(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 14.)
Wait, where was the guy with the metal teeth? Where was the boat chase? Where was the zero gravity sex? This isn't the Moonraker I know. Instead of being one of James Bond's worst big screen adventures it's a tight, brisk, contained thriller that veers away from the expectations established by the first two books. There are no exotic locales–Dover's lovely but it doesn't count– and no sex.–just the possibility of sex dashed–but doesn't suffer for it. It even takes over 50 pages for Bond to even get a proper assignment. First he has to play bridge. The opening chapters are like soft porn for bridge fans. It's a game I'd always associated with retirees but Fleming presents it here as a cutthroat sport masquerading as a gentleman's game. At least I think that's what he's going for. Having never played bridge I was a little lost. But I think the whole sequence in which Bond tries to take down mysterious philanthropist/card cheat Hugo Drax works even if you don't know the game. And I love the implication that a man who cheats at cards will, in the end, cheat at other things. It's like in Jane Austen's Persuasion when we see a character riding his carriage on Sunday and find out later that he's a nogoodnik at heart. A man who cheats at bridge is obviously an unrepentant Nazi who's assumed a false idenity and whose superweapon that he claims to have created to protect England is actually designed to destroy England. I could put a spoiler alert in front of that last sentence but the most frustrating aspect of Moonraker is that the plot is so transparent that readers will probably have it all worked out before Bond. Long before Bond. Like the moment they meet Hugo Drax, a badly scarred WWII veteran who came to England claiming to suffer from amnesia, went about building an empire, and built a super-weapon to protect his country. Sure. That's what it's for. Just as bothersome is a climax in which Drax engages in the baffling, and I'm guessing already hoary by 1955, gesture of explaining himself at great length to the bound hero and heroine and then leaving them alone. Alive. And with the controls to his precious doomsday device. Oh, supervillains. Will you ever learn? Still, this was an enjoyable read. Fleming's great at describing the customs of whatever world he chooses to set Bond loose in. Even London. Blades, its lavishly described private gaming club, is as richly rendered as Live And Let Die's Carribbean. (Was Bond's request for a slice of pineapple an extravagance because of post-war shortages or did pineapples used to be a delicacy in the U.K.?) And Bond is allowed more room to grow as a character here than in Live And Let Die. There's real melancholy to this entry's final pages, although nothing in the character of Gala Brand seems alluring enough to make the suggestion he could swear off bachelorhood all that convincing. Even her name is sub-par. When the crazed killer announced, "I love Gala Brand," to the bartender, I thought he might be talking about whiskey. Fleming's good at the ins-and-outs of spywork, too, although every time he turns to the big picture politics of the time the book gets silly. Why, yes, the U.K. would want to become a third player in the Cold War. And of course the U.S.S.R. would help a Nazi with a nuclear weapon. That makes all the sense in the world. But it's not sense we seek in these books, is it?
Next: The Secret People, by John Beyon Harris
Then: Tales From The White Hart, by Arthur C. Clarke
And then: Something called Limbo. I picked it out this morning but haven't scanned the cover yet and I can't remember the author, either. But the cover did feature a blurb from someone who swore it was better than 1984 and Brave New World. There might be an extra week between the Clarke book and this entry. It's long.