My library bag was getting full. I’d already picked up the items I had on hold – five CDs, four by the Native American artists who record as Brulé and a posthumous release of music by Pops Staples – and had added three or four novels.
Then, in the new non-fiction section, I saw Coventry: November 14, 1940 by Frederick Taylor, an account of the German air attack against Coventry during World War II. I’ve read and enjoyed Taylor’s accounts of the Allied attack against the German city of Dresden in 1945 and of the history of the Berlin Wall, so I tucked Coventry into my bag and moved on.
And then I saw The Man With The Golden Typewriter, subtitled Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters. I pulled the book from the shelf, replaced a couple of the novels on the new fiction shelf and headed home to begin reading Ian Fleming’s letters. Fans of James Bond – and I am one, as I’ve noted here several times – will have caught the title’s reference immediately: Fleming’s final Bond novel was the 1965 title, The Man With The Golden Gun. And I learned very early in the book – edited by Fergus Fleming, the late author’s nephew – that Ian Fleming did indeed have a golden (actually gold-plated) typewriter, purchased in 1952, when his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, had been accepted for publication by the Jonathan Cape firm.
That was almost too good an alignment of life and art, and I dove into the nearly four-hundred page book, rarely coming up for air in these past few days. (I in fact got so involved in Fleming’s letters that I found myself not reading the Thursday and Friday editions of the Minneapolis Star Tribune until late Friday evening.)
The book is arranged in chapters corresponding to the thirteen Bond novels Fleming published between 1953 and 1965, so any letters from the author about, say, Casino Royale are collected in the first chapter even though the letter might have been written in 1957. There are some side trips, as well. Chapter Four is titled “Notes From America,” and includes letters Fleming wrote to and from American friends as well as missives written during several trips stateside, during which he did research for the novels Live And Let Die (1954), Diamonds Are Forever (1956) and Goldfinger (1959).
I get the sense that America in the 1950s both appalled and fascinated Fleming, who moved in generally rarified circles in England – not quite the top shelf of that very stratified society, but not too far below that level either. Our loud and busy cities, especially New York and Las Vegas, seem to have both attracted and repelled him at the same time. A portion of Live And Let Die takes place in the Florida city of St. Petersburg, which Bond and his American companion, Felix Leiter, find an unpleasant place. That was how Fleming found it, as well; comments in Fleming’s letters and in his nephew’s commentary make clear his great disdain for the city. The younger Fleming notes that the author “wrote on the flyleaf of his personal copy, with an ill-disguised shudder, ‘St. Petersburg is just like I say it is’.”
Another “side trip” chapter in the book is Chapter Seven, titled “Conversations with the Armourer,” which details a lengthy correspondence between Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd, a firearms expert from Glasgow, Scotland. Boothroyd noted in a letter that Bond’s choice of guns was poor. The .25 Beretta pistol was not powerful enough and, given its design, could become caught on Bond’s waistband or shoulder holster. Boothroyd suggested several alternative weapons for 007 to use.
Boothroyd’s letters to Fleming – some of which are also included in the book – began in early 1956, when Fleming was working on revisions to From Russia With Love. At the end of the book, which came out in 1957 (and any Bond fans who are reading this are smiling or at least nodding their heads, for they know where this is going), Bond’s Beretta pistol does get snagged on his waistband, and he nearly dies from the effects of Rosa Klebb’s poisoned shoe stiletto.
And in the opening portions of the next book, 1958’s Doctor No, Bond is lectured on proper armament by M, the head of the Secret Service, and one Major Boothroyd, the Secret Service’s armourer. Even though it’s been at least thirty years since I re-read Doctor No (and I first read it after Christmas 1964, when it showed up in my stocking), as soon as I saw the name “Boothroyd,” I remembered the scene. I especially remembered Bond reaching to take his Beretta with him at the end of the meeting, and I recalled M’s curt “Leave it.”
I’m about halfway through the book, and there have been a few other little treats like that, moments when I recognize a name, place or event in Fleming’s letters that then showed up in Bond’s adventures It’s been a treat so far, and I have no doubt that the remaining half of the volume will be, as well.
I do know, though, that as the 1960s dawned and Fleming found himself and his creation becoming world-famous, the author became a bit weary of telling the tales; his letters even before 1960 occasionally worry about how fresh the novels could remain, given the fact that the tales were in many ways the same story: grand villain in an interesting location with the addition of at least one beautiful woman who falls for the hero. (Bond fans will recall that there is at least one exception to that last; Gala Brand of Moonraker remains loyal to her fiancé even after she and Bond save England from a nuclear missile.)
It will be interesting to see if Fleming’s later letters reflect his weariness with his creation. I imagine they will. I know Fleming tried to kill Bond in the 1964 novel, You Only Live Twice, even offering Bond’s obituary as one of the final chapters (perhaps the final chapter; it’s been years since I read the book). As was the case with another British literary favorite, Sherlock Holmes, the reaction by Bond fans around the world resulted in Fleming finding a means to resurrect his creation for the 1965 book The Man With The Golden Gun.
That was Fleming’s last novel. He’d survived a 1961 heart attack, but a second one in 1964 was fatal. I remember reading at the time – perhaps in Time magazine, which we got at home – that Fleming’s final words were “It’s all been a tremendous lark.” I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, and I’m not sure that I’ll find out in the second half of The Man With The Golden Typewriter.
As I’m only up to 1960, I’ve yet to read anything from Fleming on how he viewed the Bond films – only Doctor No and From Russia With Love has been released by the time of his death. Both of those hewed fairly close to the source novels, unlike some of the later films, so I think he might have been pleased. I’ll find out.
Anyway, it is a Saturday, and here, from John Barry’s soundtrack to 1963’s From Russia With Love, is a bit called “James Bond With Bongos,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
Edited slightly after first posting.