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Search tags: 2018-summer-of-spies
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review 2018-08-20 19:42
From Russia With Love / Ian Fleming
From Russia With Love - Ian Fleming

Every major foreign government has a file on James Bond, British secret agent. Now, Russia's deadly SMERSH organization has targeted him for elimination - they have the perfect bait in the irresistible Tatiana Romanova. Her mission is to lure Bond to Istanbul and seduce him while her superiors handle the rest.


***2018 Summer of Spies***

”At 7:30 on the morning of Thursday, August 12th, Bond awoke in his comfortable flat in the plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road and was disgusted to find that he was thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead.”

Having just recently finished Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming, the above passage sent me flipping through my notes about that author, where I found this quotation that I had noted:

”After his death his widow Ann put it in much the same way. “You must realize that Ian was entirely egocentric. His aim as long as I knew him was to avoid the dull, the humdrum the everyday demands of life that afflict ordinary people. He stood for working out a way of life that was not boring and he went where that led him. It ended with Bond.”

The conjunction of the two books made me smile. I’ve also recently finished reading Somerset Maugham’s spy novel, Ashenden. It also features a beautiful Russian woman—the protagonist spends a week with her to confirm their compatibility and instead finds her boring and demanding.

”But Ashenden saw himself eating scrambled eggs every morning for the rest of his life. When he had put her in a cab, he called another for himself, went to the Cunard office, and took a berth on the first ship that was going to America. No immigrant, eager for freedom and a new life, ever looked upon the statue of Liberty with more heartfelt thankfulness that did Ashenden, when on that bright and sunny morning his ship steamed into the harbour of New York.”

A wildly different response to the care and attention that Bond expends on Tatiana Romanova.

And wow, the first cliff hanger ending of the Bond series, showing how uncertain Fleming was about whether he would continue to write these adventures. Partly because of the criticism of conservative reviewers and the sniping of his wife’s circle of friends (which included Maugham). Ian became quite testy about his wife’s friends for this very reason. I think he would be pleased to know that Bond is still “a thing” even now in the 21st century.

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review 2018-08-20 19:13
Ashenden / W. Somerset Maugham
Ashenden, or, The British Agent - William Somerset Maugham

A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Maugham had the perfect cover for living in Switzerland. Multilingual and knowledgeable about many European countries, he was dispatched by the Secret Service to Lucerne - under the guise of completing a play. An assignment whose danger and drama appealed both to his sense of romance and of the ridiculous.

A collection of stories rooted in Maugham's own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as its absurdity.



***2018 Summer of Spies***

Somerset Maugham was writing and living the life of the spy long before Ian Fleming or John Le Carré. His introduction to this novel lets the reader know that it is based on his own experiences, but shaped into a decent story arc, something that the author found lacking in real life.

If, as in another review, I compare Fleming to boxing and Le Carré to chess, then I would say that Maugham is more like solitaire. Much quieter and self-contained. He’s maybe flipped a few cards around to make things work more smoothly, but still at the end, with only a few cards left in play, finds himself unable to win the game.

Maugham spent time with Ian and Ann Fleming (as one of Ann’s circle, not Ian’s) and I can well imagine him needling Ian about the fantastical qualities of James Bond’s espionage. Ian was definitely not a fan of Maugham, but I have to say that I am.

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review 2018-08-20 19:04
The Gun Seller / Hugh Laurie
The Gun Seller - Hugh Laurie

Cold-blooded murder just isn't Thomas Lang's cup of tea. Offered a bundle to assassinate an American industrialist, he opts to warn the intended victim instead — a good deed that soon takes a bad turn. Quicker than he can down a shot of his favorite whiskey, Lang is bashing heads with a Buddha statue, matching wits with evil billionaires, and putting his life (among other things) in the hands of a bevy of femmes fatales. Up against rogue CIA agents, wannabe terrorists, and an arms dealer looking to make a high-tech killing, Lang's out to save the leggy lady he has come to love...and prevent an international bloodbath to boot.



***2018 Summer of Spies***

May I say that I am pleasantly surprised at the quality of Mr. Laurie’s novel? One hopes that a famous name doesn’t get a mediocre book published. Laurie may be well known from his stint on TV as Dr. House, but this book was published on its own merit.

The author takes the spy genre and turns it inside out. Neither a tough guy nor a super-smart guy, the hero is an everyman with persistence and a sense of humour. Like Bond, he can fall in love with a woman with one meeting of the eyes, but he is much more realistic about his chances of her returning the feeling.

