Retro review–Ian Fleming’s holiday James Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Review by C.J. Bunce

This past year saw the 60th anniversary of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No.  This year, too, should be a big year for James Bond.  It is the 70th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, and we should soon learn which actor will fill the shoes left behind by Daniel Craig after his five stints as England’s one-of-a-kind master spy.  Today I’m continuing our look back at Fleming’s entire run of novels and stories with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the eleventh Bond novel, which takes place around Christmas.  It’s a title which practically begs for the next entry to be titled On His Majesty’s Secret Service, as King Charles III sees his first full year as England’s monarch, and chief over 007’s secret service, which has never operated under a top man.  A unique story in the Bond franchise because the movie so closely mirrors the novel, it is the perfect sequel to Thunderball, the second of three encounters Fleming created co-starring Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  The plot is also (fortunately for readers, unfortunately for reality) one of the more realistic from Fleming, and it’s timely to revisit his villain’s planned world-ending contrivance today.

Fleming was 55 years old when he wrote On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceThe writing and direction begin poorly as Bond novels go.  The book arrived on the heels of one of the strangest novels of the 1960s–and I’d call outright bad–The Spy Who Loved Me, which shouldn’t be confused with the movie which bears no resemblance.  The novel was told from a new perspective, a woman who meets Bond, and it felt little like Fleming’s other works.  But Fleming learned his lesson–mostly.  This eleventh take is another solid, action man, adventure story.  But Fleming leans into his misogyny like he did in some of his worst novels, like The Spy Who Loved Me.  The woman who becomes Bond’s wife has deep psychological problems and Bond essentially conspires with her father, creating a relationship where Bond uses sex practically for medicinal purposes.  If you don’t want to parse that bizarre concept from the typical Bond womanizing, then you probably should skip this book (or at least the first few chapters).  But know it’s the next 80 percent of the novel where Fleming provides some of his best spy novel writing.

The key “Bond girl” of this book is Teresa “Tracy” Di Vicenzo.  Bond finds himself watching her as she undertakes seemingly suicidal acts, ultimately intervening when she plays at a gambling table without money to pay her debts, and then rescuing her when she attempts to kill herself later.  As he does so he is taken in by thugs and Bond learns she was being watched carefully by her father, Marc-Ange Draco (the Spanish nickname for Sir Francis Drake), head of the Unione Corse crime organization of French Connection fame.  At first blush Marc-Ange Draco seems like he’s going to be the next Bond villain.  But he’s not.  He really wants to save his daughter and will take even questionable measures to save her.  In his efforts to negotiate a marriage between Bond and Tracy–which he thinks will alone give her life purpose–Bond mentions there is one thing he could use some help with: finding Blofeld, the villain behind the curtain in Thunderball.

To orchestrate Bond’s infiltration of Blofeld’s snow-covered, mountain top lair, Fleming actually gives Bond a mix of mundane and intriguing spy work.  Fleming spent ten earlier novels splicing in bits of his exploits in spycraft and cleverly concocted fictions, but this novel feels like a complete end-to-end mission.  Bond’s alter ego this time?  The College of Arms–the British agency charged with confirming and debunking royal lineages–learns a fellow named Comte Balthazar de Bleuville really wants to prove his family heritage points to him being a Count.  Based on further study, Bond takes on the persona of Sir Hilary Bray, an expert in genealogical research, meaning Bond is in for some education in order to carry out his bluff.

This all takes Bond to a lovely ski lodge with some quite dangerous slopes.  One fellow slips and dies right off the cuff upon his arrival.  The mysterious locale has some odd rules Bond must follow.  Ten beautiful twenty-something-aged women are staying there, and he will basically live and commune with them under the direction of a sort of house mother named Irma Bunt, who works for Blofeld.  The women spend the day skiing, and participating in some kind of study they cannot disclose details of, while Bond works on his research into Blofeld’s ancestry with a few brief check-ins.  And yes, Bond will get to again demonstrate his skiing prowess.

Reading On Her Majesty’s Secret Service today is timely–if you have been paying attention to the news, or your grocery bills, you’ll notice egg prices soaring in the U.S. and UK.  That’s from record outbreaks of disease with egg-laying chickens.  In the novel Blofeld has begun to unleash a similar virus that is killing turkeys.  It’s scary stuff, and if it was only science fiction in 1963, conspiracy theories aside, it seems completely possible today.

Best known as the only Bond movie to star Australian actor George Lazenby, the novel of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is full of interesting Easter eggs and notable moments, including:

  • We first learn the motto taken up by Bond: “The World is Not Enough,” which would later be tapped for a Bond movie title.  Here it is the translation of a motto of what might be the Bond coat of arms.  It’s penned on the cover of the first edition.
  • There’s a nice dropped reference to actress Ursula Andress, who was starring in the first Dr. No movie, being filmed as Fleming wrote this story in his Jamaica home at Goldeneye.
  • We learn James Bond is a bit of a fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mystery novels, but M isn’t willing to go that far.
  • Fleming seems to predict a future need for multiple actors to play roles, mentioning how different Blofeld looks in this novel compared to how he looked in photos from the mission addressed in Thunderball.
  • Readers don’t encounter a Bond girl taking on the villainess role this time.
  • Fleming drops product brand names as if he’s getting paid royalties for them.
  • Bond decides to offer up his resignation to M.
  • Bond sees his only wedding in the franchise, to Teresa “Tracy” Di Vicenzo.
  • Ultimately Draco is a unique, fun entry for the franchise, but he never appears again.
  • There’s no tropical setting this time.

Without a doubt, this is one of Fleming’s best works, outstanding for an entry toward the end of a writer’s career, but still bogged down with some of those cultural, questionable quirks that pepper his stories.

So if you’re following along with my decade of reviews, in the positive camp as to writing quality, content, and fun, check out my review of Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale in the top spot here, the third Bond novel Moonraker here, the ninth Bond novel Thunderball here, (I’ll place On Her Majesty’s Secret Service here), then the fifth novel From Russia With Love here, and the sixth novel, Dr. No here.  The seventh novel Goldfinger (reviewed here) comes next, followed by more middle of the road stories including his fourth novel, Diamonds Are Forever, which was good but not great and reviewed here, followed by the all-out misfires in the series: the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, reviewed here, and the tenth novel in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me, reviewed here.

Frequently out of print, used copies and old stock of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are usually available here at Amazon.  Next up: Fleming’s twelfth Bond novel, You Only Live TwiceThat will be followed by the final Fleming Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, and then I’ll double back with the Bond short stories beginning with For Your Eyes Only.

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