27 October 2008

Here’s where you’ll find “Quantum of Solace”

Amidst all the Halloween, election, and NaNoWriMo hoopla, we can easily forget that there is a James Bond movie coming out in theaters on November 14th. It’s a direct sequel to 2006’s Casino Royale and sports the odd title Quantum of Solace. Odd unless you’re a Fleming Purist like I am; “Quantum of Solace” is the title of a short story in the collection For Your Eyes Only, the subject of today’s Department of Book Reviews. However, don’t expect any similarities between story and movie, as you’ll discover when I go over the story’s premise. The movie will follow up directly on events on Casino Royale. Although I enjoyed that film, the first to adapt Fleming closely in many years, I still have extreme reservations about Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond, which is nowhere near Fleming’s character. If you want to see how Fleming’s James Bond acts, watch Sean Connery in Dr. No and Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights, which are the two closest portrayals to Fleming’s character. Craig is a skilled actor, but so far I’ve seen him play James Bond as a brutish lout with no self-control… and that isn’t James Bond. Let’s hope for improvement. (Update: Improvement? The series just jumped in a hole and dragged the hole with it!)

Enough about the new film. Let’s turn to a collection of shorts that furnished a few titles, and a surprising amount of material to the earlier films.

For Your Eyes Only
By Ian Fleming (Jonathan Cape, 1960)

Three of the five novelettes in For Your Eyes Only originate in a proposed CBS James Bond TV show. Fleming wrote story treatments for the program, but when it never materialized, he turned the material into short fiction and collected it here, along with two pieces previously published in periodicals. Three of the stories, “From a View to a Kill,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Risico,” are adventure stories following the structure of Fleming’s novels in condensed form. “Hildebrand Rarity” and “Quantum of Solace” are experimental pieces that have very little in the way of secret service action. “Quantum of Solace” has no action at all, actually.

For Your Eyes Only is my favorite story in the collection, but “The Hildebrand Rarity” comes in a close second. “For Your Eyes Only” is not only a superb action-adventure story, it also tells a great deal about how Bond views his his role as Her Majesty’s assassin—or, in this case, M’s personal equalizer. M has learned that friends of his, the Havelocks, have died under the gun of a Cuban assassin hired by a sinister Mr. Hammerstein. Off-the-record, M wants Bond to find the killers in their Vermont forest hideaway and do what has to be done:
There were no doubts in Bond’s mind. He didn’t know the Havelocks or care who they were. Hammerstein had operated the law of the jungle on two defenseless old people. Since no other law was available, the law of the jungle should be visited upon Hammerstein. In no other way could justice be done. If it was revenge, it was the revenge of the community.

“These people can’t be hung, sir. But they ought to be killed.”
Terrific stuff. We learn a lot about M in the story as well, and Judy Havelock is a fiery character who would have been wonderful in a full-length novel. In general, the pacing and story are perfect for the novelette size, and show Fleming working with the format structure like a pro.

The Hildebrand Rarity lets Fleming show off two of his greatest writing skills: the underwater world, and the portraiture of a disgusting villain. Perhaps we don’t think of Milton Krest immediately as a “villain”; he isn’t an Auric Goldfinger or a Hugo Drax, or even a lesser adversary like Seraffimo Spang in Diamonds are Forever. But he’s grotesque and despicable in Fleming’s hands and seen through Bond’s eyes. Many of us can remember meeting someone like him in real life, something we can’t say about Doctor No! (At least, I hope not.) The “massacre” Krest commits on the sea life in order to get the fish of the title is described with all the emotion of watching humans get mowed down in cold blood. It seems strange that Fleming would cast any suspicion on Fidele concerning Krest’s death, since it is clearly his abused wife Liz who is guilty of murdering the disgusting pig. Fidele just hasn’t been given much reason up until the very end to do Krest in, so Fleming’s late addition of this seems artificial. That’s my only complaint about this excellent story that puts Bond up against a human drama that plays out to its violent end before his eyes and against the backdrop of the tropical world the author loved so much.

Quantum of Solace comes across as the parlor room version of “The Hildebrand Rarity,” as Bond sits in a room after a party and hears a story from the governor of the Bahamas about another marriage that changed into deep loathing and eventual recrimination. It’s an interesting piece, although one I do not enjoy as much as some other Bond readers have; I think the shadow cast by the “The Hildebrand Rarity” is a hard one for “Quantum of Solace” to escape. The most intriguing aspect of the story is seeing Bond confront the ‘normal’ world, and realize that sometimes it is more interesting than the supposedly thrilling world of the spy. Fleming tells Bond, and us, that everyone has within them some incredible tale—and the surface will rarely indicate it. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a dinner guest by their dull patter.

As you can imagine, an after-dinner story about a failed marriage will not make much impression on the upcoming movie Quantum of Solace. But it was an available Fleming title, so why not?

I can never muster much enthusiasm for either Risico or From a View to a Kill. They provide action and a bit of intrigue, but neither is memorable or contains any gripping scenes that stay with me afterwards. I can see these tales as examples of the more basic assignments that Bond goes on when not getting launched into a novel-worthy adventure. “Risico” is just too dense, and should have been expanded into a novella, since the Kristatos-Colombo conflict could have been worked into something quite operatic. “From a View to a Kill” does tell us how Bond lost his virginity, but other than that I find it only passable.

“From A View to a Kill” provides absolutely nothing to the movie titled A View to a Kill. Any similarities, and I’ve yet to find one, are purely coincidental. “Risico,” on the other hand, provides half the plot to the movie For Your Eyes Only, the other half coming from the title story.