Box Of Paperbacks: Thunderball

Box Of Paperbacks: Thunderball

(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 48.)

Post foreword number one: Sorry it's been so long between posts. I'll try not to let that happen again. I've been trying to keep to a three-weeks-on/one-week-off schedule but that fell by the wayside. There are projects in the works that have been eating into the time I usually use for Box Of Paperbacks. One will be unveiled very soon. One not so soon. Post foreword number two: Obligatory passage for all James Bond posts suggesting that Ian Fleming might not have had the most progressive views on race, ethnicity, other cultures basically anything outside the life of a tea-drinking, Eton-educated Englishman whose views were forged while the sun never sat on that particular empire so we can get it out of the way here and not let the whole post get bogged down with such observations: [From a description of Paris that will eventually wind its way to the headquarters of the newly introduced Bond foes SPECTRE.]

The Boulevard Haussman, in the VIIIth and IXth Arrondissements, stretches from the Rue du Fauborg St. Honoré to the Opéra. It is very long and very dull, but it is perhaps the solidest street in the whole of Paris. Not the richest–the Avenue d'Ilena has that distinction–but rich people are not necessarily solid people and too many of the landlords and tenants in the Avenue d'Ilena have names endng ins "escu," "ovitch," "ski," and "stein," and these are sometimes not the endings of respectable names.

Another passage suggesting other thoughts entirely: [From late in the novel, when Bond is being seen to in a Bahamanian hospital]

Dr. Stengel, the fashionable doctor of Nassau, was not only fashionable but a good doctor. He was one of the Jewish refugee doctors who, but for Hitler, would have been looking after some big hospital in a town the size of Düsseldorf. Instead, rich and grateful patients had built a modern clinic for him in Nassau where he treated the natives for shillings and the millionaires and their wives for ten guineas a visit.

Okay. With that done, let's move on to the post proper. We're only two novels out from From Russia With Love, which ended with Fleming trying to kill off his ace-of-spies via poisoned boot. It didn't take, and I suspect the antidote came from Fleming's realization that there are probably better geese to kill than the one laying the golden eggs. A couple of elements here suggest that Fleming had resigned himself to living with Bond for good. For one, there's a note on the author's page explaining that the book began as screen treatment by Fleming, Kevin McClory, and J. Whittingham, the story tilted in part to favor elements that would take advantage of McClory's knowledge of underwater cameras. This would come back to haunt Fleming, his estate, and EON Productions, the makers of the Bond film series, who released Thunderball as the fourth proper Bond film in 1965. (Quick take: It's a pretty good one.) I don't know the details of the arrangement and I couldn't begin to explain the legal complications stemming from it, but it's the reason Warner Bros. was able to rope Sean Connery back into secret agent uniform again for the now largely forgotten McClory-proudced Never Say Never Again, essentially a second filming of the Thunderball story. And it's the reason why Sony, as recently as 1999, was able to threaten to start its own Bond series by laying claim to Thunderball material. Now Sony owns MGM, but even if someone else had the rights to Bond, I don't see anyone trying to do anything about it now that Daniel Craig has found a way to put his stamp on the character.

Back to the page: Bond's getting noticeably older. Fleming would die young at 56, only four years after Thunderball's publication. It's hard not to draw some connections between the interests he shared with his character–booze, cigarettes, and rich food in massive quantities–and his early death. Dr. No had a doctor and M fearing for Bond's well being and and the first, best, part of Thunderball finds Bond being forced to clean up his act after being sent to a health spa called Shrublands, similar to a spa Fleming once attended. There, alongside the romance and intrigue that seem to follow him everywhere, he learns the virtues of the "nature cure." Reluctantly he begins chowing down on Nut Mince and Unmalted Slippery Elm while receiving massages, steam treatments, and a spinal correction machine called "The Rack." (The lattermost will almost prove his undoing thanks to a rival spy on the premises.) Funny thing is, it starts to take. He emerges instructing his Scottish housekeeper May on the slow poisons of fried foods, white rice, cakes, and coffee. He turns down cigarettes. And he feels great. After some initial sniffery, neither the hero nor the author makes fun of naturopathy. "I sleep twice as well," he tells May. "I've got twice as much energy. No headaches. No muscle pains. No hangovers." Then he becomes aware of SPECTRE's potentially world-ending plan to hold some cities hostage to hijacked nuclear missiles and sees the error of his ways. From there–fair warning to readers who can't get enough plot summary, I'm about to leave off recounting the plot–we drop into Bond business as usual. There's a sexually compromised-but-essentially-innocent woman to seduce, a supervillain to defeat, and another weirdly mobile appearance by Felix Leiter who, despite losing an arm and a leg, has resumed working for the CIA and demonstrates a Daredevil-like ability to do battle in spite of his infirmities. It's a brisk, fun read, but never quite as good as the early section, which pushes the limits of the main character in some really interesting ways. Would Fleming have been able to keep this habit up in future novels if he'd stuck with the health food and exercise instead of the cigarettes and cream sauces? Better question: Would he have he enjoyed a second of it?

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