August 26, 2010
Like a number of successful novel sequences or film franchises, the James Bond movies have spawned a stream of books that analyze, often too solemnly, the artistic merit and the cultural relevance of the original works. These books tend to be written by people who take great pleasure in complete immersion in their subject. A book on, say, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective is likely to know what kind of pipe Sherlock Holmes smoked, or where Dr. Watson underwent his training in medicine. The James Bond scholar (there’s a phrase!) is likely to know that Noël Coward was considered for the role of Dr. No, and that if Cary Grant had been willing to sign on for more than one film, he very well might have been cast as the lethal British spy.
Very well and good, you say—an author ought to know his subject. The problem is that such arcane trivia tends to cloud out the bigger picture; fandom, with its purely obsessive approach, does not always produce the most considered or insightful judgments. Most James Bond books (and I do not mean the fiction on which the films are based) tend to get lost in the universe under review—and, to paraphrase Ian Fleming, this world is not enough. Fans of Conan Doyle or P.G. Wodehouse or Star Trek know what I mean, however loathe they may be to admit it.
Another danger stems from the opposite problem: a tendency to condescend to the subject. There are few things worse than a 007 obsessive who pens an entire book about his hero, but, out of an apparent need to appear serious or highbrow, ends up trashing what he most worships. Where is the fun in that? This is a longwinded way of saying that Sinclair McKay’s new book is one of the very best attempts to take stock of the Bond films. It has its share of quirks, and is by no means appropriate for someone with a minimal interest in the series. But his analysis of the movies is smart and unexpected, and his grasp of Bond is obviously the result of thought and study.