Saturday, 5 March 2016

James Bond: The Secret History - a review

Given the huge amount of information about James Bond available in print and on the internet, the title of Sean Egan's new book, James Bond: The Secret History (2016, John Blake) seems a touch optimistic. Are any secrets left to reveal? Egan's book doesn't contain much that's new, but it does explore areas of the world of James Bond that are likely to be less familiar to many readers, Bond fans included.

The book is part history of the books and films, and part analysis of the Bond phenomenon, and essentially its aim is to explain how a character created in the aftermath of the Second World War became the global success it has been for over fifty years. The author runs through the staples of Bond histories, among them the somewhat peripatetic life of Ian Fleming, the presidential boost, the struggles to get Bond to the television or cinema screen, the Thunderball case that cost one man his health and utterly consumed another, the endless studio wrangles, and the casting and recasting of Bond.

Along the way, the author examines the impact of Bond in popular culture through aspects as diverse as parodies, literary and cinematic imitators, toys, and computer games, and, based on his own interviews, presents the recollections of those who experienced the world of Bond first-hand, including continuation author Raymond Benson, composer Monty Norman, and Fleming friend and biographer John Pearson. Egan also draws on existing sources, which occasionally leads to repetition of inaccuracies. Contrary to popular opinion (even that of Cubby Broccoli), James Fox could not have turned down the role of Bond for moral reasons, for the simple reason that he was never considered.

Sean Egan brings attention to curious elements of the Bond books that, to be honest, had escaped me. For example, it's not certain that the zeroes in '007' are actually zeroes, rather than ohs, and it hadn't occurred to me that a line in Casino Royale alludes to Bond masturbating (that's a mental image I can't now unsee). Just as revealing is evidence that Dr No was intended as a subtle parody of Fleming's creation, and news that Raymond Benson had written a stage play of Casino Royale that went as far as rehearsals on Broadway.

There's much enjoyment to be had from the author's wry turns-of-phrase. I admit I chuckled at the descriptions of Bond and Sir Godfrey Tibbett in A View to a Kill as 'a not-exactly dynamic duo', and of the fight in Never Say Never Again between Bond and an assassin at Shrublands as 'well choreographed and real-looking...not least because Bond spends much of it running away'.

But die-hard Bond fans be warned. Egan's iconoclastic views are likely to make uncomfortable reading. In fact, pointing out the implausibilities and substandard plotting, the author has barely a good word to say about any of the Bond books or films, although he surprises with the things he does like. (The Spy who Loved Me, derided by most for its Mills & Boon heroine, and the near-absence of Bond, is in Egan's view an excellent novel, right up to the point that Bond appears.) In truth, there is much in Egan's words that Bond fans wouldn't totally disagree with, and in a way the criticism is a product of James Bond's very success. Any book or film held up to the light to the extent that Bond has been is likely to exhibit flaws.

While James Bond: The Secret History does not offer anything particularly secret, it does contain nuggets that will certainly be unknown to many readers (this reader included). The book is an entertaining trot through Bond lore, neatly weaving the various strands – literary, cinematic, and that of the wider Bond phenomenon – into a single, page-turning narrative, and provides a perspective on Bond that will surprise, please and irritate in equal measure.

James Bond: The Secret History by Sean Egan is out now, published by John Blake Publishing in hardback and priced £16.99


  1. I didn't think much of this book ... but I do have to say that I think TSWLM is underrated by Bond fandom. As a novel, it is quite terrific, and perhaps the best-written book in the canon. It may not be 'good James Bond,' but it is certainly a terrific book.

    When I want people who would normally be judgmental about Fleming without having read him to take a first dip into the corpus, it is always TSWLM that I give them first. After that, all the reservations melt away.

    1. I'm a great fan of TSWLM (both of the book and the film). It was the second Bond book I read, and I loved it. Have you read my appreciation of the book?


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