Ian Fleming’s Seven ‘Deadlier’ Sins: CRUELTY

Article by Revelator

In his foreword The Seven Deadly Sins, published in 1962, Ian Fleming declared that the traditional seven deadly sins — PRIDE, ENVY, ANGER, SLOTH [accidie], COVETOUSNESS, GLUTTONY and LUST — were no longer sufficient. Thereupon, he proposed seven deadlier sins more worthy of a one way ticket to Hell:


This month, Revelator examines CRUELTY.

“April is the cruelest month” according to T.S. Eliot, so what better time to examine Cruelty? Whether Fleming or Bond is guilty of this, perhaps Fleming’s deadliest of his deadlier sins, is a  pressing question, since the Bond stories have been often described—or condemned—as “sex, sadism, and snobbery.” How much sadism is really there? Is Fleming guilty of cruelty?

Scaramanga - ©George Almond

Scaramanga – ©George Almond [courtesy of 007magazine.com]

At a superficial first glance, the answer would be an overwhelming yes. “Cruelty” is without doubt one of Fleming’s favorite words, used constantly throughout Bond’s adventures. SMERSH is “the cruel machine.” The barracuda has a “cruel jaw” and swims in the “cruel sea.” Mr. Big gives the picture of “a very powerful and active man, ruthless and cruel, commanding a huge network of operations,” and his followers wear “delighted cruel grins.” Hugo Drax looks “cruelly, scornfully” at his victims; “a kind of frozen cruelty was showing through the jolly façade of [his] red skin and whiskers.” As for Drax’s henchman Krebs, “his eyes had turned hot with cruelty.” Regarding serial killer Red Grant, “there was something cruel about [his] thin-lipped rather pursed mouth.” SMERSH’s head torturer Rosa Klebb gives the impression of “coldness and cruelty and strength.”

Vivienne Michel is manhandled by Sol “Horror” Horowitz with “refined, erotic cruelty.” One of Dr. No’s henchmen threatens Bond with torture, his eyes “alight with cruelty,” while Dr. No himself has a “wide compressed wound of a mouth which, despite its almost permanent sketch of a smile, showed only cruelty and authority.” Blofeld’s mouth is cut from the same flesh: “Proud and thin, like a badly healed wound, the compressed, dark lips, capable only of false, ugly smiles, suggested contempt, tyranny, and cruelty—but to an almost Shakespearian degree.” Last and perhaps least, Scaramanga has a “thin, cruel smile.”

Even Bond’s allies get in on the act: Solitaire has “a wide, sensual mouth which held a hint of cruelty.” Colombo gives “a harsh, cruel laugh.” Darko Kerim has “a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel and debauched.” The eyes of gypsy chieftain Vavra are “fierce and cruel on either side of a syphilitic nose.” Mafioso Marc-Ange Draco’s eyes are those of a “bandit, cold, cruel, avenging,” his face “almost cruelly implacable.” And we mustn’t forget Tiger Tanaka’s “formidable, cruel, samurai face.” As for Melina Havelock’s mouth, it “looked grim, almost cruel, as she looked down on the man she had come to kill.”

James Bond ©George Almond [courtesy of http://www.007magazine.com]

Bond himself has a bad case of the c-word: in Live And Let Die “his face in the faint dashlight was cruel and hard.” In Moonraker Gala Brand recalls that face in Moonraker with disquiet: there was “something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.” In From Russia with Love Bond’s photograph reveals “a short upper lip below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth” [at least the lips weren’t thin or compressed!]. Darko Kerim suggests that Tatiana wishes “to buy a kiss…from that cruel mouth.” Surveying Bond, Dr. No scrutinizes “every line, every shadow on the dark, rather cruel face.” In Goldfinger Pussy Galore looks “at the passionate, rather cruel mouth waiting above hers.”

In “Risico” Lisl Baum says Bond “has a rather cruel smile. But he is very handsome.” The casino-goers in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wonder at “this dark Englishman who played so quietly, wary of the half-smile of certitude on his rather cruel mouth.” In Thunderball Bond himself wonders if he’s “losing the vices that were so much part of his ruthless, cruel, fundamentally tough character.”

