Friday, March 15, 2013

007 Reloaded: Octopussy and the Living Daylights

Well, this has been a long journey, but they all must eventually come to an end. I’ve been making my way through Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels book-by-book, and have rediscovered old favourites and made new ones. I’ve finally gotten to read You Only Live Twice, the only adventure I had not yet read. And I concluded the novels a while back with my review of The Man with the Golden Gun.

However, James Bond refused to die there. One final book was published after Ian Fleming’s death, collecting the last James Bond short stories. The book was called Octopussy and the Living Daylights, and those two stories originally formed the entire book. However, over time two more stories were added to this book (which is sometimes published as Octopussy). For me this formed one final glimmer of excitement—when I originally read this book, I am fairly certain that there were only the two titular stories in the collection. (A few years ago when I first read these books, I must have gotten hold of an earlier edition.) So although I thought I had no more Bond to discover, it turns out I had two more adventures to read! So what did I think of these stories? Let’s get started.

This is the story of a horrifying war crime told through the viewpoint of one Major Dexter Smythe. Smythe is ostensibly a hero of the Second World War, but the truth is far uglier: he took advantage of his position and the general post-war confusion to steal a horde of Nazi gold. He accomplished this through murder, by abducting a local guide and getting him to point out a safe path through the mountains. Smythe did not mention the gold and pretended to befriend the man, only to murder him and dump the body.

Years later, after the supply of gold is nearly gone, James Bond shows up at Major Smythe’s doorstep. And he seems to know everything. Smythe finally confesses, and then Bond leaves him alone in a more updated version of leaving-the-murderer-alone-in-a-room-for-five-minutes-with-a-gun. Smythe goes out in a far more dramatic fashion, however…

I like this story very much. It really gets in depth on the morality of murder, and how his actions really affected Smythe long after he pulled the trigger. I also like the narrative structure, which starts with a guilty Smythe thinking about Bond (who has just left) and then the tale proceeds largely in flashback mode. I don’t want to say too much more, because there is more to the story than I have described. Either way, this is a fine story and one of the better Bond tales.

The Property of a Lady
Of the two stories I hadn’t read before, The Property of a Lady is the more interesting one. The plot revolves around a traitor in the Secret Service who suddenly gets a valuable present from a deceased relative and decides to auction it off. Bond and M deduce that this is really an ingenious one-time-payoff system that our friends from the KGB have developed. This part is genuinely clever and interesting.

Unfortunately, Bond then makes a deduction about the upcoming auction which has got some pretty flawed logic behind it. But rather than vetoing him, M agrees that Bond must be correct and so sends him on a mission. Obviously Bond’s hunch pays off, but he seems to have a bit too easy a time with the whole thing. At one point Fleming may as well have described the writing of this story.

“Bond wished that M. had given him some kind of a brief, hadn’t got this puckish, rather childishly malign desire to surprise – to spring the jack-in-a-box on his staff. But Bond, remembering his own boredom of ten minutes ago, and putting himself in M.’s place, had the intuition to realize that M. himself might have been subject to the same June heat, the same oppressive vacuum in his duties, and, faced by the unexpected relief of an emergency, a small one perhaps, had decided to extract the maximum effect, the maximum drama, out of it to relieve his own tedium.”

It’s unfortunately too accurate a description of this story. It hasn’t got a particular dramatic punch to it or anything of the sort, it just sort-of exists and it seems like Fleming is trying to extract as much drama as he can from it. Unfortunately it isn’t quite successful.

The Living Daylights
James Bond is sent to Berlin on a top-secret mission: he has to kill a man. More specifically, he must protect agent 272, who will attempt to escape from the East side of the city. However, the Russians have found out about this plan and are sending one of their top snipers, a man codenamed “Trigger”. Bond must kill Trigger before Trigger kills 272.

I dare not describe more of the plot, but this is one of my very favourite Bond stories. The ending is excellent and really dives into Bond’s psychology. Throughout the series, we have seen that he is reluctant to kill people. He doesn’t consider it an enjoyable part of his duties, but it is a necessary part of his duties. Bond expresses his emotions at the end of the story, and it’s a brilliant moment where you get to dive into his head. Obviously, I’m being vague here for the purposes of spoilers, but this is a story that must be read and experienced in order to be appreciated.

007 in New York
I hate using this word, but this story is just inconsequential. You can remove it entirely from the 007 canon and nothing will happen. You won’t even lose much because Fleming wrote a bunch of articles in this vein about various “Thrilling Cities”. This reads like a fictionalised article on New York with Bond hastily thrown into the mix, and for all I know it might very well be just that. Here’s the plot: James Bond drives around New York, pops in to say a few words to someone he knows, and leaves. The End. This is certainly the most underwhelming way to end this short story collection. Had this been sandwiched between the two title stories, the two weak stories would have been in the middle and the two excellent stories would have started and finished the book and left you with a better impression of 007 than this.


I don’t think Octopussy and the Living Daylights is as strong a collection as the previous one, For Your Eyes Only. Certainly, the first book had a more consistent quality of story. However, both collections contain some of Bond’s best adventures, stories good enough to have built novels around them if only Fleming had been with us longer.

Unfortunately, Ian Fleming left this world at the age of 56 on August 12th, 1964. I only wish he’d stuck around longer and given us more of these wonderful stories. His talent and imagination are very much missed, and at least this book offered readers a more solid “goodbye” than the not-quite-finished The Man with the Golden Gun.

Note: This book is not available in the audiobook series “007 Reloaded”. The short story collections are the only ones to have been left out of this series.

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