M summons James Bond into his office and delivers a stern lecture. It seems that Bond’s last physical exam was a disappointing one – not surprising when the man drinks excessively and smokes up to sixty cigarettes a day. So M decides that Bond has got to look after his health more. And he sends him off to the Shrublands health clinic to regain his strength, get off the alcohol and cigarettes, and get back on the track to good health!
But while there, Bond comes across the mysterious Count Lippe, a man with a secret to hide. It turns out he is a member of the Red Lightning Tong, which operates in Macau. Soon after he makes the discovery, an attempt is made on Bond’s life by tampering with a spinal traction machine. Luckily, Bond survives the attack and retaliates against the Count. Unknown to Bond, this childish game of revenge delays a major conspiracy, Plan Omega, that is about to rock the Western world…
You see, Count Lippe is actually a member of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, SPECTRE hijacks a plane carrying two nuclear bombs and sends a letter to the Prime Minister and to the President. They are holding the two bombs at ransom for £100 million. If the money is not paid in time, SPECTRE will destroy a valuable piece of property. If, after that, the money is still not paid, a major city will be annihilated.
I remember when I first read Thunderball, I noticed that there was an acknowledgment that the novel was based on a story that Ian Fleming and some other people (I didn’t care who they were, to be honest) had written. It turns out that one of those people was Kevin McClory, who wasn’t happy to say the least. And so he sued and eventually, after a long legal battle, he won out. This is why Thunderball has been filmed twice, with Sean Connery reprising his role as an older James Bond in Never Say Never Again. (McClory was at one point even trying to film a third version of the story, with Timothy Dalton in the main role, but this never took off the ground.)
But perhaps Fleming thought it would be okay? After all, Dr. No used elements that Fleming had pitched for a TV show to be called Commander Jamaica, starring James Gunn in his battles against the sinister Dr. No. For Your Eyes Only was composed of recycled material from another proposed television series. After two such books, I can’t blame Fleming for taking the material he’d collaborated with on Thunderball and writing a book around it. After all, it’s one hell of a story and the movie seemed like it was getting nowhere.
Thunderball is the first of the so-called “Blofeld trilogy”, a series of three books in which Ernst Stavro Blofeld appears. Plan Omega is his brainchild, and he’s the man behind SPECTRE, but oddly enough Blofeld is not the main villain. For reasons explained in the novel, he isn’t even represented at SPECTRE by the number 1: instead he goes by number 2, and Largo is number 1. This is appropriate, since Largo is the main villain of the novel, and at the end Blofeld escapes to fight another day. (I don’t think this counts as a spoiler since we know there are two more books with Blofeld as the villain.)
I like Largo. He’s truly a larger-than-life character, and his naming suggests that Fleming was all-too-aware of it. Also, he’s one of the first Bond villains to murder someone at an Evil Villain Board Meeting For the Purpose of Delivering Exposition. When a Russian member of SPECTRE starts asking some smart-ass questions in an attempt to undermine Largo’s authority, Largo calmly shoots him and carries on with the meeting. Earlier in the novel, Blofeld murdered someone else at a board meeting, but it is for a piece of infidelity unrelated to Plan Omega. Still, that’s two boardroom deaths in one novel. When you consider that and names like Emilio Largo, it makes you wonder whether Fleming was engaging in conscious self-parody…
As much as I like the novel, I don’t consider Thunderball a personal favourite. It’s got plenty of good elements and makes for a terrific read, but Blofeld doesn’t come across as much of a threat. This is because he’s constantly downplayed In favour of Largo, and Largo is taken care of by the end of the novel. Blofeld would be made far more menacing in the second installment of the “Blofeld Trilogy”, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Thunderball is a highly entertaining, light read. The action is terrific. Fleming’s sense of humour is also great. It’s a worthy introduction to SPECTRE, which goes off limping into a corner at the end of the novel but will return to bite Bond in the derrière. And it’s just fun to read, which is far more than can be said for the next Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. But more on that next time.