Mon
Apr 20 2015 4:00pm

The Gadgetless and Tired Assassin: James Bond’s Short Stories

Every so often the caretakers of the James Bond movie franchise talk about getting back to author Ian Fleming’s original creation, distancing themselves from the outlandish stunts, gadgets, and cartoonish violence that helped turn 007 into a billion dollar staple but undermined any sense of believability in the series. A reboot featuring Daniel Craig’s stark portrayal in Casino Royale (2006) helped wash away some seriously low points in Bond history. Though I may never be able to completely forget the burned-in-my-brain scene of 007 snowboarding down a mountainside, in 1985’s A View to a Kill, to the playful tune of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” the recent Casino makeover did much to right the rudder, so to speak, navigating Commander Bond closer to Fleming’s darker waters.

But, let’s dream a bit. What it would really be like if they got back to those Fleming fundamentals. Back to the uncompromising British emissary that  villainess Vesper Lynd describes in Casino Royale (1953) as “something cold and ruthless." The man with the license to kill who soberly reflects in Goldfinger (1959), “it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional—worse, it was a death-watch beetle in the soul.” And though I appreciate the iconic Fleming novels, let me scale even further back to basics where the definitive essence of James Bond — the tired assassin, the man on the edge — lies … in the short stories.

Apart from die-hard James Bond aficionados, I suspect many may be unaware of “Risico,” “The Hildebrand Rarity,” “The Property of a Lady,” and “007 in New York.” And while other titles may sound familiar (“For Your Eyes Only,” “From a View to a Kill,”  The Living Daylights ,” and “Quantum of Solace), these short stories actually have little in common with their filmed counterparts other than in name only. No mind-numbing action for the sake of it in these original tales, but rather slices of life that reflect a conscientious take on the thin line separating life and death and the worn down-and-out individuals operating on the razor’s edge.

Here are some examples:

“Quantum of Solace” (Cosmopolitan, 1959)

007 is in Nassau attending a dull party attended by a bunch of boring socialites. Bond remarks, “I’ve always thought that if I ever married I would marry an air hostess.” He only says this to shake up conversation and break the monotony as he sits with the elderly governor of the Bahamas. The governor, who is equally at a loss conversing with the young agent, begins reminiscing about a relationship between one Philip Masters and an air hostess. The tale of intrigue with a little twist in the revelation of the stewardess opens Bond’s eyes to the fact that everyday life drama can be just as exciting as Her Majesty’s Secret Service. On a side note, Bond is in Nassau to blow up a couple of cabin cruisers containing arms headed for Castro’s revolution. As he sits at the droll party, reflecting, “...he hadn’t wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels...” This sentiment must have raised a few eyebrows back in 1960 and highlights that beyond everything else, James Bond is a civil servant who follows orders.

“The Hildebrand Rarity” (Playboy, 1960)

Bond is in the Seychelles Islands where he is introduced to millionaire Milton Krest, who is searching for a rare species of fish. Krest is a lout — he is verbally abusive to everyone and physically abusive to his wife. Later, out to sea, 007 hears Krest choking and comes to find the man murdered with the coveted fish he had captured crammed down his throat. It quickly becomes a whodunit, but the question is, does anyone really give a damn if the murder is solved? Not our cold-blooded hero who throws the body overboard, cleans up the murder scene, and makes it look like Krest accidently tumbled into the water. Bond's uncompromising line of reasoning is glimpsed when he discovers Krest had poured a poisonous substance into the water in order to claim the prize and he reaches the conclusion that it's easier to kill men like the unprincipled Milton Krest than a school of innocent fish.

“The Property of a Lady” (The Ivory Hammer, Sotheby's Annual, 1963)

This tale opens with a bored 007 at the office reading a dissertation from the Scientific Research Station on how the Russians are using cyanide gas propelled by a kid’s water pistol that is most effective when aimed at an enemy’s face. These brief asides—seemingly throwaway passages—where we get into Bond’s thoughts and day-to-day activities, help enhance the agent to something more than a cut-out character that he had become in the worst of the films. He’s interrupted and called away to M’s office where he is given the assignment of investigating Maria Freudenstein, a secret service double agent whose Russian handlers plan to pay for her services by auctioning a Faberge clock in her name at Sotheby’s. The Director of the KGB in London has been sent to the auction house to underbid in order to push up the price. 007’s job is to spot the man—unknown by physical appearance to MI6—so that England can deport him.