So, case closed. Or is it? Looks can be deceiving: In The Spy Who Loved Me, Vivienne Michel finds Bond “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” but as she gets to know him, her mind changes. “The narrowed watchful eyes gave his good looks the dangerous, almost cruel quality that had frightened me when I had first set eyes on him, but now that I knew how he could smile, I thought his face only exciting, in a way that no man’s face had ever excited me before.” Fleming was excessively fond of throwing in the word “cruel” for descriptive spice, often to connote passion, but we must look beyond the surface of the books for actual cruelty.

Bond and Blofeld | Illustration by George Almond courtesy of 007magazine.com

What we will find is that most of the violence seems tame in our post-Tarantino age. It mostly lacks explicit detail, and modern readers will have difficulty finding it disturbing. The exceptions are acts of violence committed against Bond himself: the genitalia torture in Casino Royale, TeeHee snapping Bond’s pinkie in Live and Let Die, the “Brooklyn stomping” in Diamonds Are Forever, and the notorious torture course in Dr. No, which stretches Bond to the limit of his physical endurance. If there is sadism in these scenes, it is toward Bond and therefore really masochism, since Bond is Fleming dreaming about himself in third person, as biographer John Pearson observed. The masochistic nature of this violence is further demonstrated by the fact that only Bond’s tortures are given narrative space—when Domino is tortured in Thunderball, her ordeal is kept “off-camera” and un-narrated. A truly sadistic writer would not have spared his audience, and it’s worth remembering that Pearson, who served as Fleming’s assistant, remembered him as “a sensitive, fundamentally kindly man.”

Bond’s ordeals exist to prove his heroism, his almost superhuman endurance in seeing the job through, triumphing over pain for Queen & Country. Though Bond is tortured, he does not torture back—he kills his enemies but inflicts far less pain than what he (or their other victims) received: Dr. No’s death under a load of bird guano is hideous but instant, and Blofeld’s strangulation is less horrific than dying in his suicide garden, or Bond watching his wife’s murder on his wedding day. There is no doubt that Bond’s enemies are sadists: Le Chiffre admits he is “rather interested to see how long a man can stand this particular form of…er…encouragement,” while Dr. No is more upfront: “I am interested in pain. I am also interested in finding out how much the human body can endure. From time to time I make experiments…You have both put me to a great deal of trouble. In exchange I intend to put you to a great deal of pain.”

"Is Your Position Clear, Now?" from Casino Royale. Graphite on Illustration board.

“Is Your Position Clear, Now?” from Casino Royale. Illustration by George Almond courtesy of 007magazine.com

Though his villains are cruel, Fleming refrains from prompting the bloodlust of revenge. An exception occurs in Live and Let Die with the Robber, who “looked cruel and cold, like the bad man in a film about poker-players and gold mines” and possessed “small, close-set eyes as cruel as a painless dentist’s.” The Robber had fed Felix Leiter to the sharks through a trapdoor, and a revenge-seeking Bond places the Robber at his mercy, hanging over the same trapdoor. The Robber pleads for his life, but Bond imagines the Robber’s “cruel smile” and “laugh of triumph” over Leiter’s near-demise. Seized by “blind rage” he kicks the Robber into the shark’s waiting jaws. Not being a sadist, Bond doesn’t watch, but as he closes the trapdoor he hears “a terrible snuffling grunt… as if a great pig was getting its mouth full.” A masterly touch, and more effective than any gore.

Red Grant | ©George Almond

Red Grant by ©George Almond [courtesy of 007magazine.com]

The reader is disposed to despise the Robber even before he maims Leiter: during his first encounter with Bond he idly shoots down a pelican, just to look menacing. Bond’s anger at this is also Fleming’s—in his books cruelty to animals is presented as a clear and disgusting sign of utter evil. Fleming’s least civilized and nastiest villains bear this trait: Red Grant slaughters a cat, sheepdog, and various livestock (“these actions made him ‘feel good’”) before moving on to people; the Ex-Gestapo officer Von Hammerstein kills Judy Havelock’s pony and dog, and for fun shoots a kingfisher and grinds his heel on the corpse; the crass Scaramanga guns down a pair of pet birds for spite and shoots a turkey buzzard to show off. When Bond complains, he calls for gunplay and demands that Bond hit a cow at ten paces. “I never shoot game that I don’t eat” replies Bond.

