After the cinematic ramp-up in Thunderball, Fleming does an about-face and gives us a small scale story that’s almost completely different from any kind of Bond novel we’d expect. I say almost because there are still all the descriptive hallmarks of food, drink, clothes, vehicles, and weapons. But in this case, 007 isn’t the protagonist. In fact, he doesn’t even show up until about two-thirds of the way into the story, and even then, it’s seemingly by complete happenstance. Our protagonist here is a young woman from Quebec, and we follow her journey to London, Europe, and finally the States, getting to know her in ways that feel realistic… to a noir novelist like Fleming. As always, the little details are there to make it lifelike, and you get the sense that Fleming saw such things in his world. But let’s be honest, the entire reason to read a book like this is because Fleming’s world is not the “real” world as we understand it, especially given the passage of time into a more socially conscious age.
On one hand, there are lines of narration here and there that will have feminists and most modernly-aware readers cringing. You’ll know them when you find them. On the other hand, the woman we get to know evolves into a strong person who just happens to be in over her head in circumstances that spiraled out of control. Wrong place, wrong time. Enter Fleming’s off-white knight, 007, to the rescue. He can save the day, but a flat tire is beneath him. For the sake of our lady, that’s probably a good thing. As a bonus, she does get to help him deal with the problem rather than being the too-typical damsel in distress. That should help take the edge off when Fleming has her refer to Bond as her shining knight who rode in to slay the dragons. You were, perhaps, expecting high prose in a Fleming novel? BWAH-HAHAHAHAHAHA… Whatever.
The Spy Who Loved Me is one of those stories where its on-screen counterpart has virtually nothing in common beyond the title. We get no megalomaniacal supervillains here, which is an anti-climax after getting Blofeld in the previous book. Instead, Bond is facing down a couple of thugs hired as part of an insurance scam. Interestingly, one of them has steel-capped teeth, clearly the prototype for the character who would appear in the movie that uses this book’s title: the iconic henchman known as Jaws. Don’t get your expectations up. Jaws is a completely different kind of monster. In fact, it’s probably best to dismiss any expectations up front and let our heroine tell you her story, her way.
One of the nice touches I found in this book was that it had that early 60s vibe to it. Fleming makes mention of Jack Kennedy a couple of times, and you can tell that he’s convinced the Cold War of the late 40s and 50s — and all of the politics that this engendered — is coming to an end, heralded with a new sense of hope. He couldn’t know that such wasn’t the case, and he couldn’t know the events that would happen over the next few years.
I think, aside from Fleming’s obvious un-PC attitudes, the biggest weakness of this book is that it follows Thunderball, and the expectations a new reader would expect to have. On its own merits, it’s actually a good little character drama if you can get past the obvious pitfalls of Fleming’s ego.