Friday, March 01, 2013

007 Reloaded: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Beautiful women show up everywhere in the James Bond series. But when Bond meets Tracy di Vicenzo, he feels something very different for her. She isn’t just another prize to be won and bedded. At the start of the novel, Bond prevents her from potentially committing suicide… and just as suddenly, the two find themselves kidnapped. Bond takes this time to reflect on the past few days, his initial encounter with Tracy, etc., and when the kidnapper finally reveals himself, it turns out to be Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange… the head of the Union Corse.

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.

For me, OHMSS is the last James Bond masterpiece. The plot is quietly brilliant: it manages to suck you in and there’s a genuinely clever scheme at work. Sure, it’s over-the-top and nobody would ever expect it to happen in real life, but improbable as it may be, this is an old-school adventure and somehow, it doesn’t feel impossible. This plot matches the high-flying pace of books like Goldfinger and Dr. No. The biggest action set-pieces are skiing sequences, and they are tremendously exciting. Fleming really throws you into the middle of the scene, as though you were skiing right alongside Bond, and it’s thrilling reading. Supposedly Fleming made a bunch of mistakes in this book - people drink the wrong kind of wine, etc. - but I never noticed, and you probably won't, either.

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.

Blofeld also has a delightfully evil companion, Fraulein Irma Bunt. She is a strict woman, acting almost like a prison warden. She’s also incredibly greedy – when Bond, in character as Sir Hilary Bray, suggests that Fraulein Bunt might have a noble ancestry, her eyes suddenly light up and she’s only too willing to talk about her parents and how her family is descended from a Graf von Bunt. You get the sense that Fleming enjoyed writing this character: even though she’s just a sidekick, she enjoys theatricality like any major Bond villain and can be just as menacing at times!

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!

But for me, what really elevates OHMSS is the human element. Bond’s romance with Tracy is one of the best romances in the entire series. Their relationship begins with a bitter encounter and with harsh words, but there’s a kernel of some sort of emotion in that encounter. And this kernel slowly flourishes and turns into something that is beautiful, warm, tender, and genuine. In this respect, the romance is practically the inverse of the bitter love story to be found in the short story Quantum of Solace. You really feel the connection that these two people have with each other. Finally, 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.

Notes on the audiobook: The “007 Reloaded” series has had some brilliant recordings thus far, and I thought I’d have some serious trouble picking a favourite recording… and then David Tennant stepped in. He delivered the best recording of this series, hands-down. He’s perfectly cast. Bond spends much of his time impersonating a Scottish nobleman, and the very Scottish Tennant is a perfect choice to portray Bond in this mode. He also does a fantastic job with Blofeld, making him sound evil and menacing without going over the top. But his greatest triumph might very well be Irma Bunt, infusing her with a greedy, stern, and slightly haughty persona with a taste for the theatrical. In the post-audiobook interview, Tennant confessed that Bunt was a particular favourite and you can really tell. Tennant admitted that he hadn’t read the book before, but he knew the movie reasonably well and the plot was (for once) very faithful to the source material. But what makes this recording particularly brilliant is that Tennant really understands what the Bond-Tracy romance is all about and plays it very much the way I described. In fact, his comments in the post-audiobook interview on this romance are very similar to my own thoughts! A decent audiobook is one where the narrator does a good job reading a book to you. A great audiobook is one where the narrator becomes part of the story, and those audiobooks feel more like acting gigs where the narrator has been cast in the role. This is one of those rare cases where an audiobook reader is perfectly suited to read the book in question, and he delivers on every ounce of that potential. This is a recording that is simply a must. Highly, highly recommended.

6 comments:

  1. Sorry, I made a pretty bad typo.

    Knowing David Tennant's acting ability from "Doctor Who" I can only imagine what sort of emotion he is able to conjure during the reading of the book's final scene. I would be surprised if anyone didn't cry at his reading.

    It's just my opinion, but I thought this book was a bit *underwhelming*. Fleming's writing was great as usual, but I just a little let down by the book. I am sure that if I read it again today, I'd appreciate it much more. I really cannot explain why, but that's just my reaction. Great review as usual though Patrick.

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    1. I'm not the biggest Tennant fan -- I've only seen two episodes of Dr. Who (the Christie one and the Shakespeare one). But I do think he really showed off his acting chops in this audiobook. I still think readings like Toby Stephens' and Dan Stevens' were brilliant readings, but this one is even better for me. That being said, I'm definitely biased because of my fondness for this book, but I think it's justified!

      It's a huge relief that Tennant was able to deliver on that final scene. It's one of the most emotionally powerful ones in the series, if not *the* most.

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  2. This was one of my favorite Bond movies, but I have not read the book. I hope when I read the book, I will enjoy it as much. Your review certainly indicates that I will. I am enjoying all of these reviews of the Bond books.

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    1. For once the movie was actually really close to the book. Some stuff was changed, but if you've seen the movie you basically know the plot to this book. Luckily, even on a re-read it made for terrific reading, so I think you'd enjoy it fine.

      I recently watched this film adaptation, actually, and I liked it a lot, but I do admit I have one problem with the film. After the emotional final scene, the end credits suddenly interrupt the sad moment with a lively rendition of the Bond tune. I know it's a Bond picture, but that felt really out-of-place. A more dramatic rendition of the 007 theme might have been more appropriate. Apart from that, it's a terrific film.

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    2. I think read somewhere that the film was supposed to end with silence, but the inclusion of the Bond theme was added in shortly before the film's release. I agree it should have ended differently on that note.

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  3. It's a long time since I read this book but of all the Bond novels it's the one that has stuck with me. Now I think I'm going to have to read it again!

    The movie version is also one of the two or three best Bond movies.

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