The worst animal abuser is undoubtedly Milton Krest from “The Hildebrand Rarity.” Alongside the Spang twins from Diamonds Are Forever, the jingoistic Krest shows that Fleming despised few people more than vulgar American millionaires (what he’d have thought about a vulgar American millionaire who became President with help from the Russians is easy to guess). To obtain a tax break Krest dumps poison in a busy cove of fish, and “Soon, to get one fish that someone vaguely wanted in a museum five thousand miles away, a hundred, perhaps a thousand small people were going to die.” Bond is disgusted (“I feel like the bomb-aimer at Nagasaki”) and tries to stop the massacre, described by Fleming with vivid pathos and outrage. Krest’s cruelty to animals is complemented by his cruelty to his wife, whom he beats with a sting-ray tail, and this leads us back to the question of sadism and masochism.

The Hildebrand Rarity

‘The Corrector & The Collector – A Cabinet of Curiosities.’ ©2015 Gerald Wadsworth

Some critics, having noticed Fleming’s personal taste for BDSM (practiced consensually with his wife) see whipping, spanking, and bondage (pun unintended) occurring throughout his books. The late Christopher Hitchens was especially insistent on this, in his last (and worst) article on Fleming. But the primary evidence is extraordinarily feeble: two non-serious and inconsequential remarks about spanking. In reality the Bond books have little-to-no interest in such matters. Fleming might have enjoyed using the whip in the bedroom, but the only whipping in the books is committed by Milton Krest, with his “violent cruelty” and “pathological desire to wound,” and  inspires disgust, not enjoyment. Fleming deserves credit for the opposite of self-indulgence: a lesser author would have been tempted to fetishize his fiction by having his characters enact his kinks. Instead Fleming denied their validity in Bond’s world.

While on the topic of critical misconceptions, we should also question the conventional wisdom that views Bond as a brutal, cold-blooded killer. True, Bond earned his Double-O status with two cold-blooded killings, as related in Casino Royale, but Fleming was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of making his hero a cruelly cold-blooded killer and moved away from it. In From Russia With Love we’re told—in blatant contradiction of Casino Royale—that “Bond had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn’t liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.” Fleming gave Bond only three more assassination assignments, and in all of them he fails to kill in cold blood. In “For Your Eyes Only” he has trouble working himself up to assassinate the horrid Von Hammerstein (“Bond did not like what he was going to do, and all the way from England he had had to keep on reminding himself what sort of men these were”) and hands the job over to the vengeance-seeking Judy Havelock.

In “The Living Daylights” Bond outright disobeys clear orders to exterminate Trigger, for the very unprofessional reason of having fallen for her. During a car ride in The Man With the Golden Gun he’s given a golden opportunity to murder the repulsive Scaramanga, but refuses due to “an inbuilt dislike of cold murder” and “the likelihood that he would have to murder the chauffeur also.” Bond realizes “that he was not only disobeying orders, or at best dodging them, but also being a bloody fool.” When Bond finally resolves to do the deed, Scaramanga is skeptical (“I’ve never heard of a limey who’d shoot a defenceless man who’s badly wounded”) and Bond indeed gives his enemy multiple opportunities to delay the execution until Scaramanga proves he’s not defenseless. Bond’s recurring dislike of killing in cold blood is hardly the attribute of a sadist, let alone the standard hero of a modern-day action movie.

Lana Petanić as Tiffany Case (Photo: Belizar Valic)

Nor will we find sadism or cruelty in Bond’s treatment of women. The shameful scenes in the Bond movies of OO7 slapping women have no counterpart in the books at all. Far from being a predatory cad, Bond is gentlemanly and considerate in his conduct. A representative passage can be found in Diamonds Are Forever, when Bond is falling in love with the emotionally disturbed Tiffany Case: “Once he had taken her by the hand it would be for ever. He would be in the role of the healer, the analyst, to whom the patient had transferred her love and trust on her way out of the illness. There would be no cruelty equal to dropping her hand once he had taken it in his.” True to form, it’s Tiffany who leaves Bond.

What Fleming considered cruelty to women is made equally clear in The Spy Who Loved Me, “a devastating parody of the misuse and manipulation of sex” (to quote Ann S. Boyd), the misusers being the men in Vivienne Michel’s life. Her first boyfriend, upper-class cad Derek, pressures her into losing her virginity and dumps her swiftly afterward, confessing by letter that he was already engaged. Vivienne then falls for Kurt the German, who prides himself on his rectitude. But when she tells him about her accidental pregnancy: “he quietly disengaged my arms from round his neck, looked my body up and down with what I can only call a mixture of anger and contempt, and reached for the door handle. Then he looked me coldly in the eyes, said very softly, ‘So?’ and walked out of the room.” He only returns to give Vivienne a lecture and money for an abortion. The emotional cruelty of these men is the flipside of the physical violence inflicted on Vivienne by the gangsters Sluggsy and Horror.

