Monday, March 31, 2014

Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Chapters 1-12

For better or worse, Moonraker is a lot different from the first two Bond novels. That's apparent not just from the first few chapters, but also from the way Fleming divides the story into three parts that cover a traditional work week. Part One is called "Monday," Part Two is "Tuesday, Wednesday," and Part Three is "Thursday, Friday."

The plot is more than just following Bond through a typical week, but you can't tell it from the first couple of chapters. Rather than repeating the cold open technique of the first two novels, Fleming begins Moonraker at the Secret Service shooting range where he reveals that Bond is the best shot in the organization. It's a cool, gadgety range with targets that use beams of light to shoot back at the firer, but Fleming is intentionally mundane in his description. This is routine activity for Bond on a Monday morning.

The first chapter continues the theme of routine. The name of the chapter is "Secret Paper-Work" and that pretty accurately describes the level of action. After the range, Bond heads up to the office he shares with the other two Double-O agents and a secretary named Loelia Ponsonby whom Bond insists on calling "Lil." Fleming explains that all of the Double-Os have hit on her at some point, but have also all been shot down.

It's interesting and cool that Fleming fleshes Ponsonby out more in a few paragraphs than he did Solitaire in all of Live and Let Die. I felt like I got to know her well and I like her dedication to her job despite the serious sexism she encounters there. Fleming doesn't pull any punches describing it either and he shows a lot more awareness that it's a problem than he did about racism or ageism in Live and Let Die. "It was true," he writes, "that an appointment in the Secret Service was a form of peonage. If you were a woman there wasn't much of you left for other relationships. It was easier for the men. They had an excuse for fragmentary affairs. For them marriage and children and a home were out of the question if they were to be of any use 'in the field' as it was cosily termed. But, for the women, an affair outside the Service automatically made you a 'security risk' and in the last analysis you had a choice of resignation from the Service and a normal life, or of perpetual concubinage to your King and Country."

Moonraker gets some criticism for being so mundane, but I love this stuff. Fleming spends a lot of time on the details of Bond's daily life and I find it fascinating. There are only three Double-Os at the moment; Bond has been around the longest and other two (both on assignment at the moment) are 008 and 0011. 008's first name is Bill.

Bond goes on two to three missions a year and spends the rest of his time keeping flexible office hours (10:00 to 6:00 being his usual time), doing paperwork and keeping up on developments in intelligence. After hours, he spends his time playing cards with friends and having affairs with married women (kudos to the movie Casino Royale for exploring the psychology behind that detail). Weekends are for golf. Fleming also describes Bond's salary, vacation time, and the small flat he keeps that's maintained by an elderly, Scottish housekeeper named May.

Statutory retirement from the Double-O section is 45, after which he gets a desk job at headquarters. As Bond thinks about this and the number of missions he can expect to go on before reaching it, easy math reveals that he's 37 years old at the time of Moonraker. The mere fact that Bond spends time thinking about this on a routine day follows up something that Fleming has been writing about since Casino Royale: Bond deeply feels his mortality. That's especially true on missions as seen in the first two books, but it's even true as he's doing paperwork in his office. This is a dark character.

Though Moonraker is an atypical book, it's not just about Bond's day-to-day life. At the end of the first chapter, he gets a call from M's office and goes up one floor to the 9th and top story of the Service's office building. Fleming throws in a couple of more details before the plot gets underway, like how Universal Export is more than just the telephone trick revealed in Live and Let Die. It's one of five fake tenants of the building, the others being a radio repair company, the building's management office, and a couple of companies with generic-sounding names like Delaney Brothers and The Omnium Corporation. A retired secretary sits in the management office "politely brushing off salesmen and people who wanted to export something or have their radios mended."

In M's office, we get a little more than we have before of Bond's relationship with Moneypenny. Fleming says that they like each other, that Bond thinks she's attractive, and that she knows he does. There's no banter though. Bond calls her Penny, so apparently he has a thing for giving nicknames to secretaries, but Moneypenny and Loelia Ponsonby apparently talk on a regular basis and the implication is that M's secretary has made herself as off-limits to agents as Bond's has.

As it turns out, M doesn't have a real mission for Bond, but a personal favor to ask. M calls Bond by his first name, which is rare (it's usually 007 when talking about work), and is embarrassed about using Bond for unofficial reasons. I get the feeling that M sees it sort of like stealing pens from work.

