Review by C.J. Bunce
As much as it is adventurous to travel the world by yourself, living place to place and job to job, it is also dangerous. Horror movies like Saw, Vacancy, and Psycho illustrate that worst of scenarios—traveling in unfamiliar territory and making a wrong turn—that single bad decision that could end it all. In Ian Fleming’s novel The Spy Who Loved Me, Vivienne Michel is moving along life’s course but taking a meandering route that leaves her in a desolate hotel in the Adirondacks. She’s made a ton of bad decisions, not the least of which is accepting a job from a strange couple which leads to her wrapping up the hotel’s operations for the season by herself. On a dark and stormy night someone knocks on the door and her life changes forever as she makes that wrong turn.
Not to be confused with the novelization of the film The Spy Who Loved Me, which was titled James Bond: The Spy Who Love Me, the original Fleming novel is completely different from the film that took its name. It also may be not only the worst Bond novel, but one of the worst novels from the 1960s. It manages to include everything that is bad about pulp novels of the past and should make modern readers question Fleming’s legacy. From past Bond books reviewed here at borg.com, we already have encountered Fleming’s questionable coverage of race in his day. Should he be singled out for his failings or just it chalk it up to the day? And his villains are typically the only physically deformed characters in his books. Why is that?
More than any other Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me wrestles with the latter part of that iconic phrase that defines Bond: “every man wants to be him and every woman wants to be with him.” Told entirely in first person by a woman named Vivienne, the protagonist in the story, most of the novel never sees James Bond at all and he only appears in the last third of the book. In fact, with no explanation in the first 100+ pages, the modern reader will find himself or herself wondering how many readers came before who were as frustrated with this long and wandering diary-like account of a woman and her past? She is a likeable enough character, and certainly sympathetic, but why should a Bond reader care about her? Ultimately, only a chance encounter with James Bond, and preposterous one at that, makes her relevant to the Bond universe.
What is worse is Fleming’s attempt to demonstrate his understanding of how a woman thinks. You don’t need to be male or female to be completely blown away at how misinformed this author must have been. If there was ever a question of whether Fleming simply wrote an interesting spy character who was a womanizer of femme fatales in the noir tradition, or whether Fleming actually believed what he wrote, this should cement the answer for you. Hyperbole? He actually included this sentence, written from Vivienne’s inner thoughts: “All women love semi-rape.” Huh? If you wrote that in a mainstream novel today, or worse, if you believed that today, you’d be a marked a pariah. Rightly so. And it’s not like this was an early Fleming work where he was getting his footing. This was number ten. What’s sad is that he was unlikely called out for it in the culture of 1962.
For many, this Bond novel would be punted off the reading list. For Bond completists, we’ll continue.
Like the story of Jack Nicholson’s drifter in Easy Rider, Vivienne is taking the back roads, on her 1960 era Vespa motor scooter. Like that drifter she takes her chances. Like Steve McQueen’s 1972 film The Getaway, she ends up in a hotel with some creeps–a bit like the thuggish gangsters who trap a family in their house in Frank Sinatra’s 1954 film Suddenly. Repeatedly abused and assaulted, Vivienne is running out of hope. Miraculously, who should have a blown tire in front of the hotel on this night, but British secret agent James Bond? Miraculously is the right word.
Bond is still reeling from the events in Thunderball, where he saved the world from nuclear annihilation. His only redeeming scene is Bond’s ability to take a quick assessment of the situation when Vivienne opens the door to his knock, with guns to her back. To keep Vivienne occupied, Bond proceeds on a long and breathy monologue about his past adventure. This is something out of a black comedy as Bond and Vivienne work together in front of the gangsters to get out of the situation. Fleming’s Bond is certainly good at being a hero and sweeping a woman off her feet afterward, and the little Bond we see in The Spy Who Loved Me is that same Bond we love in his other stories. Too little, too late, in a novel too bad for too many reasons.