Moonraker Novel Review Essay

My Friend Sarah was watching all of the James Bond movies chronologically over the past two weeks. During that time, I needed to find a book to read in-between Gone Girl and what I’m currently reading now (but more on that later), and Moonraker is less than 300 pages; I figured I could finish that in a week.

And holy shit, I did! For those keeping track, August is the first month since March in which I have been able to read more than two books. Okay sure, I topped out at three, but I have a feeling I’m going to be doing a lot more reading in the future (but more on that later).

The James Bond Movies totally ruined me for the actual chronology of the series. Here I was, believing that Dr. No was the first book in the series, but it turns out to be Casino Royale. Okay, then, Dr. No has to be second, right? Nope! Dr. No is, like, seventh. And I’ve never seen the Roger Moore movies, so I just assumed that the ones he did came later in the series … but no, and so Moonraker is actually the third in the series.

Moonraker follows Bond when he returns to London after the Live and Let Die caper. And the whole thing starts off innocently enough. In fact, what I really liked about this book was that it gave us an insight into the typical day of a double-0 agent:

It was the beginning of a typical routine day for Bond. It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going civil servant – elastic office hours from ten to six; lunch, generally in the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London. [7]

In the movies, we never see the drudgery. Apparently, his role as 007 is one that reads a lot of reports in-between bouts of super-duper espionage. And we only see his living quarters in one movie – Dr. No, and even then, I’m not sure if it’s actually Bond’s apartment or maybe just a room he rented, but in the movies, he doesn’t have any sort of personal life (and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – but more on that later).

The plot of the book almost doesn’t even sound like it would be worthy of Bond’s “particular abilities.” Bond is called into M’s office, and instead of being given a brief and sent out to a distant-yet-exotic corner of the world, M starts talking about Sir Hugo Drax, some hoity industrialist that has manufactured the Moonraker rocket, which is supposed to be the most technologically-advanced rocket that Britain has ever made, and I’d like to remind everyone here that Moonraker was written only ten years after the end of World War II, so British defense was top on the country’s mind. Anyway. M doesn’t want to talk about the Moonraker, which is set to have its inaugural test launch later that week; he’s concerned that Drax is cheating at bridge.

Now, I know even less about bridge than I know about baccarat. So that whole section of the book is like reading a technical manual on flanges and widgets. But apparently it was very high tension stuff back then, when everyone played bridge. All I got out of it was “Three No Trump,” and the only reason I knew that term was because that was the game that Norma Desmond was playing when the repo men came to take back Joe Gillis’s car in Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know how she played it, and I don’t know how she won pennies at it, but I know that’s what she was playing.

Anyway. You can see how this goes. Bond, being the ‘best card sharp in the MI-6 office,’ easily sorts out that Drax is cheating and calls him out on it during the bridge game, winning 15,000 pounds. The next day, Bond is deciding to upgrade his Bentley (*snort* written in 1955, there is no 1964 Aston Martin DB5 to aspire to at this point), when M calls Bond into his office again, and informs him that the security officer at Drax’s compound killed himself in a murder-suicide while Bond was beating the pants off Drax at cards. (Hm. Y’know, that’s a way worse thing in Britain than in America.) As Bond is the only stateside agent in all of British Intelligence that speaks fluent German as well as being a pretty good spy, he is sent to Drax’s compound to ensure that the Moonraker gets launched without a hitch.

Bond quietly investigates the goings-on at Drax Compound, complete with an ally in Gala Brand, a female officer from Special Branch of MI-5, working undercover as Drax’s secretary. When Bond and Brand investigate the nearby cliffs of Dover for security measures and one of the cliffs happens to almost collapse right on top of them, Bond realizes there is definitely some shade where Drax is concerned.

I am going to stop with the plot there, for two reasons: 1) someone may want to read this book in the future, and I am bound and determined to stop ruining things for people, and 2) I don’t want to hear how it happened in the movie, because GUESS WHAT, GUYS? I’m going to do a tie-in to Movies Alaina’s Never Seen for the first time ever! I’ve never seen any of the Roger Moore-Bond movies, and why not start with the book I just read?

Full Disclosure: 1) I had hoped to have the companion piece up at the same time as this review, but … Netflix stopped streaming the Bond movies two days ago. I completely missed the boat, and I’m actually kind of pissed at myself for not attempting to power through Moonraker at 3 a.m.
2) My Friend From College Bryan unfortunately ruined that the book is nothing like the movie. THANKS, BRYAN, THUNDER-STEALER.

Here’s what I liked about Moonraker: in a couple of ways, we the reader have seen a different, more human side of Bond than in Casino Royale or Live and Let Die. (And if I haven’t been clear up to this point, please let me be very clear: I am discussing the books and not the movies at this point. Book blog, bitch! [I and my Breaking Bad habit apologize for that last exclamation.]) I’ve already mentioned how we see a typical, non-awesome day in the life of James Bond; there’s also a passage where Bond goes to his apartment (which I think I was leading to that in the paragraph way up there, but I got distracted by HANNIBAL WEARING A FLOWER CROWN, THIS IS NOT A DRILL, and now I’m writing this like, three hours after and I forgot where I was going with that). As I said, we never see Bond’s apartment in the movies. The fact that he has an apartment, and his own car, and a secretary that isn’t Moneypenny, and boring reports to read, and a cafeteria to eat lunch in … it gives him a human element.

