Readers remember characters. They know Falstaff, Fagin, Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves, even if they cannot name a book or play in which the character appeared. No one remembers my plots, but they name their daughters after Aliena and tell me how much they hate William Hamleigh.
James Bond must be the best known fictional character of the twentieth century, perhaps of any century. The movies have become a mammoth cultural phenomenon, grossing $7 billion so far. People in India and China and Brazil know the name of this English spy – and his number, 007. But the glare of the film success tends to make pale the softer glow of the original twelve novels and nine short stories.
The character Fleming created was more believable than any previous secret agent: vulnerable, obsessive, superstitious, romantic. Bond was the first spy to have an office with a desk and a secretary. After watching the movies we forget that the books were famous for their gritty realism. For example, Fleming was the first thriller writer to understand the limitations of firearms: in the middle of a gunfight in From Russia with Love, Bond reflects that thirty yards is too far for accurate shooting with an automatic pistol at night.
The novels were thought to be sexy at the time, though nowadays the actual love scenes look tame. However, the books are full of episodes in which the dramatic tension is powerfully heightened by an erotic undercurrent. Moonraker provides several thrilling examples. Bond and Gala have only one brief kiss in the entire novel, but look at this, as they hide in a ventilator shaft and curl up together to shelter one another from a blast of steam:
“He felt one knee creep up until it was locked between his thighs. His own knee followed suit until it would go no further. She squirmed furiously. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ whispered Bond…”
Moments later they take refuge in a bathroom shower and turn on the water in the hope of cushioning the effects of a rocket blast:
“Soaked and bleeding they stood in each others arms, speechless and trembling slightly with the storm of their emotions. Their eyes were blank and fathomless as they met and held each other’s gaze.”
All these scenes combine nakedness, intimacy and pain. They vividly evoke carnal attraction while the characters are too frightened and distracted to care. We call it indirection, and it works. At the end of Moonraker Bond and Gala part with a handshake, as if a scene of ordinary lovemaking would be an anti-climax.
Most importantly, for me, Fleming creating a unique prose style that perfectly matches his hero. Few authors have this gift. Lee Child is a distinctive modern exception, and his hero Jack Reacher owes much to Bond.
Fleming’s prose is precise, colloquial, and knowing. “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent,” runs the alluring first sentence of Live and Let Die. Fleming was the first author to harness the power of the language used by advertising people and journalists. A couple of pages later:
“Bond sank back luxuriously as the big limousine surged forward, slipping quickly into top through the Dynaflow gears.”
We don’t really care about the gears, but the word “Dynaflow”, dreamed up by some talented marketing man, perfectly nails the sense of smooth power.
Fleming understood that description in prose fiction must do more than merely paint a picture in the mind of the reader. It must work harder than that to hold our attention. Here’s Darko Kerim, a character so good that he was probably killed off to stop him overshadowing Bond:
“It was a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel and debauched, but what one noticed more than its drama was that it radiated life. Bond thought he had never seen so much vitality and warmth in a human face.”
It’s a vivid portrait but, more than that, it conveys a strong sense of the man’s presence. The reader might almost be in the room with him.
In Goldfinger Bond has a meeting at the Bank of England. After a fulsome description of the lavish décor, notice how the last seven words, emotional rather than descriptive, create the sense of place:
“Bond walked up the steps and through the fine bronze portals and into the spacious, softly echoing entrance hall… Over all hung the neutral smell of air-conditioned air and the heavy grave atmosphere of immense riches.”
The success of Bond is not a lucky fluke. It began with a novelist of extraordinary ability. Actor Daniel Craig and producer Barbara Broccoli, both highly talented people themselves, are harvesting the crop that Fleming planted.
Bond is one element in a wider phenomenon. British culture goes all over the world. More than any other country of comparable size, we sell our films, pop music, contemporary art, drama, fashion and novels internationally. Why are we so good at culture? It’s largely because we have an exceptionally rich inheritance, from Shakespeare to Mary Quant. James Bond is part of that inheritance, and like many others I am profoundly grateful to Ian Fleming for creating him.
International best-selling author Ken Follett has sold over 181 million copies in more than 80 countries and 40 languages. His first major success was Eye of the Needle and his 1989 novel, The Pillars of the Earth, topped bestseller lists worldwide. His most recent novel, Never, was published in 2021.
Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was an author, journalist and naval intelligence officer. His novels featuring the British secret agent 007, otherwise known as James Bond, have been in print for over sixty years. Fleming also wrote the children’s classic adventure story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.