Thunderball, 1961

This is the book where the entertainment franchise of James Bond truly kicks into gear. No longer just a hobby for Fleming, at this point in the game Bond’s creator is actively pushing for a big screen motion picture.  Dr. No would officially kickstart that series the following year. The hype and scandal surrounding Kevin McClory’s Thunderball screenplay is infamous in the history of 007, leading ultimately to a lawsuit that, in conjunction with Fleming’s indulgent lifestyle, would claim the author’s life and haunt the film franchise until only recently. This novel draws heavily from that screenplay, but it’s certainly not a 1:1 by any stretch of imagination.  Honestly… if you didn’t know that and went into this book blind to the film, you’d swear it was standard Fleming. All of the registered trademarks of Bond are here, as ever, up to and including Felix Leiter giving a bartender a scathing reprimand over how to properly make a martini.  For me, this is easily the best scene in the book.  Makes me grin every single time.

Behind the scenes, a lifetime of drink, rich food, and smoking has caught up with Fleming, and it shows up in the form of M lecturing Bond about such things as the novel opens, likely Fleming parroting back what his own doctor was telling him in real life. Ironically, Bond and Moneypenny pass this off as one of M’s passing phases, and Fleming’s further commentaries on healthier options are priceless. In a Bond novel, even the concept of health is deadly. This opening leads to Bond’s first encounter with an enemy agent, all of it designed to let Fleming vent about his doctor’s orders, and to introduce Bond to what would become his greatest nemesis.

Boredom and health consciousness may be deadly in Bond’s world, but these things don’t make for a good adventure. They do, apparently, make for a good springboard to a good adventure.  Who knew? Enter the new super secret terrorist organization known as SPECTRE: SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Think of it as the new and improved SMERSH, so much more than Russian, with more far-reaching implications. Fleming uses Bond’s first encounter with the enemy to demonstrate just how infinitesimally small Bond and his methods are by comparison of what he’s up against: SPECTRE’s acquisition of two nuclear warheads. Arch-baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld makes his first appearance here (sans fluffy white cat), sending his best operative, Emilio Largo, to a task against our hero. Curiously, even though Blofeld is in charge, he’s listed as Number Two, and Largo is Number One. Seems backwards to me after a lifetime of Star Trek, so I’m glad they fixed it for the film.

All in all, perhaps not the best of Fleming’s stories, but it’s a solid one, and the character moments are most definitely there.  The novel’s weight behind the history of the franchise makes this a most important addition to the original 007 canon.

4 stars

Thunderball

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