I’ve read almost all the Bond novels – You Only Live Twice is the only exception – and I’m a big fan. But I knew nothing about the author, Ian Fleming. What was he like? How did he get the idea for Bond? I had no idea. All I could tell you was that he was British and that his Jamaican house was called Goldeneye. As readers of my blog might recall, I decided that in 2013 I would read all of Fleming’s Bond novels. But to do this properly, I felt it was best to first learn more about Ian Fleming. And so I picked up Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond by Andrew Lycett.
I have walked away fairly satisfied from the book. I know a lot more about Fleming than I did before. I think I have some interesting context with which to consider the Bond novels. For instance, when I originally read the Bond novels, I was never aware of their controversial past. It’s been brought to my attention in the last year that Fleming was often considered a British Mickey Spillane, but until now I had no idea just what kind of critical thrashing Fleming got for his books, which are pleasant, entertaining reads. He was vilified by critics as representing the decay of British society, portraying perverse morals and values. Reading the quoted reviews, I was utterly shocked when I realized that you could substitute “Mickey Spillane” for “Ian Fleming” and you’d get very much the same piece of writing. As loved as Bond is, there was something in those original novels that got some critics’ blood boiling.
Perhaps this approach reflects Fleming’s own attitude. Later in his career, he would refer to the Bond stories as amusing, but inconsequential, stories but those early novels seem to be showing a more serious purpose at times. At any rate, it may be thin on literary details, but at least Lycett’s book has filled in some serious gaps in my Bond-related knowledge. Some of these gaps were so immense that I’m embarrassed to admit to them! For instance – and this is positively humiliating – I had no idea what kind of complex legal battle was waged over Fleming’s novel Thunderball. I remember reading it for the first time (immediately after The Spy Who Loved Me) and noticing that it was apparently based on a screenplay Fleming and some others had come up with, but I had no idea about the legal battle that ensued over the novel and that this was why we got a non-EON Productions Bond film: Never Say Never Again. Lycett analyzes Thunderball pretty thoroughly to try and sort out just who came up with what ideas, but the conclusions are unfortunately somewhat vague.
I recommend the book to fellow Bond fans, and those who don’t know much about Ian Fleming. Andrew Lycett paints a fascinating portrait, with such side characters as Noel Coward strolling in to play a supporting role in Ian’s life. The book has a few shortcomings on the literary side, but this generally means that only a few of the Bond books are spoiled in Lycett’s discussions. Overall, it’s quite an interesting read.