Monday, June 16, 2014

Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Chapters 13-25

It was the end of March when I covered the first half of Moonraker and it's ridiculous that it's taken me this long to follow up. I've come up with a plan though to keep me motivated: a deadline by which I need to have this project completed. It's over a year away, but it's still extremely ambitious and includes all the non-Fleming novels and even the Young James Bond series. I fear for my sanity.

We're at the end of Moonraker now, so SPOILERS BELOW.

In the last half of Live and Let Die, I talked a little about the idea of Bond as a "blunt instrument." That's what Judi Dench's M will call him and it refers to the movie Bond's technique of getting captured and shaking up the villain's operation from the inside. In Live and Let Die, Bond is captured, but it's not a crucial ingredient to his success the way it becomes in a lot of the movies. His mission's already going to succeed; his capture simply complicates the plot by questioning whether or not Bond will survive. The literary Bond isn't quite a blunt instrument at that point.

That starts to change though as Moonraker moves into its second half. Having looked around Drax's operation and not finding any immediate clues to the murder of the previous head of security, Bond decides to try a different approach. There are enough details of the case that make Bond suspicious, but he needs to be diplomatic in his investigation and not tick off Drax in case Drax is innocent. There are limits to what Bond can do and it's in Moonraker that we learn that if he has a license to kill, it's a limited one. As his suspicions about Drax grow, he thinks about his options and realizes that he can't just kill the man without risking hanging himself.

Going to bed on Tuesday night though, Bond decides not to be too diplomatic. "If his actions aroused suspicion he would not be dismayed," Fleming writes. "One of his objects was to attract into his orbit the same forces that had concerned himself with Tallon, for of one thing he felt reasonably certain, Major Tallon had not died because he loved Gala Brand." Bond is questioning the official motive for the murder and believes that if he can tick off the same people responsible for Tallon's death, then maybe they'll come for Bond, too. That's totally a blunt instrument approach.

He says it more explicitly later to Brand - the Scotland Yard officer working undercover at Drax's facility - after a dramatic attempt on their lives. She's nervous and uncertain, but Bond is pleased that his plan is working. "Can't you see what we've done this afternoon?" he asks her. "Just what had to be done. We've made the enemy show his hand. Now we've got to take the next step and find out who the enemy is and why he wanted us out of the way."

One final example is late in the novel when all masks are off. Drax is revealed to be the mastermind, not only behind Tallon's death, but of a larger conspiracy to destroy London with a nuclear warhead on the Moonraker missile. Bond and Brand have in turn blown their cover and are in danger of blowing the mission if Drax is given time to think about his next moves. So Bond intentionally goads Drax into a rage, even though it means Drax will take it out on Bond physically.
With every word Drax's face had become more contorted with rage, his eyes were red with it, the sweat of fury was dripping off his jowls on to his shirt, the lips were drawn back from the gaping teeth and a string of saliva had crept out of his mouth and was hanging down from his chin. Now, at the last private-school insult that must have awoken God knows what stinging memories, he leapt up from his chair and lunged round the desk at Bond, his hairy fists flailing.

Bond gritted his teeth and took it.
This is what makes Bond a great hero. I said at the end of Live and Let Die that he's an extremely dark, tortured character, but that that's what makes him so perfect for his job. He's willing to endure enormous punishment in defense of his country. I suspect we'll see this more and more as the series progresses and he realizes the effectiveness of the blunt instrument approach.

Because of Bond's change in tactics, Moonraker abandons the murder mystery plot that got it going. Bond doesn't know the details at first, but he's convinced that Tallon's murder was simply collateral damage in a larger plot involving the Moonraker missile. That becomes his focus and Brand becomes his partner in the investigation. And a remarkably capable partner she is, too.

When Brand supports Bond's suspicions to Drax of one of Drax's scientists, Bond reconsiders his childish reaction to her initial coldness towards him. He begins to think of her positively and professionally, noting at one point that she's "an extremely efficient policewoman. She knows how to kick, and where; she can break my arm probably more easily and quickly than I can break hers." He still totally wants to sleep with her, but unlike the way he was thinking the night they met, he realizes that's not her only value.

Her defenses towards him come down as well when he invites her to walk down to the beach and inspect the facility's defenses there. Fleming shows off his gift for prose as he paints a lovely picture of the scene from the cliff:
Between the sands of the coast, along the twelve-fathom channel of the Inner Leads, there were half a dozen ships beating up through the Downs, the thud of their engines coming clearly off the quiet sea [...] As far as the eye could reach the Eastern Approaches of England were dotted with traffic plying towards near or distant horizons, towards a home port, or towards the other side of the world. It was a panorama full of colour and excitement and romance and the two people on the edge of the cliff were silent as they stood for a time and watched it all.
The quietness and beauty of the experience eases the tensions between the two characters and from that moment on they're inseparable allies. Brand is no Bond Girl in the classic sense of the term. Even before this scene, Fleming has started writing sections of text from her point of view (bringing up the Hoagie Carmichael comparison again, by the way, in reference to Bond's bone structure). He shifts easily from her POV to Bond's and back again, writing Brand as a tough, resourceful woman who ultimately comes up with a plan that will save not only the day, but also her and Bond's lives. Moonraker is almost as much her story as it is Bond's.

There's an awesome scene after their mission has been discovered by Drax and they're hiding from him. As it looks like Drax is about to find them, Bond "felt that Gala was waiting for him to explain. To do something. To protect them." But that's Bond's own imagination at work. As he tries to give her some patronizing advice about remaining hidden, she whispers angrily to him to shut up. She still follows his advice though, because it's not his solution she objects to, but the way he delivers it. I got a real sense of equality and partnership in that scene, not so much from Bond, but from Fleming, which was a welcome change after Solitaire in Live and Let Die.

But if Brand is a vast improvement over Solitaire, Drax suffers in comparison to Mr. Big. Drax's offensive arrogance makes him an intriguing personality, but it also makes him careless. Big was a brilliant criminal who used his large organization to increase his own power and wealth. Drax is a blowhard with delusions of grandeur; in many ways the prototype for the over-the-top Bond villains of the movies. He's the first monologuer of the series (though he has a believable reason for doing it and plans to release his explanation to the press the following day anyway) and his scheme to nuke London creates much larger stakes than simply funding Soviet espionage. It's also his own hubris that causes his death when he could have simply and quietly escaped.

It's precisely Drax's overbearing pride though that make it so wonderful when Bond puts him in his place. In the first half of the book, Bond's victory over Drax at cards is so sweet because Drax is such an insufferable dick. And there's a great callback to that towards the end when Drax simply has to know how Bond could have possibly discovered the manner in which Drax had been cheating. Bond just shrugs and says, "My eyes."

But though Bond gets the best of Drax, one of the things I love most about Moonraker is that he never gets the best of Gala Brand. He may fantasize about going away with her after the case, but that's because he never stops to consider that she may have other plans. He ultimately learns that she's clearly attracted to him, but not so much that she's willing to put aside her own interests or previous commitments. If that does anything to forward Bond's character development in relation to women, Moonraker doesn't reveal it. The book simply ends with him and Brand going their separate ways. But I have to think that it's healthy for Bond to realize that - unlike Solitaire - all women can't be his prize for a job well done. Maybe in Diamonds Are Forever we'll see if that notion sticks.
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