A Cold-Hearted Bastard

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...That’s the James Bond from Ian Fleming’s novels.

A few years ago, Allen Barra wrote a terrific overview of the Bonds books for Salon:

The Bond of the books was physically smaller than [Sean] Connery by about 2 inches and 20 pounds, and not quite so “cruelly handsome” (as many early reviewers described Connery). I had forgotten that James Bond wasn’t really a spy at all but a cross between the commandos Fleming had known during World War II and a highly trained assassin — obviously, or else why would he be licensed by his government to kill? The literary Bond chafed at the paperwork he was obliged to do plenty of, and unlike his movie counterpart — whose budget for sports cars, rocket-powered backpacks and speedboats, to say nothing of tuxedos, seemed to exceed the entire GNP of Great Britain — was always mildly resentful about his lack of funding.

In “You Only Live Twice,” he apologizes to Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, for his meager expense account: “Under ten million pounds a year doesn’t go far when there is the whole world to cover.” In “From Russia With Love,” he ruefully compares his own arsenal with that of his Soviet rivals. “If only,” he laments, “his cigarette had been a trick one — magnesium flare, or something he could throw in the man’s face! If only his Service went in for those explosive toys!” And in “Thunderball” he envies the “CIA the excellence of their equipment, and he had no false pride about borrowing from them.”

Readers often come to, well, bond with Bond precisely because of his ordinariness. Unlike the Bond of the movies, the Bond on the pages doesn’t seem radically different from most of us. With the right background and training — and, of course, a willingness to kill in the line of duty — it’s easy to feel we could be the hero of those adventures. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is somebody you’d like to have a drink with. Bond doesn’t interest us in that way; he’s more like someone you’d want to be if you had another life. Which seems to be precisely why Fleming wrote the books, to create a fantastic yet believable alternative existence.