Published post-mortem, The Man With the Golden Gun is, for me, the weakest of Ian Fleming’s original 007 books. For those familiar with the movie, put it out of your mind. In this case, the golden gun is just a standard, gold-plated Colt .45 revolver instead of one of the most iconic gadgets ever conceived for film, and the man wielding it is nowhere near as cool as Christopher Lee. About the only similarities are his lethal reputation, third nipple, and his backstory concerning a brutally euthanized circus elephant. Fleming’s nothing if not ridiculously creative (and/or creatively ridiculous). That’s about where the awesome stops. The more Scaramanga appears in the story, the more laughable he becomes, ultimately coming across as a cheap thug. Or rather, a cheap thug from a bad Western. I like Westerns as much as the next guy, but not as part of the 007 milieu. When a woman is tied up and laid out on the railroad tracks… c’mon, do I really have to spell this out?
The setup for this novel is interesting in the extreme and represents the saving grace of this story, even if it doesn’t quite make sense if you think too much about it. A year after the events of You Only Live Twice, Bond has been missing in action, presumed dead. Now he turns up at MI-6, brainwashed by the KGB into assassinating M. The assassination fails, however, and M believes the best way to get Bond past his brainwashing is to strike back at those who did it is to send the assassin back at them. Bond’s assignment is to kill Scaramanga, the freelance assassin who has given many state agencies a problem since the war. I think the biggest problem I have with it is the conceit that Bond isn’t perceived to be as in the same class as Scaramanga even when Bond’s at his best, let alone in his current state, and yet M figures it’s a win-win to test his agent against this measuring stick. Maybe I’d have less of a problem with it if Scaramanga came anywhere near as credible as his on-screen counterpart. So sad the novel just disintegrates from there. The characterizations are all spot-on and consistent with what we’ve seen before, and the writing style is the same as ever. But the clichéd nature of the Western is at such odds with everything else in the book that I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to take this one even remotely seriously if Scaramanga’s in the scene. It’s like there’s a vortex of absurdity around him that pulls this down. And that’s saying something in a 007 novel.
Bond returns to Fleming’s classic stomping grounds of Jamaica, infiltrates Scaramanga’s group, and spends much of the novel thinking “It’d be easy to put a bullet in him right here.” Honestly, I think he should have just as a mercy kill for this book. For as much short as this novel is, and as detailed as it’s not by comparison of the previous entries in the series, this one still somehow suffers from way too much padding. This is likely due to the novel being finished by someone else after Fleming’s death, though I have no basis or confirmation of that. Even so, it’s still a decent read for the diehard Bond fan. It’s just not the greatest. It might have made a really good short story. This isn’t one I can outright condemn as unreadable due to the strength of the opening chapters, but it’s not one I can praise either, especially in comparison of the other novels. I suppose in the end, it ultimately comes down to how big of a fan you think you are. I’m still a big enough fan that whenever I read the Fleming novels, I read them all in sequence. And sometimes I even enjoy the lesser ones more than I have in the past. But I’ll still call it like I see it. This one is average at best, which goes against the reputation of 007. What it really needs most is a different villain. Or Christopher Lee.