If 'The Spy Who Loved Me' (TSWLM) was the first on Ian Fleming's James Bond novels that someone read they might be forgiven for wondering a.) how a book of this sort could have inspired the movies adaptations that followed and b.) where all the espionage and adventure they were expecting had gone. There's also a good chance that they'd never pick up another Bond novel out of sheer disappointment, so if you've never read any of Fleming's books before (or have only picked up one or two) I would not recommend starting with TSWLM. Go back to the beginning as I did and start with Casino Royale. Its a worthwhile exercise.
For those familiar with Fleming's books TSWLM will still come as a surprise, as it is most definitely not a normal Bond novel. In fact its not really a novel, more a literary experiment on the part of the author masquerading as a glorified short story. Sticking to a three act structure the book is narrated by a young Canadian woman, Viv Michel, who in Act One recounts how she went from a comfortable upbringing in Montreal, via finishing school and a career in journalism in London, to being holed up in a deserted motel in Adrionacks in the US during a severe thunderstorm. Act Two then centres on the arrival of two gangsters with nefarious motives at the motel and how they go from initially unsettling to threatening and eventually attacking the vulnerable Viv. Only in Act Three does James Bond finally arrive on the scene and effect a rescue of Viv.
In almost every respect TSWLM is unlike any other Bond novel. Along with the narration from Viv throughout and the lack of James Bond for two thirds of the book's length there's also no espionage for Bond to undertake even once he does appear (his arrival on the scene being entirely coincidental). His role is relegated to that of the mysterious stranger riding in to protect and rescue the damsel in distress and the likes of SMERSH & SPECTRE are restricted to name checks in tale Bond recounts to Viv during a lull in proceedings. The two gangsters, Horror & Sluggsy, are evil and physically ugly specimens like many Bond villains and are reminiscent of the hoodlums from Diamonds are Forever (Penguin Viking Lit Fiction)
& Goldfinger (Penguin Viking Lit Fiction)
, but they are also less exotic and their motivations (arson and insurance fraud) are far more pedestrian. In many ways TSWLM feels more like a traditional noir crime novel which just happens to feature James Bond.
This almost complete divergence from the normal 'Bond' template is bound to leave some fans wholly disatisfied. Despite some reservations going in however, I found that I really enjoyed this complete change of pace from the other adventures. There are the usual observations to be made about Fleming's anachronistic attitudes to certain things (written in 1962 TSWLM is now very much a period piece) but its also good to see a writer trying something new and different with a familiar character and for the most part pulling it off. The book's brevity helps as the changes in pace and subject matter don't overstay their welcome, and in some ways it feels closest in style to the short stories from For Your Eyes Only (Penguin Viking Lit Fiction)
, but Fleming nails the character of Viv quite well, avoiding making her a completely helpless damsel, and there is palpable sense of menace to events during the second act. The final act is more tradition Bond action, but stripped of any world changing significance or scale events on the page feel raw and have greater punch.
All in all TSWLM is worth dipping into. As long you don't expect the usual mix of evil masterminds, world changing plots and high adventure you will not be disappointed and if you're a fan of Fleming's spare prose, characters, sense of place and feel for action there is much in the book that will entertain.