By the time On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is published, James Bond is making waves internationally, both in print and on the big screen, partly propelled by John F. Kennedy’s endorsement of Fleming’s From Russia With Love, and partly from the world’s need to embrace a hero of this kind in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis less than three months previous. And by this point in the game, Fleming was looking to take Bond in new directions, as many writers do once they’ve been writing their trademark characters for a while. This began with The Spy Who Loved Me, which was different in style and format, but didn’t take truly take Bond himself in any new directions. For Bond to truly evolve as a character, old wounds would need to be addressed, and his greatest nemesis would need to return.
If it can truly be said that Bond has a weakness, it’s boredom. The story takes place in the wake of Operation: Thunderball, wherein Bond has been assigned to basic detective work involving the possible re-emergence of SPECTRE and its chief mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Bond is unhappy with this assignment, convinced that SPECTRE is smashed, and Blofeld, no matter how ingenious, is incapable of recreating an organization of SPECTRE’s caliber. After repeated ignored requests to be reassigned, Bond finds himself at the precipice of boredom, drafting his resignation letter from the Service.
In the world of James Bond, there are a number of standout women who have known him, but only two define him. The first is Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynd, to whom he gave his heart only to end up betrayed, leading to the string of heartbreaks and one-night stands for which he is known. Callbacks are made to underline this as the second takes the stage here: Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Tracy to her friends. Tracy’s father turns out to be one of the most powerful mafia bosses in the world, with connections enough to learn the whereabouts of Blofeld in exchange for Bond helping to lure Tracy away from her personal death wish. While Bond stalks Blofeld, Tracy is using her father’s resources to track down Bond. I suppose it’s too much to ask that she live up to the promise of her on-screen counterpart, but it’s important to remember that the book provides the template for what comes later. Even while falling short of Diana Rigg’s interpretation, Tracy still stands a cut above the other Bond girls.
In my mind, this is the most important entry in the original Fleming series, the point where Bond truly becomes the Bond everyone thinks they know, as opposed to merely just a shell for the writer’s alter ego to inhabit. The English cold war spy becomes the British superspy capable of transcending the ages yet to come. He’s still got a ways to go, but the foundation is finally in place, perhaps due in no small part to Connery’s screen performance. In tribute to Connery, we are finally given some of Bond’s backstory, wherein he is listed as Scottish on his father’s side (his mother is Swiss), though ironically Connery would become disenfranchised with the role and stepped down by the time the movie version would come to pass. More importantly, we reinforce the character traits that would push Bond through this story. As I mentioned before, boredom drives him into danger, and his need to pursue his targets to the very ends of the earth causes him to ally himself with forces of which queen and country would certainly not approve. The cost of this dogged pursuit echoes the events of Casino Royale. It’s this pursuit that will define Blofeld as Bond’s greatest enemy, the Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. In trying to take Bond in a new direction, Fleming brings his creation full circle.
Bottom line, this is quite possibly the best novel in the series in my humble estimation.
As an Easter egg, there’s a nice touch in the story in the form of a nod to Ursula Andress, with whom Fleming became enamored on the set of Dr. No.