“The Quantum of Solace,” set in Bermuda, also explores the “bestial cruelty” of emotional warfare. Rhoda Masters, having brazenly cheated on her husband Philip, attempts a reconciliation. He refuses to speak to he even in private and literally divides the house between them. Before he leaves Bermuda to finalize the divorce, she begs him to provide something, anything, to save her from destitution. He finally agrees, but when Rhoda attempts to sell his car and appliances, she finds he had left her only with crippling debts. “She had already been a beaten woman” says a friend. “Now Philip Masters had kicked her when she was down” and  performed “one of the cruellest actions I can recall in all my experience.” Bond, previously hostile to Rhoda, finds himself sympathetic, and she meets a benevolent fate at Fleming’s hands.

Ian Fleming ©George Almond [courtesy of 007magazine.com]

There is enough material to write a dissertation on cruelty in the Bond novels, but I hope this article has demonstrated that neither Fleming nor Bond embody this deadlier sin. Cruel actions occur in Fleming’s work, but not as sadism, which is cruelty approved by the author and offered for the reader’s pleasure.

Neither Fleming nor Bond glories in extreme violence, which is  presented with horror: no one would take enjoyment in the fate of, say, Tingaling Bell, and even the comeuppance of Mr. Big—who tried to keelhaul Bond and gets eaten alive by sharks—is portrayed in non-exultant prose as grim poetic justice that is traumatizing to behold. At most Fleming is guilty of cruelty toward his hero, but the reader understands Bond’s tortures and tragedies as trials of heroism, not justifications for inflicting equivalent violence on his enemies.

“The top spies and the top counterspies are coldhearted, coldblooded, ruthless, tough killers” says a policeman in The Spy Who Loved Me, but James Bond doesn’t fit the description.

Incidental Intelligence

Read more on Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins

5 thoughts on “Ian Fleming’s Seven ‘Deadlier’ Sins: CRUELTY

  1. An extremely interesting and well written article. This site is in a league of its own when it comes to this sort of thing.
    One of the biggest criticisms constantly levied at Fleming back in the day was that his work was sadistic.
    Virtually every critic, even those that liked him, made that accusation at one time or another. His defence was always that he was injecting a new realism. Personally I used to find that explanation more than a little weak. He knew that sex, sadism, violence and the high life sold. It was his stock in trade and he was good at it.
    So yes, you can extend an argument that Bond was not sadistic but the books were and frankly I thought then and still do now that it made them all the more thrilling.
    Of course, the likes of Spillane and Wheatley revelled even more in sadism but they both lacked completely Fleming’s literary merit so often flew under the radar as far as the critics were concerned.

    • Thanks very much David! You’re right in pointing out that Fleming’s peers were sadistic in a way he wasn’t. And of course authors have a right to dramatically justified violence—King Lear has an on-stage act of violence worse than anything in Fleming. I don’t think the sadism charge is made against Fleming very much nowadays (he’s attacked for different things), but I thought it would be useful to prevent the corpse from rising again.

  2. Excellent previous comments on Fleming’s depth and literary sensitivity, bravo. Even my well-educated friends persist in relegating Fleming’s works to adolescent escapism but they are so much more, if only one let’s the writing affect them deeply as it was meant to happen, despite Fleming’s slightly embarrassed self-deprecating comments. I wonder if Fleming ever really hoisted in how great a writer he turned out to be. But how could he have?

    • Thanks Barry. The key to Fleming’s intentions is in his comment “Thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, but it is possible to write thrillers designed to be read as Literature.” I think Fleming was very pleased with the praise he received from fellow writers he admired, such as Raymond Chandler, Somerset Maugham, John Betjeman, and Kingsley Amis. Unfortunately by the end of his life he was too ill and depressed to fully enjoy any critical praise, not to mention popular success.

      • Thanks back revelatory60, so glad to know Fleming enjoyed the praise of fellow writers but sad to hear his last days were so difficult. I always found his story ‘A Quantum of Solace’ especially poignant and Maugham-sian.

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