The imminent arrival of "Devil May Care", the latest Bond Novel, by Sebastian Faulks under licence from the Fleming Estate, seemed a good time to re-read this, the last of Fleming's Bond novels, which was published posthumously in 1965, Fleming having died of heart failure in 1964. (Octopussy, published later, was a collection of short stories.) Fleming had almost killed Bond off at the end of "You Only Live Twice", and I wonder whether he had intended to write a further book at that stage - or whether, indeed, he had expected to have the chance.
Bond returns to London, brainwashed by the KGB, on a mission to kill M, fails, is restored to sanity (or at least, his normal mental state) and is sent on a suicide mission in the Caribbean to find and despatch the eponymous "Pistols" Scaramanga. He finds him in Jamaica - convenient, of course, because that was Fleming's holiday home, where he had a bungalow, called Goldeneye, next door to Noel Coward's (more impressive) one. Several Bond stories, of course, are set in Jamaica, which had a touch of exoticism and where Fleming could easily provide all necessary touches of local colour.
As a result we get little of the taste of living the 50s/60s high-life in England, but much local detail from a Jamaica which has probably also vanished. As was often the case, Bond passed up the chance to complete his mission when he could have done so easily, instead infiltrates his enemy's organisation, is rumbled, gets a helping hand from ex-CIA man Felix Leiter and an improbably named female (in this case, Mary Goodnight), escapes to fight a desperate battle with his quarry, and prevails, suffering serious (but survivable) wounds in the process. Formulaic? - not half! So why have I enjoyed this and all Fleming's other books so much?
Bond stories are first and foremost gripping tales, and Fleming wrote them brilliantly. Had Bond been a more regularly efficient agent, (as he tends to be in the short stories), content simply to carry out his mission and go home, then the stories would have been shorter and less interesting. The fictional hero has to take his time, work out his foibles, and interact with the target. I find Fleming's Bond novels fascinating as a comment on attitudes prevailing, or perhaps just hanging on, in 1950s society. Fleming suggests that Britain was still a "great power" when in fact there were now just two superpowers. Bond's sexism and racism are breathtaking by modern standards, although this book is much less prone to either. Fleming clearly greatly loved the Jamaicans - especially Jamaican comrade "Quarrel", sadly killed in the course of Dr No - although it was a reverence influenced by his strong class awareness: at best, I feel, he admires and respects them as subordinates, much as he does his Scottish housekeeper May. Interestingly, in this novel, he seems to take a swipe at homosexuality - suggesting that Scaramanga, a very active womaniser, was in fact gay, and much other pseudo-psychological nonsense beside. Given that Fleming was himself bisexual, and clearly wrote in part to amuse Mr Coward next door, I do wonder what to make of this. One day I'll read one of the many biographies and try to find out.
This is a great novel if you like action stories with a touch of period detail and can view the prejudice from a distance (God forbid that you like it!) - although I would recommends starting with Casino Royale and working forwards. They are not particularly good value for money, as you can finish them within a few hours if you wish. I wait, with interest, to see how Faulks renders Bond. I suspect that he will be more politically correct, for a start, and clearly rather longer . That will be fine if the story is as fast and exciting.
This edition, by the way, has the best thought out cover - Scaramanga's gun as a gold-plated long-barrelled Colt 45 revolver with home made dum-dum bullets, the two birds feature in the story, there were drummers and exotic dancers.