Saturday, 11 February 2017

Ian Fleming the short story writer - good or bad?

In the second volume of Best Secret Service Stories, published in 1965, editor John Welcome devotes much of his introduction to Ian Fleming, who died the previous year. Welcome is generous and fulsome in his praise for Fleming's work. His books, Welcome writes, “were all beautifully written by an intelligence far above the ordinary.” “Fleming could write anyone else operating in this [the spy] genre clean off the page.” “Fleming abundance the three essentials of a writer in this genre – pace, conviction and a compulsive readability.”

You won't hear any argument to the contrary from me, but Welcome's introduction is by no means a hagiography; Welcome acknowledges that there are considerable debts to Fleming's literary ledger. One of these, in Welcome's view, is Fleming's skill as a short story writer. “This was an aspect of the art of writing,” Welcome suggests, “in which [Fleming] was almost wholly at sea. Virtually all of the published short stories are misfires.” (It should be noted that at the time of publication, John Welcome had not seen Octopussy and The Living Daylights.)

Contrast this view with that of thriller writer Robert Ryan, who suggests in his introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition of Octopussy and The Living Daylights that “as with Sherlock Holmes... Bond was at his best in the shorter adventures,” and that Fleming “was a short story/novella man at heart.”

There is usually a tendency for books or films poorly received at the time of publication or release to acquire classic and cherished status simply with the passage of time (there's hope for Die Another Day yet). After reading Welcome's and Ryan's very different opinions, I wondered if this were the case with Fleming's short stories, but a quick survey of critical opinion suggests that Welcome is somewhat out on a limb.

In The James Bond Dossier (1965), Kingsley Amis thought 'From a View to a Kill' ingenious, 'Risico' well written, and 'The Hildenbrand Rarity' effective, while The Guardian thought the For Your Eyes Only collection better than the novels. Not to say that all critics were effusive. Philip Larkin thought that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, James Bond “does not fit snugly into the short story length.”

For my money, I'm with Robert Ryan – I think that Ian Fleming's short stories represent some of his best writing. 'Octopussy', 'From a View to a Kill', 'The Hildebrand Rarity' and 'The Living Daylights' are for me particular highlights, being full of thrills, insights into Bond, wonderful descriptions, and some delicious turns of phrase. It's a travesty that the first two of those still haven't been faithfully adapted for the screen. I would like to have seen more short stories from Fleming, and now that Fleming's unrealised TV treatments are reaching the page, perhaps one day I will.

Chancellor, H, 2005 James Bond: The Man and his World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming's Creation, John Murray, London


  1. I agree with you. Fleming's short stories are especially valuable because they're among his most experimental works--he used the format as a sort of laboratory, where he could depart from the more formulaic plot structures of the novels. So QoS is a Maugham-style tale of infidelity, "Hildebrand" is centered on characterization rather than espionage, TLD develops Bond's discomfort with being an assassin more than any of the novels aside from Goldfinger (whose opening might have originally been a short story as well), and Octopussy is a autobiographical exploration of aging and moral decay.

    As far as adaptations go, the Daily Express comic strip version of Octopussy preserves some of the original while adding a crime subplot that expands the role of the Chinese gold smugglers--it's not as impressive a reworking as the Express version of The Spy Who Loved Me but is still pretty good. The Express version of TLD is extremely faithful and adds a little twist at the end that improves on the original.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, indeed - Fleming's short stories encompass a range of styles, and seem to have given Fleming a freedom that his novels couldn't. (Mind you, some of his novels are pretty experimental.) Maugham's influence in QoS is clear enough, and I've suggested that The Hildebrand Rarity is has the qualities of Roald Dahl's short stories.

      I agree that the Express versions of Octopussy and TLD add to, and improve to some extent the original stories. Eon ought to have taken note of the comic strip and seen how the short stories could be expanded and made suitably cinematic.


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