OK, now this is more like it. After muddling through a series of unsatisfying short stories — some of which were frustrating because they contained the unrealized kernel of a great story, others because they had next to nothing to do with James Bond — Ian Fleming returns to familiar territory with one of my favorite books in the entire series. Thunderball combines the breakneck action of Doctor No with the breezy travelogue spirit of Diamonds are Forever as Fleming proves once again that he is at the time of his game whenever he’s writing a Bond story set in the Caribbean. Thunderball also marks a major development in the series in that it features the debut of the shadowy international criminal organization SPECTRE and its mysterious mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
In between the end of Goldfinger and the beginning of this book, Fleming was faced with a substantial dilemma. SMERSH, the Soviet organization of spies, counterspies, and assassins that had served Fleming so well as villains since the very first book, was dissolved by the Soviet Union. The tasks for which SMERSH had once been responsible would eventually reappear in the KGB, but at the time that organization wasn’t established enough to serve as a proper foil for James Bond. There may have been a story somewhere in fledgling KGB agents trying to prove the power of their organization by killing James Bond, but SMERSH already had the same idea and it was called From Russia with Love. Not that Fleming was averse to recycling some plot particulars, but in this case he decided to take a slightly different route.
And so we meet SPECTRE — The Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion — a wholly mercenary and independent organization that is willing to work with any country in the world and pit anyone against anyone else so long as it reaps a handsome financial return. As Fleming lays out the intricate machine we learn that, far from how things were presented in the movies (where SPECTRE is employed from the get-go), even England and the United States have been more than happy to deal with agents of SPECTRE (though they did not know the name of the organization at the time) if it meant gaining valuable information (or the deaths of enemy agents) against the Soviets and China, among others. It’s only when the U.S. and England find themselves in the crosshairs of SPECTRE that they decide the organization is perhaps a bit unsavory.
There’s always a good chance that whatever holiday Fleming took immediately before sitting down to write his next novel will find its way into James Bond’s adventures, and sure enough, the trip to a holistic health spa and retreat that Fleming went on serves as the basis for the beginning of Thunderball, which finds Bond being chastised by M for all the excessive drinking, smoking, and womanizing that makes up the bulk of our favorite civil servant’s life. The sentence: a visit to a health spa, where Bond will be sequestered away from his favorite food, drinks, and smokes. Bond’s less than thrilled, naturally, but lucky for him and us, he’s not the only spook on the premises. He encounters a rich playboy he soon recognizes as a member of a Chinese tong, and from there the tangled web begins.
This guy is an agent of SPECTRE, and SPECTRE happens to be involved in attempting to steal a couple of atomic bombs. The success of their plan sends the secret services of the West into a panic. Soon every agent is sent to every corner of the globe in a desperate attempt to track down the missing bombs before the deadline, at which time they will either pay SPECTRE a massive ransom or watch a major city get nuked. Bond gets saddled with what looks to be the most tenuous of assignments: a blip on air traffic control along the U.S. eastern seaboard veered slightly off-course. Piecing together bits of what everyone considers to be an extremely tenuous and questionable case, M sends Bond to the Bahamas on what appears to be a wild goose chase — though as with the case in Doctor No, I suspect that once again M considers his hunch a lot less of a waste of time than he claims.
Obviously M’s wild hunch is correct, otherwise we’d have a pretty boring Bond story, and we already had a couple of those in For Your Eyes Only. The bombs are in the Bahamas. It’s up to Bond to track them down, and it’s up to his old friend Felix Leiter — called out of retirement by the CIA for such an emergency — to stand around next to Bond and say things like, “My God, you’re right, James!” and, “Why didn’t I see that?” Honestly, other than descriptions of his blond hair and hook hand (acquired during Live and Let Die), does Felix ever contribute anything to a case? I love having him along for the ride, but he really is Watson to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. His contribution to Operation Thunderball is a speech on how resort bars cut their gin with water to maximize their profits, which is interesting but doesn’t go a long way to recovering the two missing atomic weapons.
