I was about twelve years old when a nearby library system held a “big tent” book sale. My parents, knowing me well, drove me some distance to get there, and then set me loose. It was a hot day, but the tent provided shade for me and the tables upon tables upon tables of battered, sometimes yellowing paperbacks. I still remember the smell of warm, dusty books. I think I ended up with two boxes full of mystery and suspense novels at about a nickel each. The only books I remember from that haul, however, are Ian Fleming ’s James Bond novels.
At that age, I would read anything that turned up, including piles of “male adventure” novels given to us by a neighbor. At that age, I’d already read some of the Travis McGee series, and some miscellaneous Mack Bolan and Mike Hammer and the like. I was only peripherally aware at the time of the misogyny of those books, perhaps because there were rarely any female characters with any agency at all. As a child of the 1970s, I had grown used to imagining myself as the male lead character, because I didn’t have much other choice. Some powerless pre-teens like to imagine they have magical powers or unlimited popularity. I preferred the idea of being armed and dangerous.
I knew about the James Bond movies, but had never seen one, and already a bit of a snob, just knew I would prefer the books anyway. I was very excited to spot the bright yellow cover of Casino Royale. Right next to it were four more books from the series—jackpot! After searching the rest of that table, I ended up with a few more, and bought them all, ending up with almost the entire series, which I carefully shelved in publication order. I later bought Diamonds are Forever and The Man With the Golden Gun new, using my allowance money, and years later triumphantly found the Octopussy collection in paperback.
I imagine you’re wondering what my parents thought of my choice of these books. In fact, they didn’t even look through the boxes. They never restricted what I read, I guess assuming I wouldn’t choose anything too adult; as for me, I took everything I read in stride, though I was glad not to be asked. As you can imagine, the James Bond novels represented an unusual experience for a pre-teen girl.
To me, James Bond was alien; more alien to me, in fact, than literally alien heroes of the science fiction I’d read. For instance, he had a limited, boring wardrobe and was very particular about his habits. He smoked, which to me meant he smelled nasty. I didn’t understand yet that these things were meant to be the epitome of masculine cool, because I didn’t share the cultural milieu of the intended audience (male, 1950s to 1960s). To me, those traits were character flaws I had to ignore in order to enjoy the stories.
And enjoy them I did. I loved that Bond wasn’t always completely successful in his missions. The fact that he made mistakes, was horribly injured, and sometimes got the wrong people killed, engaged my sympathies on his behalf. I loved the mystery of his naval career, and that the books gave only hints of his pre-spying past. Most of all, I identified with his solitude and loneliness, his constant feeling of being set apart by his duties and his experiences. Despite the misogyny of the novels, I found common experience between an embittered British spy and an American pre-teen girl.
I especially loved that Bond had, in my opinion, a devoted friend in Felix Leiter: Diamonds Are Forever became my favorite of the novels because of Felix’s large role. I was always disappointed to open a new Bond novel and find that, once again, Felix did not appear, and I when I at last began to see the James Bond movies, I was always dissatisfied with Felix as portrayed on screen. That, too, might be attributed to being a pre-teen in search of a true friend.
My love for the books wasn’t perfect, however. I was sometimes taken aback by the violence of the plots, and that was the other major influence the Bond novels had on me: they encouraged me to think about violence, and when and how it might be felt necessary or justified, and how violent actions can affect not only the victims but the perpetrators. I’m not sure Ian Fleming had that in mind, but that’s what a classic genre novel can do, and I think that’s why those books are still read today. The implication and influence of the stories goes far beyond the adventure plot.
I haven’t re-read the Bond novels in at least a couple of decades. Sometimes I wonder if I should, or if I should let them live in my memory, instead.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.