This is the second of Ian Fleming's novels that I have re-read before reading "Devil May Care", the latest Bond Novel, by Sebastian Faulks under licence from the Fleming Estate.
It is, I think, my favourite Bond. Bond goes to Japan on a mission to help restore his self confidence after the death of his bride at the end of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and a couple of bungled missions thereafter. He has been stripped of his "double - 0" number but allocated a "diplomatic" one - 7777 - instead. He comes up first against Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service and then, in an attempt to prove to Tiger that the British are a race still to be respected, against a mysterious botanist who turns out to be none other than his old enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The scenario - a garden designed to entice hundreds of suicidal Japanese to their deaths - is perhaps the most fantastical of all Flemings' plots.
Tiger provides Fleming with a mouthpiece to express his angst about contemporary British society and its place in the world: "Bondo-san, I will now be blunt with you...it is a sad fact that I, and many of us in positions of authority in Japan, have formed an unsatisfactory opinion about the British people since the war. You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands...when you apparently sought to arrest this slide into impotence at Suez, you succeeded only in stage-managing one of the most pitiful bungles in history. (Tiger's English is impeccable - he went to Oxford, and spied against Britain, before the war!) Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to the trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more money. This feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day's work, is sapping at ever-increasing speed the moral fibre of the British, a quality the world once so much admired. In its place we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure-gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world."
What would Tiger Tanaka and Fleming think of Britain today, I wonder? Given that Fleming was something of a hedonist himself, one might consider him ill-qualified to make such a judgement in any case. One wonders, moreover, with the best will in the world, the extent to which the Japanese ever admired the British.
Bond roars with laughter at Tiger's analysis - but then goes on to risk life and limb to prove him wrong and so to win vital cooperation over intelligence in the Far East. In so doing he meets the lovely pearl-diver Kissy Suzuki, loses his memory as the result of injuries on his mission but is nursed back to health and subsequently presented with a "pillow book" by her - to which he memorably replies "Kissy, take off your clothes and lie down there. We'll start at page one." - but earns a premature obituary.
This is Bond at his best - valiantly struggling to maintain Britain's status in a changing world, having quite a lot of fun along the way, but knowing, in his heart of hearts, that he needed something more.