Octopussy: The Last
When English author Ian Fleming passed away on August 12, 1964, at the age of 56, he had not yet put the finishing touches on his final James Bond novel, "The Man With the Golden Gun." Oh, sure, he'd gotten a first draft down on paper--working at his Oracabessa, Jamaica winter home called Goldeneye, as usual--but the plethora of convincing detail that had been the hallmark of the previous dozen Bond books was sadly missing from the final product. And so, when the novel was ultimately released some eight months later, the world must have understandably believed that this unfleshed-out caper would be the author's final word regarding 007. Thus, what a surprise it must have been when, in June '66, the posthumous collection "Octopussy" was released. The collection consisted of two short stories--the title piece and "The Living Daylights"; a third story, "The Property of a Lady," was added for the book's paperback incarnation. The three stories serve as mere codas to a famous series; vignette glimpses of some of Bond's lesser cases. Still, all three are of interest, and display what has been called by Kingsley Amis "the Fleming effect" (the overwhelming, realistic detail previously referred to) in great abundance.
In the title story, "Octopussy," which initially appeared serially in the "Daily Express" paper in October '65, Bond himself is largely absent. We see him through the eyes of ex-Secret Service agent Major Dexter Smythe, a 54-year-old widower living in Jamaica, who is killing himself slowly via too much smoke and too much drink. His idyllic lazy life of boozing, playing bridge and snorkeling is interrupted one day by the advent of 007, who has come to give Smythe notice that a 17-year-old double crime that the major had committed at the tail end of WW2 (I don't want to reveal too much; let's just say that the crimes involve murder and Nazi gold) has finally caught up with him. The story has an interesting double flashback structure, and the section in which Smythe reflects on those crimes is a fascinating one. The reader doesn't learn much about Bond in this tale, although Fleming does humanize the agent a bit by having Bond reveal his personal reason for bringing Smythe to justice. And the major's ultimate fate, I might add, is a memorably, doubly grisly one. Much comment has been made over Smythe's resemblance to the author, who of course also lived on the north shore of Jamaica (the island was the setting for not only "Octopussy," but also "Live and Let Die," "Doctor No," "For Your Eyes Only" and "The Man With the Golden Gun"), smoked and drank too much, was fond of snorkeling and bird-watching, and was roughly the same age as the major. Still, the author takes pains to show that Smythe is a pitiful, unsympathetic character, and decidedly quite the bastard. He is hardly a stand-in for the author. "Octopussy," obviously, has zero relation to the 1983 film starring Roger Moore, which instead dealt with a crazy Russian general's attempt to detonate an atomic bomb at a NATO air base. Except for the presence of an actual octopus in both the story and the film, they are wholly dissimilar.
Up next in the collection is "The Living Daylights," which first ran in the "Sunday Times" in February '62. Here, Bond is given a particularly nasty assignment by his superior, M: to kill the sniper who will be attempting to shoot a British agent; an agent who will soon be making a dash across the no-man's-land between East and West Berlin; the zone soon to be known as "Checkpoint Charlie." Thus, Bond, ensconced in a dumpy apartment, waits for three nights for Agent 272 to make his run, a .308 Winchester rifle trained on the darkened windows of the government building across the way. But Fleming pulls the rug out from beneath the reader and Bond himself, when the identity of Bond's sniper target is revealed. This is a fast-moving, suspenseful story, replete with wonderful detail regarding both weapons and Berlin, as well as a neat twist of an ending. We learn a good deal about 007 in this short story; for example, his taste in food (eggs, herring, schnapps, Lowenbrau) and the fact that he greatly dislikes killing (he even expresses a hope that his action at the story's end will get him booted out of the 00 section). Surprisingly, Bond briefly considers going to a whorehouse to kill some time in Berlin (one would have thought that unnecessary for him!), and has a good deal of difficulty falling asleep the night before his mission (in previous books, he'd fallen asleep with a mere shrug, seemingly impervious to worry). A more human Bond is the result, and it is nice to see. In all, a very winning tale, only bits of which survived in the 1987 film "The Living Daylights," mainly in the character of Kara Milovy, the unnamed cellist in Fleming's story.
The "Octopussy" collection concludes with "The Property of a Lady," which first appeared in "The Ivory Hammer" (a publication of Sotheby's auction house), of all places; it was later reprinted in "Playboy" magazine. Here, a known double agent in the British Secret Service, Maria Freudenstein, is about to be paid off by her Russian superiors. An enormously rare Faberge egg has been sent to her, which she is now having auctioned off at Sotheby's. Bond feels that the top Russian agent in London, identity unknown, will be present at the auction, attempting to artificially raise the bidding, and so 007 goes there to try to pick him/her out. Raymond Benson, writing in the invaluable reference book "The James Bond Bedside Companion," tells us that the story has "absolutely no suspense" and that there is "no climax in the narrative," but whether this is true or not, this reader managed to enjoy it. Fleming gives us a wealth of detail regarding the auction process and the egg itself (it's not just a green emerald egg, but "girdled by afixed gold belt enameled opalescent oyster along a reserved path in champleve technique over a moire guillochage with painted Roman numerals in pale sepia enamel...."), and remarkably, incorporates a real-life person into his story. The Faberge expert in the story who helps Bond, a Mr. Kenneth Snowman, was a friend of Fleming's, as it turns out, was the actual chairman of Wartski's (the Faberge dealer that Bond visits), and did indeed write a book entitled "The Art of Carl Faberge"! Is there another Bond novel or story that utilizes a real-life personage in such a manner? Certainly none that I can think of offhand. Those eggs, of course, would also figure in the "Octopussy" film, as did an auction sequence, but in wholly different contexts, of course. In all, the story is a pleasant enough glimpse into a few comparatively humdrum days in the life of James Bond.
Bringing down the curtain on the world's most famous secret agent, Fleming's final collection, slim as it is, yet manages to entertain and impress. And thanks to authors such as Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, Benson himself, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd, the literary exploits of Bond continue to this day. It would seem that "Octopussy" was hardly the final word on secret agent 007 after all....