Thunderball (Ian Fleming)

The Bond originally conceived by the cinema was very much a creature of the 1960s. Yet the Bond of the books is a man of the 1950s. And like many men in the 1950s, eating an English breakfast 3 times daily and not only being unfit, but unable to even spell the word, seemed to be de rigueur: James is in poor shape it seems, 60 cigarettes a day (think of that in 2017….where would he even find a place to smoke that often!?) do not keep the doctor away. And he drinks like a fish. So M sends him away on a little vacation to recuperate…again. And, of course, each time James goes away to rest, someone tries to take him out. What a life huh?

Not more than five pages in, M, the head of MI6, launches into an extremely weird rant on wheat germ and the inferiority of processed foods — an odd start indeed for a spy thriller. I guess if 007 is supposed to save Miami from nuclear annihilation, his colon might as well be clean from the outset. It’s not clear how intentional the humour of this section is, but in any case monsieur Bond is shipped off to some all-natural health spa and diet camp for detoxification, and here, for no obvious reason, the story begins. This novel will largely be remembered for several things in the larger Bond universe. We have the first introduction to Spectre which, in the words of Felix Leiter is “a bunch of really big-time hoodlums – ex operators of Smersh, the Mafia, the Gestapo – all the big outfits.”

It’s also the first time we meet Ernst Blofeld, and although we get a lot of description from his point of view, Bond doesn’t actually meet or interact with him in this novel. The main bad guy is treasure hunter Emilio Largo and the Bond girl this time around is Domino, both memorable characters. This novel also has the (so far) unique distinction as the only Bond book to have spawned two movies, 1965’s ‘Thunderball’ and 1983’s ‘Never Say Never Again’. There is an odd scene in this one, after he has first met Domino, and spent the afternoon with her. As she drives away, he watches her go, and for little apparent reason, says out loud– “Bitch.” While this is humorous, it makes him look like an ass, and does not fit with his later scenes where he spends time worrying about the fact he has put her in danger, yet wishing he had left her out of it, to the point it is distracting him from completing the job.

Bond is a little lost in the climax, which involves an under-sea fight (with some fighters choosing to fight naked so they can identify each other – haven’t they heard of coloured scuba gear?) By today’s standards the Bond books are light on body count and gore, and written in a style that is refreshingly minimalist – that may turn off many modern readers who need to be saturated in heavy handed obviousness. Thunderball is totally enjoyable, admirably inventive and replete with the exotic locations and colourful characters one expects. Bond does almost no detective work here, except to correctly imagine — more or less in one piece — the shape of the deviously clever plot that’s unfolded. (Good thing it unfolds in front of the reader’s eyes, as it’d be tedious for our hero to have to start so far behind us and catch up.) Then it’s just a matter of hanging around the principals until something happens. To sum up, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian Fleming had been a prostitute in a former life. Why? Because he always strives to give the punter (me, you, us, the reader) a bloody good time.

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