Review by C.J. Bunce
You may find Ian Fleming’s third James Bond novel, Moonraker, to be a surprising, refreshing read for several reasons.
First, it is new to those who have only watched the movie adaptations. Moonraker the novel has very little relationship to the 11th Bond film, starring Roger Moore, where Moore’s Bond is trying to prevent a global conspiracy involving the Space Shuttle.
Second, Bond is humanized. The impressive perfection of Bond in Casino Royale is smoothed out and Ian Fleming, after two other Bond novels, is easing into this super spy’s mystique, his aura, and the nature of this suave and sophisticated man of mystery. The uncomfortable 1950s racial elements of Live and Let Die are thankfully completely absent here. Here we see Bond at home, Bond buying a car, Bond’s daily life as Agent 007, including reviewing forms as any government analyst might do. We get to see that Bond’s life, outside the novels, is routine. It’s a Bond you may never thought you would get to see, if all you have seen are the films.
Third, Hugo Drax is a fantastic villain. Even James Bond admires Drax and acknowledges it to other characters throughout Moonraker. Bond’s preoccupation with Drax’s looks, his facial hair and the odd close-cut workers and their own myriad variety of moustaches is simply intriguing.
Fourth, we get to see Bond commiserate away from the Secret Service offices with M himself. M invites Bond to an exclusive club called Blades, one of the most perfectly described locations in the Bond universe. One might think we’ve seen Bond already do the card game bit in Casino Royale, yet Moonraker‘s card war is strangely epic.
Fifth, you’ll find some classic supporting villains that could be found in classic Hollywood mystery stories, including Krebs, a Wormtongue-toady type who at one time could have been played smartly by Peter Lorre. There’s even a classic mad scientist.
Moonraker finds Bond summoned to M’s office where M proceeds to explain the need for a personal favor. A certain member of the oldest gentleman’s club in all of jolly old England has been caught cheating at cards. What kind of a man–a man who could afford to play the highest stakes of games in a club so exclusive only 200 members are ever allowed on the roster–would risk his reputation and membership on such arrogance and stupidity?
M calls on Bond because he is known around the service as the card player to beat, with a background knowledge of every trick in the book, and Fleming goes to some lengths in explaining the games and the ruses, not in any overdone way but just enough to immerse the reader in Bond’s world. The club has the high brow feel of the club of Duke & Duke in Trading Places, and throughout the novel I wondered if any of Moonraker‘s vivid descriptions directly inspired movie script locations like the exclusive Bushwood Country Club in Caddyshack.
It doesn’t take long for Bond to figure out a way to foil the great cheating millionaire. But this millionaire, Sir Hugo Drax, is key to the British government’s most important pet project–he is the mind behind the Moonraker missile project. Moonraker is Great Britain’s first nuclear weapon and the future of the UK’s national defense system. The significance of the first test of said missile causes M to pull Bond in when a member of the security team is killed at the launch site. Bond takes over the role, which forces him to work one on one with Drax.
At first Bond loathes Drax and continuously finds ways to criticize him to M, yet once he follows Drax to examine his new creation he is rightly impressed with his ability to pull together a team of researchers and support staff, including 50 Germans, to complete this monumental project. His work on site causes him to partner with the obligatory Bond girl of this novel, Gala Brand, a Scotland Yard agent posing as Drax’s personal assistant.
Moonraker is full of good action scenes–Bond chasing after Brand when she is kidnapped, Bond and Brand hiding with the missile silo walls, more than one murder attempt against Bond, the grand card game, and uncovering the secret purpose of the Moonraker rocket. Where Casino Royale was exciting from a plot standpoint but not so much in-depth as far as character is concerned, and where Live and Let Die is now somewhat dated, Ian Fleming’s writing in Moonraker is vivid, rich, and compelling.
Moonraker would be ideal as a film remake today. With Dame Judith Dench as M, it would be fascinating to see how Bond could be a friend of sorts assisting M after hours on more of a social mission than a political one. And translating the V-2-inspired rocket and Cold War themes into something compelling today would be a fun challenge for the keepers of the James Bond mantle.