First published in 1964, this is the twelfth print outing (eleventh full length novel) for Ian Fleming's James Bond. It was the last of the Bond series published in Fleming's life time.
Following the calamitous events at the end of `On Her Majesty's Secret Service', Bond is a wreck. He is drinking too much, he is gambling and losing too much, and even worse he is making mistakes on assignments that are putting lives at risk. M is on the verge of firing him from the service, but is persuaded by an eminent psychologist to give Bond one last chance, with an assignment so tough that it might shake Bond up and bring the old, dedicated and dangerous agent back to life. M sends him on a seemingly impossible mission to Japan, not to kill or investigate anything, but to schmooze the chief of Japanese intelligence into letting the British have access to a solid gold intelligence source they have in Russia. Bond is indeed shaken up and the assignment proves to be a tough one as he uses all his wits and judgement to get Tiger Tanaka on side. He gains the trust of the Japanese intelligence man, who agrees to hand over the intelligence, but at a price. He needs a deniable operative to perform an assassination, and it seems as though Bond fits the bill. One murder by Bond and the British can have all the access it wants. So Bond undergoes a transformation into a Japanese coal miner and is sent off to slay the mysterious Dr. Shatterhand in his garden of death. But it turns out that as well as the opportunity to fulfil his mission, Bond also has the opportunity for a personal revenge.
The book falls into three main sections, Bond's breakdown and the early stages of his mission in which he schmoozes Tanaka, a journey across Japan in which Tanaka immerses Bond in Japanese culture, and finally the mission itself in which Bond is on his own in an alien landscape. The first section is a well written and interesting study of a man taken to the brink and slowly pulling himself back from it. It holds the interest, and Fleming's usual excellent prose is used to good effect. The second section of the book however is a different story. Fleming often worked in a detailed description of something crucial to the plot (for example, guano farming in Dr. No, gold smuggling in Goldfinger, Heraldry in OHMSS) and made it utterly adsorbing. Here he attempts to sum up Japanese culture, and though mildly interesting to see it from the point of view of a middle aged man in the early 1960s, this whole section of the book is a real struggle for me to get through. It could have been trimmed to half, even a quarter of the length and the book would have still made sense and been a lot better for it. It is in the final third of the book, where Bond actually starts on his mission and realises who he up against that things really take off. Fleming uses all his descriptive powers to great effect to describe the garden of death in all it's alien horror, and the final showdown between Bond and his would be nemesis is an absolute cracker.
The book has a strong theme of character development and rebirth in it. Bond is transformed from a drunken gambler back to a man of action, then into an instrument of vengeance and finally into a normal human being living a contented life. Blofeld is shown as moving from a disciplined authoritarian evil genius into a raving lunatic (though no less of an evil genius), no longer in control of himself. Fleming also takes time to explore the state of the nation, with the exchanges between Tiger and Bond revealing how Fleming saw the position of the UK on the world stage at the time. There is also an interesting interlude at the end which leaves us on a bit of a cliff hanger, and gives us an opportunity to read Bond's obituary from M in the papers. That s a neat touch, and a great ending to what had been an only intermittently good book.
I wanted to like the book a lot more than I did, mainly because of the slow middle section. The opening, and the action packed finale are excellent, as is the philosophical depth that Fleming manages to bring to the piece. But that long tedious slog as Bond is trained to be Japanese just mars the whole thing. Three stars for the book.