“007 in New York” (New York Herald Tribune, 1963)

Bond is in New York City to warn an unnamed English woman, a former Secret Service member, that she is unwittingly romancing a KGB agent, and the FBI and CIA are zeroing in on her situation. It’s a touchy assignment because Bond doesn’t want the American cousins to get wind of him tipping off their former employee. But other than revealing, toward the very end of the escapade, that the English woman tries to commit suicide, the rest of the piece is dedicated to Bond’s favorable and unfavorable musings on The Big Apple. It’s definitely the most offbeat off all Fleming stories but one of the more revealing including, get this, Bond’s recipe for scrambled eggs!

It’s hard to imagine a modern film producer gambling on one hundred percent faithful adaptations of Ian Fleming’s stories, but for fans who really want to get to Bond’s core, it’s in these leaner adventures that the true heart of James Bond beats and why his audience have been shaken and stirred since 1953.


Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent Western novella, Hell Town Shootout.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
14 comments
1. Garnett Elliott
Thought-provoking piece. I'd always thought 'Quantum of Solace' was a modern title.
Lon Bailey
2. lgwbailey
I always liked the Living Daylights - I recall it was about Bond shooting an assassin before the assassin can carry out his mission. The flip side of the story was Bond meeting(?) a girl and the ending brought all the strands together. I liked it because it showed Bond as a person with dreams and wishes as well as trying to compromise between his mission and his wishes.
David Cranmer
3. DavidCranmer
Garnett, When I saw they were filming "Quantum of Solace" I was hoping there would be some element of the short story. But its barely visible.

lgwbailey, Well said. "The Living Daylights" is a perfect example of the three-dimensional 007.
4. Charles Allen Gramlich
Since I actually came to Bond first through the movies, with Roger Moore, I accepted the gadgets as part of the story. Later when I read the books I could see how far the movies had strayed. But since I didn't develop my first loyalaties to the books I wasn't too bothered by it.
David Cranmer
5. DavidCranmer
I was the same way, Charles. Moore was my first Bond and I loved the gadgets and cartoonish villains, at first, but somewhere around the first couple Brosnan films I grew tired of all the silliness and found Fleming's creation far more endearing. I do think Daniel Craig's take is about as close as we'll get to the original besides Connery's Dr. No and From Russia With Love.
6. Oscar Case
Great post on something I know little about, not having read Fleming. I did see some of the 007 movies though.
8. JHM
Is there a collection of these short stories in a single volume?
David Cranmer
9. DavidCranmer
JHM, Its called Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short stories.
10. Drew
When I was a kid, the librarian let me take out the Fleming novels and I read them in secret at home. I remember that "Casino Royale" cover and how it reminded me of one of Herb Albert's Tijuana Brass album covers. For an impressionable boy, the book and album covers covered a lot of ground.
David Cranmer
11. DavidCranmer
I have half that experience, Drew. I also remember reading Bond, in secret, until a school teacher spotted my copy of Goldfinger and swiped it and then read it himself during one of our study halls. He handed it back complaining that there were too many passages devoted to golf. I remember sweating it out that he would read some of the racy parts and inform my parents.
12. A Cuban In London
A very informative post. Thank you very much. You have given me a good insight into a hitherto little-known subject.

Greetings from London.
13. Prashant C. Trikannad
David, I had no idea Fleming had written short stories and that some of the so-called film adaptations were based on those stories. I haven't read a Fleming in several years but I can see why the producers have had to glamourise 007 with over-the-top action and adventure. I agree, Craig has to some extent put the emotional quotient back in Bond's character. He has been fairly vulnerable since CASINO ROYALE.
David Cranmer
14. DavidCranmer
A Cuban In London, Thank you for giving it a read!

Prashant, The first two Bond films had minor gadgetry and were hits but once the decked out Aston Martin showed up in Goldfinger... that changed everything. Sent the whole series into another orbit.
Post a comment