Bond is pitted against my favorite of all Bond villains, Emilio Largo, SPECTRE’s second in command and easily the coolest and most engaging villain Fleming has ever set Bond against. The reason I like Largo is that he is basically written like one of Bond’s chums — he reminds me a lot of Kerim Bey (From Russia with Love), Draco (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), or Tiger Tanaka (You Only Live Twice). Largo is giant, outgoing, and seems like he’d be a hell of a lot of fun to be friends with. He does vicious things in the course of the novel, but compare them to the equally vicious things guys like Bey and Tanaka (and Bond himself) do. Or heck. When we get to him in a couple books, compare Largo to Draco. Draco is probably involved in even more insidious and horrible schemes as head of the Corsican mafia, but Bond’s cool with that. One gets the impression that if SPECTRE had been engaged in some sort of plot against Russia or China, Bond would have admired Largo, and they could have gone out drinking and slapping women’s bottoms. The only thing that really makes Largo a villain is that for this case he happens to be on the opposite side of Bond. Plus, he has the “red rage” that shows up in his eyes that tags all Bond villains. I can’t remember if he is also described as having irises surrounded entirely by the whites of his eyes, like Mussolini, but he probably was. No two traits will tip you off more as to whether or not someone is a villain in a Fleming story.
Like Doctor No, Thunderball is not Fleming’s most accomplished or complex book. In terms of literary artistry, he would reach the top of his game with the one-two punch of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Thunderball is, instead, a simple thriller executed with great style. Plus, it contains pretty much every adventure fetish that appeals to me: tropical nights, lovemaking on the beach, scuba diving, hot dames in wetsuits, bikinis, drinks at a bamboo bar, spear guns, yachts — it’s been said that everything about Fleming’s writing is fetishistic, and in the case of Thunderball it’s apparent that Fleming was writing a fantasy adventure designed to cater specifically to my own personal fetishes. As such, Thunderball ended up being a phenomenally fun read for me. Bond is once again in the thick of the action, and it’s pretty fast-paced after the leisurely stroll that was Goldfinger, in which Bond really had very little to do other than embarrass Goldfinger at golf and cards. At the same time, this is the Caribbean, which means Fleming is going to go to welcome excess in describing the locations, food, and customs. For me, it’s the best of both of Ian Fleming’s worlds.
Although Thunderball continues the trend toward more cinematic, over-the-top plots for Bond to foil, this one is considerably more believable than Goldfinger’s half-baked attack on Fort Knox. The story is aided by the fact that Largo himself is larger-than-life, but at the same time, larger-than-life in a way that is very believable. It’s not hard to imagine this warm, smiling, back-slapping guy as an actual person despite the outlandish situation in which we find him — and this has always been the key to Fleming pulling off his more over-the-top plots. We are more likely to roll with the fantastic elements of the story if many of the details are grounded in reality and populated by realistic people. Goldfinger never had that air about him. He was aloof and never clicked as an actual person. His single obsession in life was gold, and how often do we come into contact with gold bars? Largo, however, is much more engaging. We can relate to him. His passions in life are good food, good drinks, pretty women, and friends. The charisma of Largo makes it easy to swallow the rest of the plot. How can you not like the guy — at least up until he starts torturing said pretty woman with a lit cigar and ice cubes?
Blofeld, though he would become the linchpin of the later Bond stories, is far less engaging in this book. He remains very much a sinister form hiding in the shadows just off-stage. But SPECTRE is a compelling organization, just believable enough to work — similar to Bond’s own organization in that respect. Bond himself is in top form, once again playing the two-fisted action hero after having an easy time of it in Goldfinger (as far as Bond’s times go, that is). There’s no real psychological development or character advancement to be found in Thunderball — Fleming was saving that for the later novels — but this is still the tough, cunning, Bond people recognized. This was the last book written (in 1961) before the influence of the movies, but as with some of the previous books if you are familiar with Connery’s Bond more than with Fleming’s, you’ll have no problem recognizing them as pretty much one and the same in this story. The movie that would eventually be made follows the book extremely closely, with the only real tweaks being that a visit to Largo’s estate by Felix Leiter is performed by Bond in the movie, and the movie ends with a big explosion (in the “other” film adaptation of this book, Never Say Never Again, the ending of the story is the same as that of the movie).
In some ways, this is the last hurrah for this action-adventure version of Bond. Savor it if it’s your thing, because from here on out, the series gets pretty weird. I say that keeping in mind that two of Bond’s best adventures and Fleming’s best books are contained in the later portion of the series, but Thunderball remains, never the less, the final time we will see the more carefree, action-oriented James Bond. As a farewell to that type of story in the Bond canon, it is a superb send-off and remains one of my favorite of Fleming’s books.