Moonraker is Ian Fleming’s 3rd James Bond novel, and it’s almost as though he couldn’t quite figure out where to go after the insanity that is Live and Let Die… so he took it back to basics. What, so soon? Yes, it would seem so. As with Casino Royale, we’re treated to high-stakes gambling, a villain who’s not above cheating, and some oblique tie-ins to real world ideas and fears. But don’t that let that fool you, because Moonraker is still a fun, fun read.
Unlike with Live and Let Die, we don’t really have to deal too much with the fallout from the discomforts of modern social awareness this time around. There’s still (and always will be) a bit of womanizing to be had because that’s who Fleming is, but even that’s mild in this one. In a twist for him, Bond isn’t nearly as callous and cold as he normally is in his relations with the opposite sex. This time around, he’s about as close to tender as he’ll ever get, almost human, all things considered. It’s almost like he’s mirroring his intended, Gala Brand, a strong policewoman / spy who turns submissive in their quiet moment. And it might have been something special if not for the plot showing up at the most inconvenient of times.
So what is the plot? I’m sure some of you are asking that right about now, and many of you are probably thinking about space shuttles and satellite-mounted laser cannons. But, no. Moonraker has virtually nothing in common with its post-Star Wars film counterpart, save for the title and the name of the villain, Hugo Drax.
The first third of the book is a Monday, and all that implies. It starts with Bond returning from holiday, sunburned, rested, and dreading the mundane duties of office paperwork. How’s that for a spot of glamour in the world of the secret service? But this all changes when M summons him, not for a job, but for a personal favor. Drax is cheating at cards. M wants to know how he’s doing it. Who better than Bond to humble a card sharp?
To fully understand why this matters, it’s necessary to put this into perspective. The establishment where M plays is Blades, which is presumably the most elite private club in the world, with a pedigree dating back to the early 1700s, and fortunes changing hands faster than you can blink an eye. In a place like this, Drax cheating would cause a scandal as he’s been doing it for months now without anyone knowing how. Worse yet, Drax is responsible for Britain’s new superweapon-in-development, the Moonraker. In 1955 Britain, this is the defense mechanism that would put the UK back on the world stage as a superpower alongside the United States and the Soviet Union. So the idea is to humiliate Drax quietly, get him to acknowledge and pay up, and to discourage it from happening again.
The game that follows is, to my mind, quintessential Fleming. Bond is in complete control, having stacked the decks and prepared a complete plan of attack that includes drugs to counteract the effects of his drinking to keep him alert, acting skills to make him look drunk and overconfident, and the precision timing of an assassin with a mark in his crosshairs. There’s no suspense to be had, but it’s just fun to watch Bond take down this guy down a few pegs, knowing that the results of this game will come back to bite him.
How soon? Almost immediately. The Moonraker is to be test-fired on Friday, and the Ministry has requested top security. M, knowing his own department is better prepared than other sections, volunteers Bond for the job. His assignment is to ensure the Moonraker test goes forward, staying out of the way of those working on the project, and staying alert for saboteurs or enemy spies. The Moonraker itself is a modified V2 rocket with homing tracker, capable of burning ultra-high combustion propellants that give it a far larger effective range, and destined for a nuclear payload. It’s the more efficient realization of the Nazi nightmare weapon, now in the hands of the British government. The last thing anyone wants is for SMERSH or some other organization to disable it on the eve of activation.
Of course, that’s not exactly the plan. Drax, as it turns out, is a former Nazi who was disfigured and mistaken for a UK soldier. Maintaining that cover, he’s now working with the Soviets. Gala Brand’s trajectory coordinates should have put the rocket safely into the English Channel upon firing without a payload. Drax has it armed and spins the target around to somewhere in the center of London.
The reasons to love this novel are many, beginning with all of the standard clichés. Thing is, they weren’t yet cliché in this era. This, my friends, is where some of the classic Bond moments begin, such as the ever-popular line, “We meet again, Mr. Bond…,” the Villain’s monologued backstory, and so forth. Ok, so some of these things were cliché already in this era thanks to pulp and detective novels of the past few decades, but it was relatively new in a spy novel! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
The original title for the American release of this novel was Too Hot to Handle. It was subtitled Moonraker on the cover, but the name change was presumably to keep it from getting confused with a stage play called “The Moonraker,” which became a film in 1958. It has the distinction of being the only Fleming Bond novel with an Americanized title. Aside from Fleming’s short story publications, the next title in the 007 line to be Americanized would be in 1996 when John Gardner’s Cold became Cold Fall. Your guess is as good as mine on that one.
Moonraker would be adapted for South African radio in 1956, comic strips in 1959, and feature film in 1979 under EON Productions, with the novelization of the film titled James Bond and Moonraker.
Behind the scenes, I read this as part of a 007 buddy read. My friend pointed out something dealing with WWII-era German military ranks that shows up as part of Drax’s great villain backstory. I won’t go into detail here, but we tried to make sense of it, and it almost worked… maybe… I think. The bottom line of it is that Fleming was probably trying to remember specifics from his Intelligence days, blanked on some details, and kept going. In the world of the pulp novel, only word count and the finish line matter, and details can be covered up with bullshit. But in the age of the internet and a far more informed international audience, little things get noticed. So I offer a tip of the hat for my friend BrokenTune calling out Fleming on his bullshit. Well played. It was so much fun to try (and fail) to vindicate the man. What can I say? He doesn’t always get it right. If he did, we wouldn’t get the infamous story about the switch from the Beretta to the Walter PPK. I have no idea if anyone called out Fleming on this little bit of trivia, not that it would matter since Drax clearly is not a recurring nemesis, but I have to assume someone did. Geeks were still geeks in the 50s, even if nobody called them that. Back then, they would have called them scholars or experts in the field. Just goes to show, Bond has always appealed to geeks, even before he was known to be cool. The legacy lives on.