’d want to join for dinner, providing you didn’t have to drink the raki. (Bond drinks a hell of a lot of raki in this novel and, take it from me, it’s not a drink that’s easy to stomach.)

It feels oddly dense for such a short book, and lacks the dynamic action feel of the films, but that’s only to be expected, I think. It’s hard not to think of the films when reading the book, and perhaps that is why it feels tainted. However, that sounds negative but I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s smart and has some curiously beautiful sentences and witty one-liners within, and ends on a surprising cliffhanger when all the action begins to accelerate but there aren’t enough pages for everything to happen. Fleming takes his time to describe people and places with intimate detail, allowing for almost complete immersion into the world.

I would return to Bond again, quite happily, but not just yet. Fleming is good, but Christie still wins out, so as a congratulatory present to myself for trying a new author, I’m going back to her for my next book.

If you want to read more of my words, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or iTunes, wherever you are in the world!

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