A look back at The Spy Who Loved Me novel

Cover to the Signet U.S. paperback edition of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)

Five years ago, the blog published a post that described The Man With the Golden Gun, Ian Fleming’s final novel, as “the runt of the litter” for Fleming’s original tales.

But, for many Fleming fans, The Spy Who Loved Me is really the runt of the litter.

It’s a very unusual novel. Fleming, in his 50s at the time, wrote a first-person story from the perspective of a woman in her 20s.

Context: Fleming had been writing Bond novels for roughly a decade when The Spy Who Loved Me was published

The author took a major detour from his previous Bond tales. The novel is told in the first person. Fleming’s previous novels and short stories were told in the third person.

What’s different: The novel is told from the perspective of Viv Michael, a Canadian, who has endured affairs that didn’t work out. She decided to emigrate to North America. She has planned out a long trip she intends to make by motor scooter.

The first two-thirds of the novel concerns Viv’s love affairs in Europe. Afterward, she opts to emigrate to North America. She ends up in northern New York State. Viv gets hired for a couple of weeks to mind the operations at a motel in the region. But all is not what it is what it seems to be.

Climax: Viv is about to get killed by Horror and Sluggsy, two hoods, just before Bond arrives. The agent is driving from Toronto to Washington, D.C., after a mission involving SPECTRE.

More context: Fleming practically disowned this story. Supposedly, when Fleming did his deal with Danjaq/Eon, the filmmakers could only use the title.

Still more context: One chapter consists of Bond telling Viv what he was up to in Canada. If (and Danjaq/Eon has said this will never happen) there were a Bond streaming TV series, that would make for a great episode.

Conclusion: Fleming was really in experimental mode. At one point, “All women love semi-rape,” Viv says in Chapter 14 (“Bimbo”). That was likely cringe-worthy in 1962, when the novel was published.

At the same time, Fleming deserves a tip of the cap for going so far out from his earlier efforts.

This was his last effort before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his biggest epic. Whatever you feel about Fleming, he wasn’t afraid to change directions.

9 Responses

  1. If they were to allow someone to rewrite this, I’d start with Bond in London and then expand the Canada sequence. That would be part one, and in third person.
    Part two begins with Viv’s arrival at the motel. This would be in first person. Bits of her background could be sprinkled into the story. Then comes where Fleming takes over with the beginning of the storm.

  2. I must say as a true fan of the original books, reread frequently, this was the least enjoyable. Having said that, I did enjoy the perspective after Bond arrived and confronted the villains; did not care for Viv’s backstory, but liked the US premise. Still prefer the standard novel formula. I really enjoy The Man with the Golden Gun novel as much as any. Favorite is Thunderball.

  3. Diamonds are Forever and Thunderball are two of my favorites because of the friendship between Bond and Felix.

  4. Even with all the bad press I still enjoy this novel. I first read it when I was around 13 and it felt like porn to my young mind. I liked Fleming’s experimentation. My favorite scene is when Bond arrives at night in the rain Viv opens the door and thinks he looks like a third hood. The downside to me are the tactical mistakes Bond makes and the hoods keep coming back until he finally offs them.

  5. Great summary of the book, and I notice you have used one of my favorite covers as the illustration! I agree with Mr. Poplawski and enjoy this very much. I was in my late teens when I first read SWLM and found the voice authentic. “This was his last effort before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his biggest epic. Whatever you feel about Fleming, he wasn’t afraid to change directions.” –good observation.

    (PS Viv is better described as being in northern NY, not upstate. The word “upstate” is used, alas, for anything north of NYC. Northern NY, also called “the north country” is a better way to talk about the more rural part of the state she is in.)

  6. Frieda, who posted above, presented at a recent SAMLA conference how early novel critics praised Fleming’s efforts for TSWLM and how despite attempts to supress its publication, it sold in COPIOUS quantities and printings. It’s an excellent novel.

    If certain phrases were considered cringeworthy at the time, they went uncommented upon for over 50 years.

  7. I altered to say “northern New York State.”

  8. I liked the book better now than when I first read it years ago at the age of 14. The last third of TSWLM is especially suspenseful & compelling. BTW Has anybody read the exciting 1967-68 UK comic strip adaptation by Jim Lawrence & Yarloslav Horak? It cuts out some of the narrative fat & even expands (quite vividly) the SPECTRE/Canada subplot described by Bond in the novel.

  9. You forget that Liv is not a US Citizen, and thereby wouldn’t know that. To me, being in California, it’s upstate New York.

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