by Ian Fleming
256 pages, MacMillan
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
“Moonraker”, the 1979 Bond film starring Roger Moore is widely held to be one of the weakest entries in the long-running series. Riding on the coat-tails of Star Wars, producers thought to tap into the science fiction zeitgeist by sending the British secret agent into space. Though a huge success at the box-office, many felt that Moonraker went too far in its attempts to dazzle. As a famous philosopher once said, “You can't polish a turd.”
“Moonraker”, the 1955 novel by Ian Fleming is a markedly different affair. The third book in the franchise, Fleming was still in the process of fleshing out his cold, cruel secret agent. Unlike the globe-trotting adventures we have grown used to, the novel is interesting in that it is set entirely in Britain. Fleming makes great use of the 1950s setting and the book is rich in period detail. Post-war Britain was a drab, dreary place. Rationing was still fresh in the collective mind of the population, men dressed for dinner and feminism was yet to make an impact on the rigid, stuffy society. This background of austerity contrasts fantastically well with the lavish evening that Bond and M enjoy at Blades gentleman's club. They order caviar and smoked salmon, drink champagne by the bottle and sip expensive imported cognac. Bond even has the temerity to leave the slice of pineapple he orders with his asparagus and Béarnaise sauce uneaten. Such luxurious food would have been beyond the reach of the majority of Fleming's readers at the time of the book's publication.
Fleming's expensive tastes are not limited to the culinary arts. A keen gambler, Fleming devotes the first third of the novel to Bond uncovering a card-cheat at Blades. Using his cardsharping skills, Bond goes up against Sir Hugo Drax in a game of Bridge played for absurdly high stakes. Like the movie, “Moonraker” occasionally comes across as an exercise in excess. However, Fleming's novel somehow manages to remain within the bounds of plausibility, even during his most fantastic flights of fancy.
Having made an enemy of Drax across the card table, Bond is assigned the case of looking into sinister goings-on at the military base where the experimental Moonraker rocket is being built. The only problem being that Drax is financing the project and does not take too kindly to Bond's investigations. Our hero quickly learns that there is more to Drax than he initially suspected and the proposed test-firing of the missile is, in fact, a cover-up for a potentially devastating nuclear strike on London. Bond is helped by the beautiful and intelligent Gala Brand, a special branch officer who has worked undercover in Drax's organisation. Brand is noteworthy for the fact that not only is she highly professional and resourceful, she is also one of the few Bond girls to rebuff Bond's advances. Indeed, her final rejection of Bond is one of the high points of the novel. In the course of the story, Bond survives rock-slides, car crashes, beatings and the blast of the Moonraker's powerful rockets only to feel “the pain of failure” as she walks away with her fiancé.
Despite the 1950s setting and Cold War paranoia, Fleming's “Moonraker” has stood the test of time remarkably well. Like all of the Bond novels, it moves at a fast pace and the plotting is taut enough to draw the reader in and sustain the tension right up to the explosive conclusion. Unlike his cinematic incarnations, the James Bond of the novel is human, feeling both pain and disappointment. Gala Brand is one of Fleming's less-misogynistic creations and one wonders what the “Moonraker” movie would have been like had the producers deemed her a worthy Bond girl instead of the lamentable Dr. Holly Goodhead.
Hereward L.M. Proops