It’s hard to faithfully recall today, even with the shock and shock waves since 9/11, the constant fatalism and paranoia that hung like a pall over America during that long strange trip last century called the Cold War.
Our newest century has been marked by alertness and anger and action. But something closer to resignation held sway in the Cold War years – five minutes from Doomsday was simply the way the world would always be. A mushroom-shaped sword of Damocles would always hang over us.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, folks wore their Mad Men gray flannel suits to work, got blotto for the cocktail hour, then now-I-laid-me-down-to-sleep at night trusting God, Joe McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, Ike and Mamie, JFK, Howdy Doody, and Richard Nixon. Americans made a game effort of pretending the world they’d lived in since Shiva Night at Alamogordo was normal.
Still, something dangerous always clanged away in the foggy night out there somewhere.
A genre of literature – the spy novel – re-ignited in these years. The form goes back as far as stories by James Fenimore Cooper and Rudyard Kipling, and had an early golden age before World War I, with writers like England’s best-selling author of the time, William Le Queux, and another best-seller named E. Phillips Oppenheim.
By the time of the Cold War, license-to-kill agents had been introduced to fiction by writers like Desmond Cory, while Graham Greene flipped the spy coin to show us the burnt-out cases and ennui on the underside of the spook business. Greene has literary descendants in writers like John LeCarre, whose anti-hero spies imported the despair and treachery of the profession into high literature.
But in the nail-biting 1950s, English writer Ian Fleming introduced the most famous and iconic spy of all, James Bond. Bond then magically made the jump from page to movie screen and in that transformation became a wholly new thing in spy culture – the secret agent as action hero.
Let’s be clear here. The James Bond of Fleming’s novels and the James Bond of Hollywood stand pretty much on opposite sides of a canyon of plausibility.
The film Bond made spying fun and sexy and glamorous. In fact, Bond spawned an entire cultural movement – TV shows like “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and the comedy “Get Smart” and “Mission: Impossible” and a mysterious and just plain weird British production, “The Prisoner,” plus a campy, mod Brit landmark, “The Avengers.” Movie Bond inspired songs on the radio and spin-off flics on the silver screen, good and bad, plus endless comic parodies.
These Bond movies, in fact, were important steam valves for letting off the Cold War tension. In a way, Bond provided the era’s equivalent of Bob Hope’s USO tours in our shooting wars. While Bob Hope performed USO shows for the troops and gave them respite from ugly work, James Bond performed for the rest of us as we gathered together in movie theaters by the millions seeking respite from our own ugly Cold War fears.
The very first of the Bond movies, Dr. No, is based on the 1958 book of that name. It’s the sixth title in the Bond series Fleming launched in 1953 with Casino Royale. In the movie, Sean Connery as the original Bond became the suave, unflappable, indestructible, womanizing charmer today universally recognized as Mr. Spy. That figure fit the Cold War ethos perfectly – Bond was Johnny Carson with a shoulder holster, Brando with a British accent and impeccable manners, Elvis with an Oxford education – and no, not Oxford, Mississippi. Cinema Bond was a perfect icon for an age just itching to bust loose from the silent gray suffering of the Cold War.
Spying in Ian Fleming’s books, on the other hand, is more dangerous than fun. And the James Bond of the books is far less unflappable than Sean Connery in his tux. In Dr. No, in fact, Bond is sort of a blunderer, injured by a previous adventure when the book begins, and more badly injured by the time it ends. In the course of Dr. No, Bond is scorched, half-drowned, beaten and drugged. He has his belly skin sucked off him by a giant squid. His unpreparedness costs the life of a friend, and he even has a less-than-ideal relationship with his boss. Bond prevails, but it’s at such a cost one wonders all along whether the paragon of spies will, indeed, live to see another book.
But Bond prevailed through 14 books in all from Casino Royale to Octopussy and The Living Daylights, the last two Bond stories, in 1966. The books sold well all along, but Bond really took off when President Kennedy listed From Russia, With Love, as one of his favorite White House reads. Soon, bookshelves and airwaves grew heavy with spies and spin-offs, guns and gadgets.
Fleming knew his spies – during WWII, he’d orchestrated the actions of a crack British military group trained in esoteric skills such as safe-cracking and combat without weapons and, well, spying. Fleming’s intelligence work may even have influenced the course of the war – one writer has made the case that Fleming’s master-minding lured Hitler’s confidante Rudolph Hess to abandon Nazi Germany and fly to England at the height of the war.
So, what of Dr. No? Here’s a refresher on the plot.
Bond is dispatched to a Jamaican paradise for some down time and recovery from injuries taken in his last mission. As he half-heartedly investigates the disappearance of a fellow British agent and his secretary, Bond stumbles onto a wild plot involving a fire-breathing dragon, a maniac with pincers for hands, and an entire island of guano – bird poop – that hides beneath it a missile-jamming control center with the fate of the free world, very possibly, humming away inside. Chinese Negroes run wild – they’re the bad guys – and Bond does a mating dance until the very last pages with a resourceful, beautiful, crook-nosed Jamaican naif named Honeychild. That’s pretty much the tale.
It might fail so badly on the page were Fleming not such a talented writer. He builds plausibility into this cockamamie plot as well as any thriller writer you can read, and the Bond books in general are sharply written and detailed and often ingenious. Here’s a selection from Dr. No, as Bond realizes in his fancy hotel bed in Jamaica that he has an unwelcome visitor. Notice here how the famous stiff upper lip of the British becomes a stiff … well … all-over.
So, good Booky Man reader … what happens?
The centipede bites Bond and he dies, of course.
No, wait. That’s from the Soviet edition! In the free world version, Mr. Bond comes out just fine.
A recent reading of Dr. No actually swept me back like Proust’s Madelaine to a time in my own Cold War youth. I was seven or eight. It was summer just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our nation, just one button-push away from nuclear war with Russia, staggered on, wondering and fearful, dazed at some level by our close brush with extinction. Even in Dothan, Alabama, with our twin industries of peanut butter and condoms the least likely of Communist missile targets, we felt at once an exhilaration and an exhaustion with Cold War shenanigans.
An entrepreneur in our home town had an answer for all of us who could not be James Bond, and meet and beat the bad guys on their own terms. For our own humble, worried families, this businessman dug and installed in the bare lot next to the town’s first fast-food joint, a complete display of fall-out shelters – underground concrete bunkers that could be inhabited for long periods of time, even years, after a nuclear attack.
I remember my family’s Sunday tour. We walked seven or eight steps down into the earth, like into a fancy grave, then snooped around in delighted wonder among the fall-out shelter bedrooms and little kitchenettes and living spaces. It didn’t seem so bad, really. I wondered if a television worked down there. It seemed like it would be okay, so long as I could see Rawhide on Friday night.
Coming up from the fall-out shelter and into the summer again, the world seemed different. It was hot and sticky. I remember wanting to go back underground where it was cool.
Well, I’m 56 now, and I understand with great soberness that we all go down under the ground soon enough. Unless, of course, you’re Bond.
Life goes on forever for 007. Which is odd, isn’t it? After all, James Bond is just a character dreamed up in a bunch of books … but it’s likely he’ll go on living long after we’re all holed up once and for all in our own permanent underground shelters, safe from fall-out and all else.
Count on it. James Bond will be with us until they drop the Big One. And maybe even after that, if roaches turn out to like spy fiction.