Now, let’s talk about women.

In Casino, Bond is, in M’s [movie – sorry] words, a “blunt instrument” – he’s supposed to get in there, do the job, and get out. He does let his attraction to Vesper blind him, somewhat, and when he learns of her betrayal, he immediately hates her. I found in the book that hatred was much more severe than in the movie. I mean, yes, in the movie he is actively running through Venice to kill her, but since any misogynistic comments are running through Bond’s head and the audience can’t hear them, it lessens the hatred slightly. In the book, the words are there and we read them and we see just what Bond thinks of Vesper, and it’s almost more brutal, because words can hurt. (Okay, PSA over.)

In Live and Let Die, he refuses to develop an attraction to Solitaire beyond one that will get him what he wants: a solution to the mystery of Mr. Big — I’m postulating here, but his lack of emotional attachment to Solitaire feels like a direct correlation to how much attachment he put out there to Vesper. Solitaire also has no strength to her character – she is only pawn in game of life. There’s no need for Bond to attach to her beyond his immediate work needs.

But in Moonraker, not only does he appreciate Gala Brand’s appearance, but also her smarts. It is her idea that Bond implements to save the day. She’s been on-premises longer, has a cooler head about her (Bond readily admits that Drax and Drax’s attitude sets him off immediately on the wrong foot), and truly knows her stuff. At the end of the caper, Brand is rewarded with a medal of honor from the Prime Minister (Bond, as a secret agent, is not allowed to receive any medals. Shame), and both are getting a month off from their respective services. Bond and Brand agree to meet before their vacations, and Bond imagines him taking her on a tour of France – not Paris, but farmlands, and vineyards, and other simple pleasures.

Places like Beaugency, for instance. Then slowly south, always keeping to the western roads, avoiding the five-star life. Slowly exploring. Bond pulled himself up. Exploring what? Each other? Was he getting serious about this girl?


It was a clear, high, rather nervous voice. Not the voice he had expected.

He looked up. She was standing a few feet away from him. He noticed that she was wearing a black beret at a rakish angle and that she looked exciting and mysterious like someone you see driving by abroad, alone in an open car, someone unattainable and more desirable than anyone you have ever known. Someone who is on her way to make love to somebody else. Someone who is not for you. [243]

As this is written from Bond’s point-of-view, you really feel the disappointment Bond feels; he clearly expected her to run away with him, and when he realizes he didn’t count on her already being engaged to someone else and that he is not interesting enough to her to make her leave her beau, he becomes sad.

James Bond doesn’t get sad. It’s a thing that isn’t done.

I appreciated the small glimpse into the aspect of Bond-as-human-male, beyond the sheen of blunt-instrument-ministry-secret-agent. I continue to be fascinated by James Bond, as a character, as a symbol, as a hero. I’m sure I’ll write more about him (especially an essay about how Daniel Craig’s incarnation is the best version of Bond, and not just because I want to lick ice cream off his chest I MEAN he’s hot, okay?). Meanwhile, stay tuned over on Movies Alaina’s Never Seen for the review of Moonraker: The Movie.

(It’ll probably be next week, as I now have to wait for the fricking DVD to come from Netflix. Stupid Netflix I MEAN NETFLIX IS THE BEST THING IN EVER PLEASE DON’T CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION I NEEDS IT TO LIVE)

Grade for Moonraker: 3 stars

M takes Bond to the club to see if Drax is cheating at cards and runs into the club president:

The door opened and [President] Basildon came in. He was bristling. He shut the door behind him. ‘That dam’ shut-out bid of Drax’s,’ he exploded, ‘Tommy and I could have made four hearts if we could have got around to bidding it. Between them they had the ace of hearts, six club tricks, and the ace, king of diamonds and a bare guard in spades. Made nine tricks straight off. How he had the face to open Three No Trumps I can’t imagine.’ He calmed down a little. ‘Well, Miles,’ he said, ‘has your friend got the answer?’ [40]

Miles? MILES? M’s first name is MILES??!

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This entry was posted in genre: espionage and tagged 8/13, author: ian fleming, rating: 3 stars, series: james bond. Bookmark the permalink.

Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Moonraker (James Bond #3)
By: Ian Fleming
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-14-200206-3

About the book:

"'Benzedrine,' said James Bond. 'It's what I shall need if I'm going to keep my wits about me tonight. It's apt to make one a bit over confident, but that'll help too.' He stirred the champagne so that the white powder whirled among the bubbles. Then he drank the mixture down with one long swallow. 'It doesn't taste,' said Bond, 'and the champagne is excellent.'"

