Friday, 9 September 2016

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

 

James Bond book 11

published 1963


 
 
OHMSS 1 a


It was tremendously hot in the room and Bond felt the sweat bead on his forehead as he was led from table to table and shook this cool, this warm, this languid hand. Names like Ruby, Violet, Pearl, Anne, Elizabeth, Beryl, sounded in his ears, but all he saw was a sea of beautiful, sunburned faces and a succession of splendid, sweatered young bosoms. It was like being at home to the Tiller or the Bluebell Girls. At last he got to the seat that had been kept for him, between Irma Bunt and a gorgeous, bosomy blonde with large blue eyes. He sat down, overcome.

 
OHMSS


Ten girls and Irma. All English. No surnames. No other man. Girls in their twenties. Working girls probably. Sort of air-hostess type. Excited at having a man among them - a personable man and a baronet to boot - if that was what one did to a baronet. Pleased with his private joke, Bond turned to the blonde. 'I'm terribly sorry, but I didn't catch your name.'

'I'm Ruby.' The voice was friendly but refined. 'It must be quite an ordeal being the only chap - among all us girls, I mean.'

[Ruby introduces the others] 'Well, I'll start on your right. That's Miss Bunt, the sort of matron, so to speak. You've met her. Then, in the violet camelot sweater, well, that's Violet of course. Then at the next table. The one in the green and gold Pucci shirt is Anne and next to her in green is Pearl. She's my sort of best friend here.' 
And so it went on, from one glorious golden girl to the next.

Bond heard scraps of their conversation. ' Fritz says I'm not getting enough Vorlage. My skis keep on running away from me.' 'It's the same with me' - a giggle - 'my sit-upon's black and blue.'

 
commentary: After the subdued but enjoyable strangeness of The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming apparently threw everything else at the next book along, including a different kind of strangeness, and Bond is in it every inch of the way. I knew two things about this one: that there was a snowy alpine setting, and that there is a big change in Bond’s personal life. I had absolutely no idea what the plot might be, and it took a long time to find out, for everyone. The books aren’t usually mysteries, except in the tension of ‘what happens next?’, but this really had me wondering what was going on, as Bond tries to find Blofeld, wonders about the lovely Tracy, and spends time in what almost seems to be a skiing finishing school with a set of young ladies, as above – although they are not very posh.

The book opens with classic scenarios – beach, crime boss, cars racing, a casino, a beautiful woman, and we learn that Bond wants to resign from the Service.
Then he gets a lead on Blofeld: the villain is giving himself away in his snobbery, and is looking for a coat of arms and perhaps an ancestral title. So Bond sets off for the College of Arms and meets Griffin Or (practically Harry Potter) and then Sable Basilisk Pursuivant. (A friend who visited the College in real life says that the carpark is a joy, with Rouge Dragon Pursuivant’s space clearly marked as such, and you’d be hoping for some caparisoned horse or a chariot, but instead there is a rather ordinary VW Golf.)

Eventually Bond is sent out to Blofeld’s Swiss home, pretending to be an expert in arms (coats of, not guns) and heraldry. Here is a bizarre mountain stronghold, containing a lot of giggling young women, supervised by Irma Bunt, and some outlandish scenes – one where Bond, of all things, feels like ‘the games director on a cruise ship.’

Note the Camelot sweater, repeated from The Spy Who Loved Me.

I loved the fact that Chapter 18 is splendidly titled Fork Left for Hell!

Bond’s romance with Tracy is touching and sad. One key element is that he doesn’t mind being beaten by her in a car race – I thought that was surprising and significant. And his summing up of why she is the woman for him is charming: ‘she’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings…’

There'll be another entry on this one.

Picture of young women enjoying their skiing is from the Dutch National Archives. Apres ski from the US National Archives.


















14 comments:

  1. You know, the College of Arms sounds like a fascinating place, Moira! I can just imagine what it's like there. And it is interesting to see how Bond shows some interesting new layers to his character here. I'm glad, too, that you shared his views about Tracy. Shows a different side of him, I think.

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    1. I have enjoyed all the Bond books I've read this year, but this one might be my favourite to date, with all those strange sidelines in heraldry, skiing, love...

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  2. It's one of my favourites of the entire series. He wrote this after the first movie had come out, and there always seemed to me a sense that he was trying to raise his game. Like you say, some real work has gone into the plotting, and you have to work to keep up (compare it with THUNDERBALL, where everything is upfront and obvious). The romance feels very real, and you can see why he loves her so much, as she is in a number of ways a female version of him-even down the the emotional problems that drive him towards danger. I love the fact that Fleming decided to include all that stuff about heraldry in a thriller and still make it interesting, plus there's something terribly real about the bad guy giving himself away not by some high-tech mistake but simply because of a very human vanity.

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    1. Yes it shouldn't be convincing but it is - you see it with real-life figures, who you think would have other things to think about and wouldn't care at all - but they have a strange weakness.
      I thought the romance was delightful and unexpected - of course she was a dreamgirl, but I don't think most readers would be expecting Bond to love quite such an independent character. The book was all-round great, I enjoyed it hugely.

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  3. Well Moira, I was relieved that those young women suntanning in the snow were not in Canada. Had they been on a Canadian mountain they would have been shivering so much in those short sleeved shirts and light pants the photo would have been out of focus. At least their feet would be warm in those sturdy boots.

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    1. I wondered about that, and I thought 'Bill will know'. Thank you for telling us!

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  4. I also remember this as a favorite Bond novel, but not sure when I read it. Looking forward to reading it again. I know the basic story, but don't remember details.

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    1. Oh you will enjoy it Tracy! You share your name with the heroine, for starters... And I think I read it a long time ago, but remembered very little, and that was great because the book is full of surprises - I had no idea where it was going.

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    2. I think I read it when I was young enough to be thrilled by the fact that the heroine was named Tracy, because I remember it was a pleasant surprise. When I was a child, there were no other girls named Tracy, and all the Tracy's I have ever known were much younger than I.

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    3. I can totally understand, it would be great to have a Bond girl with your name! I was very disappointed to find a woman with my name turns out to be a murderer in one book - it's not a common name in books at all, so seems a real shame!

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  5. Well, one day, but I've been saying that for a while now.

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    1. I can't remember - are there any Bond books in the tubs?

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    2. That must be nearly all of them! No excuses then...

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