Friday, March 27, 2015

The Man With the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming

Fleming began writing The Man With the Golden Gun in the same month that principle filming began on Goldfinger. Exploring just how much the Goldfinger movie inspired the Golden Gun novel would make a fascinating research paper, but I'm not going to do it. I don't need to quantify the influence in order to know that Fleming's writing was affected by the Bond films in general. Putting aside Ursula Andress' appearance in the novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as soon as the movies started coming out Fleming immediately started tweaking his Bond. The literary character not only became a Scot like Sean Connery, but a notorious public figure whose life could be read about in the newspaper and speculated upon. Though Fleming died before The Man With the Golden Gun was completely polished, the novel suggests that the book series was going to continue to read more and more like the films.

That's not a good thing. I started writing about the Bond novels with the theory that Bond actually grows as a character over the course of the series. And that's been born out. It's been a great and interesting trip watching the selfish, sullen spy take more and more interest in the people around him. That comes to a head in You Only Live Twice, which would've made a perfect ending to the series if Bond had more say about his fate at the end of that book. Fleming had a wonderful opportunity to wrap up the series with Bond's making a conscious choice to either continue in the Secret Service or stay with Kissy on the island. Either decision would have made a powerful statement about Bond's character and contrasted beautifully with the Bond of Casino Royale. But instead of Kissy's encouraging and supporting Bond in determining what kind of life he wanted, Fleming had her deceive Bond, raising his curiosity and propelling him into another adventure. That's great for the continued potential financial success of the series, but not for its artistic achievement. Fleming gave up a great ending in order to keep the series going.

Not that The Man With the Golden Gun is a bad book. The first chapters resolve the cliffhanger from You Only Live Twice in a really tense and exciting way. From there, the story goes in a direction that's reminiscent of Bond's early adventures, especially Dr. No. Bond is supposed to stop an assassin named Francisco Scaramanga who's working for Cuba and helping Soviet interests in the Caribbean. Bond finds Scaramanga in Jamaica and that's where the rest of the story takes place. While there, Bond does a lot of recollecting about his previous missions there. We learn that he lost touch with Honey Rider, but that last he'd heard she was married to a doctor from Philadelphia and had a couple of kids.

Unfortunately, Scaramanga isn't a great villain. He's really just a glorified henchman. But he's still plenty dangerous and Fleming does a nice job keeping Bond in danger. Fleming's always made Bond squeamish about killing in cold blood (though Golden Gun makes it clear that that's just something Bond finds extremely distasteful as opposed to something he believes is objectively immoral). Because of that, Bond chooses not to assassinate Scaramanga when he has the chance, but decides to go undercover as Scaramanga's personal assistant. It's rooted in Bond's established character, so it sort of works, but it also smacks loudly of dragging out a very thin plot. Even so, Fleming is able to create tense moments all throughout and Golden Gun is a fun, adventurous read.

That's faint praise though, especially compared with how epic the rest of Fleming's later novels are. Instead of building on those, he just seems interested in writing a passable adventure for future adaptation into film. Bond finds Scaramanga not through serious investigation, but purely by luck. His relationship with Mary Goodnight - no longer the admin for the Double-O section and recently assigned to Jamaica - is especially flirty and Connery-esque. Bond even pokes fun at Q-Branch like Connery does and a couple of things feel lifted right out of Goldfinger in particular, starting with the title character's gold-covered revolver. Bond also uses a hollow safety razor as a hiding place for spy stuff and there's a scene where the bad guy murders a squeamish ally who wants out of the caper.

I have such mixed feeling about The Man With the Golden Gun. It's simultaneously a solid little entry in the series and a horrible disappointment. As the final book in Fleming's series, it sucks and I'd prefer if it didn't exist. But as the start of something different - a new chapter in Bond's life - I kind of dig it and wish Fleming had been given more time to convince me he was headed in a worthwhile direction.


Anonymous said...

I have stronger feelings about TMWTGG than you do. I think it's the weakest novel in the series (other than the horrific Spy Who Loved Me) - ESPECIALLY coming after two of the best - OHMSS and You Only Live Twice. I loved what Fleming was doing with Bond in those 'September Of my Years' books. The first quarter of TMWTGG is solid and I agree, that brainwashing sequence is very suspenseful and interesting. But as soon as Bond gets his mission, it's all downhill from there. If Fleming had lived, I think he could have polished it up somewhat, but it's slight material and a placeholder of a book until the next epic... which never came. Fleming died SO young... just 56... imagine if he had lived just ten more years and written 8 or 9 more Bond novels taking him into the 1970's. It would have been fascinating, compelling stuff.

Michael May said...

That's a beautiful, if heart-breaking point. I may not have given Fleming enough credit by suggesting that he was dumbing down the series to more closely match the films. He was certainly capable of better than that and it makes me wistful to imagine where he might have taken Bond as he continued to mature.


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