The Impact of Ian Fleming's James Bond
Ian Fleming was the creator of the world’s most famous secret agent, James Bond. Modern classics that transcend genre, Fleming’s novels were re-released on October 16, 2012 restored to the original text from the editions published between 1953 and 1966. This guest post by best-selling author Barry Eisler discusses how Fleming pioneered and popularized many of the elements that define contemporary spy fiction. Eisler recently released the Kindle Single, The Khmer Kill, starring the former Marine sniper, Dox, now available on Kindle.
With something like twenty-five James Bond movies released over the course of over half a century, it’s natural that the popular conception of Ian Fleming’s iconic spy has been shaped largely by cinema. Also natural—though in some ways unfortunate—is the extent to which the film versions have tended to obscure recognition of the quality and impact of the books themselves.
Fleming didn’t invent the modern spy novel (his contemporary and countryman Eric Ambler is generally credited with that), but Fleming’s work pioneered and popularized many of the elements that devotees of spy fiction have demanded ever since. I love the refined aesthetic taste and deadly hand-to-hand skills of Trevanian’s assassins, Jonathan Hemlock and Nicolai Hel—but Fleming combined these now-classic spy traits earlier in Bond. I admire the realistic and detailed surveillance and counter surveillance that underscores Adam Hall’s Quiller novels—but Fleming’s Bond did it sooner, employing tradecraft extensively and well. And while John le Carré is justifiably celebrated for using the spy novel to examine enduring themes of human nature, such as the potential tension between personal and institutional loyalty, Fleming dealt with these themes earlier: friendship and loyalty (Dr. No); the morality of killing and revenge (For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy and The Living Daylights); the danger that, in hunting monsters, one can become a monster (The Spy Who Loved Me). And though you wouldn’t know it from the films, where Bond has typically been depicted as certain of his cause, the Bond of Fleming’s novels was at times notably ambivalent not only about his own ruthless means, but about the ends to which those means were dedicated. Subsequent writers would take those themes of moral ambiguity much further, but again Fleming had sown the seeds.
But these elements, though certainly vital to what we now recognize as the Spy Novel, are still not the heart of the matter. For that, you have to look at the whole implicit conception of the Bond books, which is that a lone man, operating in the shadows and using brutal means in the service of a noble end, can protect the fragile forces of civilization and indeed change the course of history. This is a worldview exploited not only by multitudes of subsequent spy novelists; it’s also, for better or worse, a worldview embraced by various world leaders. In fact, in 1960, Fleming dined with President Kennedy and proposed a number of schemes to discredit Fidel Castro. I can’t help wondering how many of those schemes inspired, or were themselves part of, Operation Mongoose, Operation Northwoods, and other long-term Kennedy Administration shadow programs that attempted to damage, depose, and assassinate the Cuban leader. If ever there has been an example of life imitating art, probably it’s Kennedy Administration covert action and the novels of Ian Fleming.
Fleming was also a trendsetter in being part of the secret world he would subsequently use in his novels. He was followed by many others: Adam Hall, John le Carré, Charles McCarry, and yours truly, if I might mention myself among such august company. In fact, Fleming’s adventures in British Naval Intelligence were so exciting that they’re the subject of an upcoming biopic about the author, not his more famous fictional alter ego. Travel to exotic locations; reckless affairs with femmes fatales; a taste for the finer things; secret derring-do against the forces of evil… sound familiar? Fleming’s own life was itself sufficiently interesting to make for solid cinematic fodder. Imagine how richly his life endows his books.
Well, you don’t have to imagine. You can read them—and more easily today than ever before. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have.
Browse the Ian Fleming store to learn more about Ian Fleming and the James Bond series.