Saturday, 5 March 2016

James Bond book 3: Moonraker


Moonraker by Ian Fleming


published 1955



Moonraker



The door opened and he had his daily moment of pleasure at having a beautiful secretary. ‘Morning, Lil,’ he said….

She turned away from the window. She was dressed in a sugar-pink and white striped shirt and a plain dark blue skirt. Bond smiled into her grey eyes. ‘I only call you Lil on Mondays,’ he said. ‘Miss Ponsonby the rest of the week. But I’ll never call you Loelia. It sounds like somebody in an indecent limerick. Any messages?’

[He is called in to see M]

Miss Moneypenny, M.’ s private secretary, looked up from her typewriter and smiled at him. They liked each other and she knew that Bond admired her looks. She was wearing the same model shirt as his own secretary, but with blue stripes. ‘New uniform, Penny?’ said Bond. She laughed. ‘Loelia and I share the same little woman,’ she said. ‘We tossed and I got blue.’ A snort came through the open door of the adjoining room. The Chief of Staff, a man of about Bond’s age, came out, a sardonic grin on his pale, overworked face.

[Later on]

Gala Brand had stubbed out her breakfast cigarette, swallowed the remains of her coffee, left her bedroom and walked across to the site, looking very much the private secretary in a spotless white shirt and dark blue pleated skirt.
 
commentary: And on to the third James Bond book, where we see a lot more of what you might call his routine daily life.

A question arises: why does James Bond need a secretary? What does she do all day? Hers is a senior role, as secretarial (and women’s) posts go: she is a Principal Secretary. But why? Presumably she types up reports at the end of a case, and makes occasional appointments for him, but apart from that… In this book Bond’s routine work includes practising with firearms and reading important reports, for example:

Possible points of concealment on trains. No. II. Germany.

Don’t need a secretary for that. Her main role in Moonraker is to obtain emergency supplies of Benzedrine (which I was surprised to find is an amphetamine) for Bond and have it delivered to him in a gambling club.

He has been called in by M for a personal matter: Sir Hugo Drax is a leading businessman and national hero who has invented a splendid rocket for the UK. He is very wealthy. So why does he cheat at cards? Bond goes to the exclusive gambling club Blades (cue plenty of descriptive writing, and the charm of smoked salmon being seen as an extreme luxury item) and sorts him out in a riveting game of bridge. But then circumstances intervene, and he is suddenly called on to look at security at Drax’s massive complex in Kent. Dutiful, though slightly embarrassed, he heads off there:
A genuine admiration for the man gradually developed in him and overshadowed much of his previous dislike. He felt more than ever inclined to forget the Blades affair now that he was faced with the other Drax, the creator and inspired leader of a remarkable enterprise.
I don’t think it is a spoiler at this stage to say that Drax is not all he seems – if you have ever read a Bond book or seen a Bond film you know that. In a previous entry, I commented on how odd it was that Bond was so far behind the reader in what he knows – it is even more pointed in this case. Of course it’s hard now to imagine what it was like to read the book when it was very new. Did the plot and the writing really suggest that Drax was going to turn out to be the hero? Bond continues to believe in him for a long time. It’s not clear what the reader is meant to think.

More to come on this book in a second entry.

Picture is a sewing pattern of the era.













20 comments:

  1. Now, that's an interesting question, Moira. Why does Bond need a secretary? And it's interesting to speculate on what it must have been like to read this one when it first came out. I often wonder about that with other books, too. You know, your series of posts on the Bond books is making me wonder whether I ought to re-read one or two...

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    1. Oh please do Margot - I'd love to read your take on them! I think Bond and Fleming just lived in an era when a secretary was a kind of status symbol - and of course she had to be beautiful and well-dressed too.

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  2. I'll get to Fleming eventually! (Promise!)

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    1. Please do. Are there some in the tubs?

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  3. I would like to catch up with you but I have a few more le Carre I want to read first.

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    1. Fair enough, though it would be great if you, Col and Margot were all reading them too...

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  4. Moira, I didn't know Bond had a secretary. This makes me want to read both this and Fleming's other novels right away, especially since I remember Roger Moore's Moonraker rather well.

