Marc-Ange thanks Bond for helping Tracy, and Bond gets a flash of inspiration. The two men form an unlikely alliance to hunt down Ernst Stavro Blofeld. (If you need a refresher on Blofeld and what he was up to last time, see my review of Thunderball.) Marc-Ange shares Bond’s hatred of Blofeld, who has bribed several of his men away from the Union Corse. Before long, Bond is back in London and is summoned to the College of Arms. He finds out that Blofeld has been in touch with the College, eager to engage them on a research project. It seems Blofeld is very eager to establish himself as the rightful heir to the de Bleuville title. Perhaps he wants to acquire a veneer of respectability like some of the previous Bond villains. Perhaps he’s simply lusting after a title. Either way, Blofeld has revealed himself and it’s up to Bond to play the cards right. So the plot is hatched: Bond will impersonate a Scottish nobleman and gain access to Blofeld’s stronghold, on the pretext of needing a personal interview to establish certain details. And thus Bond is plunged into an unforgettable adventure, though it’s probably all in a day’s work when you’re On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The villains also rise to the challenge. Blofeld is never as menacing as he is in OHMSS. In Thunderball his role is downplayed and in the follow-up to this book, You Only Live Twice, Blofeld loses his menacing edge and simply goes Cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs. But in OHMSS, he manages to convey a sense of genuine evil. He’s a meticulous plotter, and although you know that he must be up to something, he puts on such a sanctimonious act that you begin to wonder alongside Bond whether Blofeld really has changed.
I really like the small touches of humour that Fleming demonstrates throughout the book. For instance, one morning Bond is woken up by a scream. He calls a servant to his room and asks what just happened. The man is evasive. He finally concedes that one of the guides has fallen. When Bond asks if the fellow is badly hurt, the reply is: “Is possible, sir. You wish for breakfast?” The plot set-up also strikes me as a bit self-conscious of the Bond formula, as the Blofeld stronghold is full of beautiful women: ten of them, to be precise. The sight is so stunning that Bond has to struggle to keep his cool. And at one point, Bond even spots the film star, Ursula Andress!
Bond does the unthinkable and proposes to Tracy. I have the distinct impression that the proposal comes as just as big of a surprise to Bond as to Tracy. He just suddenly wakes up to the fact that he loves this girl and wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and on the spur of the moment he pops the question. It’s a spontaneous moment, but Tracy’s reaction shows you just how genuine their affection for each other is.
That makes the ending to this novel only the more tragic. This was my second time reading OHMSS, and it’s one of the moments in the series that literally made me cry. This time, knowing what was about to happen, I could see the inevitable shadow of doom loom over Bond and Tracy. I wanted to warn these people to watch out, and I was unable to do so. I was left watching helplessly, horrified, as the wedding was interrupted by Blofeld and Irma Bunt driving by, firing a machine gun. Their revenge now complete, the couple from hell went riding off into the sunset while Bond, shaken from his experience was left with Tracy’s body. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s failed: he promised to look after her and he hasn’t been able to do so. So he stays by her side and when an officer asks what has happened, he helplessly repeats his last words to Tracy, as though she were still alive: “We’ve got all the time in the world.” Just thinking about this moment makes me tear up, and when I reached this point in the audiobook I honestly did cry a little bit. This book just really affects me on a personal level.
If you’ve never read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I highly recommend it. It’s the last true masterpiece in the Bond saga, with one of the best romances of the series and a story with a secret plot that is wildly imaginative without crossing the line into impossibility. Blofeld is at his best in this book, and the action is tremendously exciting. There are also some really nice moments of self-referential humour. It’s a terrific read.