Laurie’s love of Wooster and Jeeves shines through the narrative. As an actor, he has a great ear for dialog and excellent comic timing. A very enjoyable read.

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review 2018-08-20 16:47
Smiley's People / John le Carré
Smiley's People - John le Carré

In London at dead of night, George Smiley, sometime acting Chief of the Circus (aka the British Secret Service), is summoned from his lonely bed by news of the murder of an ex-agent. Lured back to active service, Smiley skillfully maneuvers his people -- the no-men of no-man's land -- into crisscrossing Paris, London, Germany, and Switzerland as he prepares for his own final, inevitable duel on the Berlin border with his Soviet counterpart and archenemy, Karla.



***2018 Summer of Spies***

In the spy genre, if James Bond is a boxing match, then George Smiley is a chess game. Lots of planning ahead, knowing your opponent, and biding your time to make the right move. Smiley and Karla match wits again, but George has a new advantage—Karla can no longer manipulate him via his wife.

Fans of fist fights and gun battles may find this boring. People like myself, who have spent many years researching and working within libraries and archives, will find ourselves mesmerized as Smiley reads files and interviews other ex-employees of the intelligence services in order to build the perfect mousetrap.

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review 2018-08-20 16:36
Ian Fleming / Andrew Lycett
Ian Fleming - Andrew Lycett


***2018 Summer of Spies***

If you are a feminist who is planning to read any of the James Bond books, I would highly recommend that you also read this biography of their author, Ian Fleming. Knowing his background changes nothing in the novels, but at least gives the reader some glimpse of why they contain the prejudices that they do.

Fleming’s life is an excellent example of that old adage “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” I am hardly an apologist for Mr. Fleming, but his circumstances certainly made him into the man and author that he was. His father died when he was young and he was left with only an extremely controlling egocentric mother. If I’m reading between the lines correctly, Ian was an introvert, perfectly happy by himself, but forced by his social position and extroverted relatives to try to conform to the extrovert ideal. He loved comfortable living, with plenty of cards, cigarettes and liquor, but didn’t have the family money to rely on. Work was definitely a bore that he had to perform in order to support his desired lifestyle. The only time he really engaged was during his stint in Naval Intelligence during WWII. Finally, he had discovered a job that used his ability to make contacts across ranks, classes and nationalities.

However, if Fleming didn’t see a benefit coming to him from someone, he could be incredibly rude and cutting. I look at photos of the man and I cannot imagine how he achieved the parade of young women through his bedroom, but he must have exuded charm to them. When one hostess took him to task for his treatment of one of her friends, calling him a cad, he replied, “You’re quite right, Mrs. Leitner. Shall we have a drink on it?” Which they did and became friends. He was known to tell people that women were on parr with dogs for him.

Fleming seems to have been happiest when he was involved with other men’s wives. All of the benefits with few of the headaches of relationships. Eventually, when he married Ann, it was after a 14 year affair with her. Ann was pregnant with Ian’s child when her husband lost patience with the situation and divorced her. Although Ian initially tried hard, he had lived alone for too long and was too much a solitary man to be able to live comfortably with anyone, but particular with an extrovert like Ann. He seems to have married someone much like his mother. Ann had cheated with him for many years and when the marriage waters got rough, she repeated this pattern. Fleming was hurt, but the shoe was on the other foot and what could he say?

This is the secret sauce that produced James Bond. Bond is as misogynistic as Fleming himself. Although Fleming was chained to a desk during his Naval Intelligence years, Bond could explore all of Ian’s spy fantasies. Fleming was a card player and golfer and so is Bond. They shares tastes in liquor, cigarettes, food, cars, and general standard of living. Fleming mined his own life for the details of the books. Some of the best passages, in my opinion, are when he describes the natural environment, as in the diving scenes in Live and Let Die.

By and large, Fleming seems to have been a restless, unhappy man. His work during WWII seems to have been his happiest period, which is perhaps why he chose to write in the espionage genre. He self-medicated with alcohol and nicotine and escaped his life through golf and cards. He became the creepy old man at parties that young women warned each other about.

The continued interest in Bond would probably amaze him—he endured the scorn of his wife’s literary circle and the outrage of conservative reviewers and was continually considering terminating Bond. The enormous success of the books came largely after his death, although he had made enough money in his last years to be angry about the self-imposed health problems which would kill him early, preventing him from enjoying the fruits of his labour.

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