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Tag Archive: The Spy Who Loved Me


Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarentino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

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Jaws-paperback

Reviewed by C.J. Bunce

For the Fourth of July that is arriving on the heels of the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of the blockbuster movie Jaws, what better time for a summer reading of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel that the movie is based on?

Well it was a good notion.

And it’s the notion in the novel Jaws–the premise–that fortunately inspired scriptwriter Carl Gottlieb, and Benchley himself–to both expand the novel, and more importantly, whittle it down, into such a finely executed, classic film.

But wait, Jaws was a bestseller!  A book that was on everyone’s bookshelf in the early 1970s!  Who doesn’t remember that book cover, and who didn’t sing the praises of that book?

The first third of the novel is quite good, exciting reading that fans of the film will be familiar with:  The death of a young woman at night swimming with her boyfriend in the northwest beach community of Amity, the politics of Chief Brody and the Mayor keeping the beaches open, and the subsequent death of a boy and lambasting of Brody by the boy’s mother for not closing down the beaches after the first death.  The introductory chapters really set up the reader for a wild ride.

Jaws_novel_cover

Unfortunately from there the story drifts off course and never returns to the excitement of the set-up.

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Bond-SpyWhoLovedMe

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.

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