I've returned to the book several times over the years, and have never failed to be pulled in by its gripping, pulp-fiction-inspired narrative. And each reading has brought fresh insight. The latest re-reading is no exception.
Ian Fleming was avid reader of American hard-boiled crime fiction, and especially admired the works of its some of its chief exponents, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If Fleming was attempting to emulate those authors in his own work, then The Spy Who Loved Me is arguably his finest effort (Diamonds Are Forever also owes more to American detective fiction than it does spy fiction or Bulldog Drummond-style tales of derring-do). Fleming's intention seems clear enough when Bond finally appears. As the book's narrator, Vivienne Michel, observes, he is dressed in a “uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters – a dark-blue, belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down.” Later, when he introduces himself to the hoodlums, Sluggsy and Horror, Sluggsy exclaims, “This shamus is a limey dick! A gum-shoe!” In this novel, then, James Bond is less British agent, and more Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.
There are other aspects of the novel that recently caught my attention. One of them was Vivienne's background. As she relates, her parents were killed in an accident (a plane crash) when she was eight, and she was subsequently brought up by her aunt. Sound familiar? Fleming gave Bond a similar back-story when he wrote Bond's obituary in You Only Live Twice (1964). If the origins of some of the ideas behind Bond's childhood lie in The Spy Who Loved Me, then this potentially gives the earlier novel enormous significance. Had Fleming never written The Spy Who Loved Me, his account of Bond's childhood might have been very different.
That is not the only possible connection between The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice. After Vivienne Michel escapes from Sluggsy and Horror, she is recaptured and is violently abused. Crawling into the kitchen of the motel, she makes herself some scrambled eggs and bacon (what else?), and slowly as the food brings warmth and nourishment, Vivienne regains her strength and desire to survive. “Love of life is born of the awareness of death, the dread of it”, she considers. Her statement seems to prefigure Bond's haiku expressed in You Only Live Twice: “You Only Live Twice / Once when you are born / And once when you look death in the face.” Both convey a similar sentiment.
Speaking of Sluggsy and Horror, it has often been claimed that while Fleming forbade the filming of his novel, a vestige of the novel survived in the character of Jaws in the film of The Spy Who Loved Me. The henchman's metal teeth seems to have been based on the steel-capped teeth worn by Horror. But I wonder whether Sandor, who appears in the film alongside Jaws, was written with reference to the description of Horror's co-conspirator, Sluggsy, who is short and hairless.
Of course, any novel or film set in an American motel cannot fail to bring to mind Alfred Hickcock's Psycho (1960), and indeed Fleming seems to have referenced the film in the novel. Vivienne ponders the criminal threats motels face, which include murderers who leave “corpses in the shower.” There is no record of Fleming watching the film, but it is possible that this sentence reflects at least an awareness of it.
The Vintage edition of The Spy Who Loved Me that I recently acquired is the fifth edition of the book I own. Comparing the editions, I noticed that there were two things missing from it. There is no co-author. The novel is by Ian Fleming only, whereas my Penguin, Triad Grafton, Book Club and Cape editions purport to be written by Ian Fleming with Vivienne Michel. The Vintage edition also lacks the short preface that begins, “The spy who loved me was called James Bond”, which reveals that Vivienne's co-author persuaded his publisher to bring out their book. Interestingly, these paragraphs are also absent in the Penguin edition, but present in preceding editions. I think it a shame that these aspects have been dropped, as they are important in setting up a conceit that justifies the style of the book.
Not that, in my view, its existence needs to be justified. The Spy Who Loved Me may be anomalous, but it is also a brave experiment, an exciting pulp-fiction crime thriller, and an important work in the development of James Bond, containing as it possibly does the origins of memes that would be expressed in later forms.