Moonraker, Britain's new ICBM-based national defense system, is ready for testing, but something's not quite right. At M's request, Bond begins his investigation into Sir Hugo Drax, the leading card cheat at M's club, who is also the head of the Moonraker project. But once Bond delves deeper into the goings-on at the Moonraker base, he discovers that both the project and its leader are something other than they appear to be...


If Ian Fleming arguably set the template for James Bond's adventures with his second novel, Live and Let Die -- exotic locales, beautiful women, incredible escapades -- he immediately turned what has become the standard "Bond formula" on its head with his third novel, Moonraker. The action of Moonraker never leaves England, the resulting product a tautly-scripted suspense novel that is my favorite entry (thus far) in the series. The novel opens with Bond settling in for what appears to be a routine week of office work, until he is summoned to an unexpectedly personal meeting with M to discuss Bond's impressions of the latest media darling -- Sir Hugo Drax, industry magnate, whose plans to build a super rocket for the defense of England, with a range covering Europe -- the ultimate military deterrent in the new post-war nuclear age. But M has discovered something disturbing about the enigmatic "savior" of England -- Drax is a card cheat. Bond earns Drax's ire by trouncing him at a high-stakes bridge game -- a rivalry that makes Bond's temporary homefront reassignment to Drax's missile project, replacing the recently-murdered security officer. With the help of a beautiful and savvy Gala Brand, an undercover Special Branch operative, Bond is determined to protect the Moonraker project from sabotage, but the threat to England's best hope for nuclear security is closer than he ever dreamed. With the missile's test launch mere days away, Bond and Gala find themselves caught in the midst of an insidious plot to strike at the very heart of England against an enemy who will stop at nothing to silence their investigation.

I loved this book. LOVED it. If Fleming had stopped here, I'm convinced that this novel and Casino Royale would have marked him as a master of the spy thriller. If Bond -- and by extension, his creator -- are known for outlandish plots, stereotyping, and the objectification of gorgeous women, Moonraker dares to crush those assumptions with Fleming's deft plotting and characterizations. First published in 1955, Fleming's nuclear missile storyline plays into the public's newly-awakened postwar fears concerning the possibility of a nuclear war. And by placing the entirety of the action on English soil, Fleming brought those fears home to his readership. The Blitz had awakened England to the realization that their island state was not immune from enemy attack, a realization and a fear that Fleming explores through first the hope of the Moonraker as insurance and the fight to keep that technology from turning on the very public that embraced its aim and its creator.

Like Casino Royale, easily a good third of this novel is set around the action of a pivotal card game. I simply adore reading Fleming's accounts of Bond's battles waged across the length of a card table. This is a plot device that could easily misfire in the wrong hands, but Fleming was clearly a master of his craft and an adept at cards. With his economical, fluid prose, his account of Bond's schooling of Drax at bridge is masterfully done. The depths to which Fleming used this construct to explore both Bond's psychological state as well as his opponent's are extraordinarily well done, a suspenseful sequence that is a brilliant set-up for the action that follows against the broader scale of the Moonraker launch and the threat of sabotage against the heretofore flawlessly run project.

Bond is at his best here, the perfect mix of dedicated agent, patriot, and very human, very fallible man capable of great feeling, with an equally great capacity for triumphs and failures. His counterpart here is Gala Brand, far more than typical "Bond girl" eye candy -- this is a character with surprising (considering the source) fire, intelligence, and training, more than capable, as Bond reflects, of hitting him where it hurts. *wink* While Bond is still Bond, physically desiring Gala, in a welcome twist she is a capable investigative partner, one who likes him, but manages to refrain from succumbing to his "legendary" charms. They make a memorable pair, and I love their relationship arc -- well done, Fleming.

Drax is a fascinating character. Per the Bond formula norm, he is a larger than life spectacle, full of annoyingly crass manners, limitless funds, and apparently rock-solid patriotism. I've always been fascinated by the idea of sleeper villains (such as Raymond Shaw in the shortly to-be-published 1959 classic The Manchurian Candidate), and pair that with a plot involving a Nazi plot a decade in the making -- it's the recipe for a surefire success. Drax is full of self-loathing, hell-bent on destroying his childhood and wartime demons through a brilliantly-conceived long con that might have succeeded -- if not for his inability to resist cheating at cards. In him, Fleming has crafted a unforgettable arch-villain with a surprisingly human Achilles' heel.

Sadly for Bond film fans, by the time the franchise looked to adapt Moonraker to the big screen Fleming's intimate little plot was largely discarded in favor of an attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze, which is tragic when once considers the strength of the source material. Interestingly enough, though, I was struck by Drax's similarity to Toby Stephens's Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (only with the added spectacularly weird genetic therapy thing). Moonraker is a fantastically good outing in the Bond universe, a brilliantly-plotted, solid thriller that delves unexpectedly deeply into the psyche of Britain's most enduringly famous secret agent. This, my friends, is why Bond is a classic.

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