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