But while unofficial, M's problem could have serious consequences if it's not dealt with tactfully and decisively. It involves a man named Hugo Drax, a millionaire hero of England who's spending his own fortune to develop a nuclear missile - the Moonraker - for England that's capable of reaching any country in the world. Unfortunately, Drax cheats at cards and it's only a matter of time before someone at his club (which is also M's club, you see the connection) notices and creates a scandal that could offend Drax enough to jeopardize the Moonraker project. The chairman at Blades knows that M is somehow connected to British Intelligence and has asked him to help, so M naturally thought of the Service's best card player (as well as the hero of Casino Royale) as a possible solution. Bond, who has a ton of respect for M, agrees. He'll play against Drax and without creating a scandal, beat the man at his own game. Hopefully that will be enough to let Drax know that people are onto him and cause him to play straight in the future.

Though Fleming's given the first taste of the plot, things slow down again when Bond arrives at Blades. There's a lot of history about the place and Fleming immerses the reader in details about the club and what it would be like to eat and play there. He also reveals that M's first name is Miles and that his last name also starts with M. None of this is boring to me though, and I got a kick out of watching Bond and M hang out, especially as I imagined them being played by Daniel Craig and Bernard Lee. I have a hard time dream-casting the literary Bond, but M is easy. The movies got it right the first time and Bernard Lee was the perfect representation of the character as Fleming wrote him.

Eventually, the card game begins and though Fleming uses a lot of jargon and is much less clear about the rules of bridge than he was about baccarat in Casino Royale, he also makes it easy to tell who's doing well and who isn't. The stakes of the game aren't as high as they were in Casino Royale, but Fleming keeps it interesting by making Drax an obnoxious jerk that needs taking down. He infuriates Bond and - more importantly - he infuriated me. It's a tense, well-written scene and made me realize that I would have loved a Fleming anthology of nothing but stories about people playing cards. He's able to pull so much drama out of that setting.

Of course Bond succeeds in his goal and if he's made a powerful enemy in the process, he doesn't seem to care. The chances of Bond's running into Drax in the future are almost none. Except of course that this is fiction and chance has nothing to do with it. The next morning, Bond is called to M's office again, because there's been a murder at Drax's plant.

Ordinarily that would be outside of the Service's jurisdiction, but a technicality lets them get involved. Drax employs a lot of German expatriates in his plant and it was one of them who committed the murder in a tavern and then immediately killed himself. Since it was the Secret Service who cleared the German staff, M has enough room to wiggle into the case, but he admits to Bond that he probably wouldn't have bothered had it not been for the experience with Drax at Blades. Bond agrees that it's intriguing and takes the assignment.

Bond expects his second meeting with Drax to be awkward, but resolves for himself to let bygones be bygones and to keep an open mind about Drax's innocence in the affair. Fortunately, Drax also seems willing to bury the hatchet and welcomes Bond to his team as the new head of security, replacing the murdered man. Drax is much more friendly in his own home where he controls everything and Bond quickly not only forgives Drax, but remembers why he always admired the industrialist before yesterday.

On site, Bond also meets the other members of Drax's staff including a couple of charmingly cartoonish caricatures of mad scientists (one of whom Fleming explicitly compares to Peter Lorre) and Scotland Yard agent Gala Brand. Brand has been undercover for a while as Drax's personal assistant, but she's also involved in the case as the motive for the murder. The killer was apparently in love with her, but resented her close relationship with the victim.

When she meets Bond, Brand is very cold to him. The reason for that is as much a mystery as everything else, but just as interesting is Bond's reaction to it. He was initially impressed with her professionalism, but when he realizes she actively dislikes him, he doesn't just take it personally; he also loses respect for her capability as an agent. He's kind of a baby about it and once he starts thinking of her in terms of whether she likes him or not, it's like he can't think of her as a colleague anymore. As his attraction to her increases, his professional regard for her decreases, and he's clearly attracted to her. She's totally his type: brunette and without ostentation. She wears no makeup, little jewelry, and uses natural nail polish. Just like Vesper and Solitaire.

As Tuesday evening winds down and the book reaches its halfway point, Moonraker has a lot of promise. Getting to know Bond better in the first half was great, but now he's in a tense situation with a powerful, possibly dangerous man and questions about the German killer and what role Brand played in the murder. It's almost like an English country mystery with a science fiction subplot and some international intrigue as extra flavor. I feel like we're in good shape heading into the second half.

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