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    1. I liked this one particularly because it was so domestic. I do enjoy the exotic locations of some of them, but it was fun to read about the UK of the time...

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  5. I really love this one. It's probably the point where Fleming cuts loose and stops pretending that he's writing sober, serious novels about spies. When this was published Sputnik was still two years away, so it really counts as science-fiction. That said, it's notable that he spends far more time describing the big card game than he does the space-rocket. As usual he's trying to convince you about all the high-life and descriptive stuff in order to get you to swallow the more fantastical bits. It's at this point that you start to see the ghostly outlines of the movie Bond, with its hi-tech secret bases and villains with outrageous plans.

    The stuff about Bond's everyday life is fascinating. It makes it plain that when he isn't busy saving the world he is essentially a civil-servant, which is fascinating but not terribly convincing. His desk job in Intelligence would have required a secretary, but it's hard to believe that 007 would need one. I think that she is pretty soon written out of the books, and when they did the movies her role is taken over by Moneypenny.

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    1. Thanks as ever for your illuminating comments. I see exactly what you mean. I absolutely loved the card game scenes too. And I do enjoy it when you hear the details and the finances of spy life. So everyday...

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    2. As usual he's trying to convince you about all the high-life and descriptive stuff in order to get you to swallow the more fantastical bits.

      That's a good point. It's probably a useful technique for any would-be mystery or thriller writer. It makes it easier to persuade the reader into the necessary suspension of disbelief. And it really is in some ways a science fictional technique.

      I wonder how much science fiction Fleming read? He certainly read Wheatley and Wheatley wrote science fiction as well as thrillers. In fact Wheatley was very much a writer who straddled the boundaries between straightforward thrillers and tales of the fantastic. I guess you could say the same about Sax Rohmer, another major Fleming influence.

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    3. It's a really good description, made perfect sense to me.
      Wheatley is the influence I most recognize, probably because I haven't read much of his other possible influences.

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    4. Wheatley is the influence I most recognize, probably because I haven't read much of his other possible influences.

      Sax Rohmer is well worth reading. You might find his Sumuru books amusing!

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    5. Just looked up her/them - that does sound intriguing, I will pursue.
      When I get to From Russia With Love I will be mentioning Wheatley - the long first section really reminded me of him...

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  6. The bridge hand in "Moonraker" is called the "Duke of Cumberland" hand and cost George III 20,000 pounds, as I recall. Back in the days of whist when the detection of cheating was less scientific LOL. Apparently Fleming was an enthusiastic but indifferent bridge player who knew this old story.

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    1. Thanks Noah - fascinating detail. When I first read this book I had only the vaguest idea how bridge worked, and still enjoyed it. This time round I could make more sense of it.

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  7. Moira: I expect his personal assistant, secretary in Bond's day, spent her days taking messages for everyone who could not reach him, returning phone calls to everyone who could not reach him to tell them he was unavailable, filling out the detailed expense reports government agencies require of those in the field, running errands to pick up the personal items (dry cleaning / personal supplies / cigarettes / the makings for martinis) no world class spy would have time for during the day, making up reports that Bond was too lazy to do himself, listening to Bond tell at length of his great adventures, paying his personal bills or they would never get paid, making tea (no martinis in the office), explaining to superiors that Bond is on a distant mission when he is recovering from a hangover at his flat, keeping in order his calendar of dinner parties / cocktail receptions / weekends in the country and maybe even cleaning his gun. I doubt she had a moment to spare.

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    1. Bill, you made me laugh so much. I'm sure you are right - and now you make me long for the Bond novels written from the secretary's point of view, with all these details. Please write this book!

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  8. Spot on, Bill! Also in Bond's day, a gentleman didn't have a laptop, he had a secretary. He might handwrite a postcard or a short note, but for anything else... I remember when computers first "came in" in offices about 30 years ago, and there was a moment when everybody wondered if men could ever be got to touch a keyboard. They got over it.

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    1. One friend was secretary to some very important man and one drunken night she eventually admitted that she did virtually nothing, he was very proud of her looks and her very high intelligence, and the fact that she was very well-dressed, but there simply wasn't enough for her to do. This was many years ago - I hope things might have changed.

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