Thunderball Review: the book that killed Ian Fleming?

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Thunderball Review: “Thunderball”, the 8th James Bond novel, published in 1961, was, arguably, the book that killed Ian Fleming.  The roots of his death are visible in the book itself.  Even he described it as “long and immensely dull”.  

James Bond: movies vs books

Viewing the original movie of Thunderball in a cinema in 1966 made me a James Bond addict.  I have never recovered (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

But what is the original 1961 book like?

Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels reviewed

I have so far read and reviewed the following Ian Fleming novels in my Folio Society edition:

You can see all my posts on James Bond here.

Thunderball: the Folio Society edition

Thunderball, like other Folio society editions, features illustrations by Fay Dalton.  They sum up the 1960s vibe of the books pretty well .  The book is bursting with underwater action, including much threatening marine life.

Thunderball Ian Fleming Cover

“Thunderball” review: the story

The story of Thunderball begins with Bond being summoned by M., the boss of his service, for a ticking off about Bond’s poor health and lifestyle.  We learn that every day, Bond smokes sixty cigarettes (“a Balkan mixture with a higher nicotine content than the cheaper varieties”).  He drinks “in the region of half a bottle of spirits of between sixty and seventy proof”.  M. has become a fan of “naturopathy” – a precursor of homeopathy that also features amongst the desperate miracle cures described in Pale Rider, Laura Spinney’s must-read book about the Spanish flu.

Despite misgivings, Bond visits the naturopathic health farm.  Afterwards, he feels a new man: “He had never felt so well in his life.  His energy had doubled.  Even the paperwork he had always found an intolerable drudgery was now almost a pleasure… Bond awoke so early and so full of beans that he had taken to arriving at his office early and leaving late“.

In a twist that hints at the humanity of James Bond in the books, unlike the movies, the impact does not last.  After some action, Bond says to his housekeeper, May: “‘I can’t do my work on carrot juice.  I’ve got to be off in an hour and I need some proper food.  Be an angel and make me your kind of scrambled eggs – four eggs.  Four rashers of that American hickory-smoked bacon if we’ve got any left, hot buttered toast – your kind, not wholemeal – and a big pot of coffee, double strength.  And bring in the drink tray… Plenty of time to watch the calories when one goes to heaven.‘”

Why the novel is like a movie

Much of Thunderball is close to the action of the 1965 movie.  There is a reason for this: the book was originally a screenplay, developed by Fleming and two other men, whose development began in 1958.  In 1961, over a period of two months, Fleming wrote the novel based on the screenplay and published it, leading to a legal dispute that lasted until 1963.  During and after the trial, Fleming suffered two heart attacks, the second of which, in 1964, killed him at the age of 56.   He, like Bond, was a heavy smoker and drinker for most of his life.

Thunderball review: a slow read

Was it worth it?  Thunderball is a slow read.  The first 100 pages in particular drag a bit.  Thereafter, things pick up and we enjoy several terrific set-piece descriptions of the type that enrich Diamonds are Foreversuch as the description of the Nassau Casino.  But there is little dramatic tension.  For example, a scene of sexual sadism, where Largo tortures love-interest “Domino” while Bond is sitting idly in a distant submarine, adds nothing to the plot; the cover story that Largo and his team are searching for buried treasure is plain daft; and the final underwater battle between teams of divers makes no sense.  Bond himself said of the book, in a letter to his cover designer: ‘It is immensely long, immensely dull and only your jacket can save it.’

“Thunderball” review: quotations

Quotes from Thunderball illustrate both Fleming’s elegant character development, and sexism which, by today’s standard, leaps from the pages:

  • [Blofeld] was one of those men – one meets perhaps only two or three in a lifetime – who seem almost to suck the eyes out of your head.  These rare men are apt to possess three basic attributes – their physical appearance is extraordinary, they have a quality of relaxation, of inner certainty, and they exude a powerful animal magnetism.
  • [Blofeld] drew out a thin gold vinaigrette and placed it on the table in front of him.  He prised open the lid with his thumbnail, took out a violet-scented cachou, and slipped it into his mouth.  It was his custom, when unpleasant things had to be said, to sweeten his breath.
  • [Bond drives into work from Chelsea]  It was nine o’clock, too early for the bad traffic, and Bond pushed the car fast up Sloane Street and into the park. [Comment: different traffic conditions]
  • ‘Clear them as quick as you can, there’s a good girl.  There’ll be more coming.  We’re in for a bad day.’  Miss Moneypenny smiled.  She liked what she called the shot-and-shell days.
  • [Petacchi, an Italian villain, reflects on a Maserati he plans to buy] He would only drive the car really fast when he wanted to get a girl.  They melted in a fast car.  Why was that?   The sense of surrender to the machine, to the man whose strong, sunburnt hands were on the wheel?  But it was always so.  You turned the car into a wood after ten minutes at 150 and you would almost have to lift the girl out and lay her down on the moss, her limbs would be so trembling and soft.  [This dubious passage reminds me of an equally dodgy description in the Alan Clark diaries of how he believes giving women tours of his dungeons is a way of seducing them – see point 4 at the link.]
  • Women are often meticulous and safe drivers, but they are very seldom first-class.  In general, Bond regarded them as a mild hazard and he always gave them plenty of road and was ready for the unpredictable…  women together cannot keep silent in a car, and when women talk they have to look into each other’s faces… [Bond’s views on women drivers continue at some length]

Although one woman treats Bond with disdain

  • Bond said, ‘How do you do.  Didn’t we meet in the tobacconist’s this morning?’  The girl screwed up her eyes.  She said indifferently, ‘Yes?  It is possible.  I have such a bad memory for faces.’ [Comment: wonderful to see Dominetta “Domino” Vitali treating Bond with such disdain.]
  • [Bond]  ‘I make up my own mind about men and women.  What’s the good of other people’s opinions?  Animals don’t consult each other about other animals.  They look and sniff and feel.  In love and hate, and everything in between, those are the only tests that matter.’
  • Bond said, ‘Get going!  Quick!  here comes paperwork.’
  • [Bond, approaching peril]  ‘Well, so long.  Tell Mother I died game!’
  • M. had given [Bond] this territory and, right or wrong, M. would back him up, as he always backed up his staff, even if it meant M.’s own head on a charger.
  • Blofeld had warned Largo that if trouble was caused by any members of his team it was to be expected from the two Russians, the ex-members of SMERSH… ‘Conspiracy,’ Blofeld had said, ‘is their lifeblood.  Hand in hand with conspiracy walks suspicion.  These two men will always be wondering if they are not the object of some subsidiary plot – to give them the most dangerous work, to make them fall-guys for the police, to kill them and steal their share of the profits… For them, the obvious plan, the right way to do a thing, will have been chosen for some ulterior reason which is being kept hidden from them.’ [Comment: an excellent summary of conspiracy theorists everywhere]
  • [Felix Leiter] ‘I swear I’ll never call a girl “frail” again – not an Italian girl, anyway.’

The legacy of World War 2

Bond’s, or Ian Fleming’s, world is dominated by World War 2.  The plot of Thunderball, and its extensive underwater scenes was inspired by the “Olterra”, a wreck near Gibraltar from which Italian special forces in 1942-43 launched daring underwater raids on British ships.  Characters in the book refer to the Olterra several times.

“Thunderball” review: engineering porn

Thunderball also contains a huge amount of what one can only describe as engineering porn – the description of Bond’s Mark II Continental Bentley, “the most selfish car in England”, goes on for over a page, as does villain Largo’s tour of his ship the Disco Volante, or Flying Saucer.  If you are not enthused by twin diesels and two-inch exhaust pipes, you may want to skip these bits.

The Players Navy Cut cigarette packet

Finally, and more intriguingly, love interest “Domino” spends no less than four pages talking about the logo on the Player’s Navy Cut cigarette packet, inventing a lengthy back story for the sailor depicted there.  It seems to have nothing to do with the plot.  Does anyone know why Fleming included it?

Thunderball: Player's Navy Cut

The Player’s logo discussed – endlessly – in “Thunderball”

I hope you have reviewed this “Thunderball” review.  If you like James Bond, you may like my modern thriller set in Berlin, Blood Summit. I have also written a sci-fi thriller, Corona Crimeand a collection of black comedy shorts, Seven Hotel Stories.

 Seven Hotel Stories cover Blood Summit cover Corona Crime cover

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