Six to Four Against – The Spy Who Loved Me

Article by Frieda Toth

“. . . Bond’s refined tastes and effortless embrace of the high life form an important aspect of his image.”  JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier

The Spy Who Loved Me novel

In 1962, Ian’s masterpiece came out. The Spy Who Loved Me was everything he had striven for, and he’d jettisoned everything tiresome. 

No longer was Bond a romantic hero consuming implausible gourmet foods before equally improbable escapes from debonair bad guys. No, the protagonist was a woman. The setting was a forest. The “Bond girl” ate a donut. And the local police force took over at the end.

The change was complete. Ian Fleming was now a serious writer. 

No, actually, Spy Who Loved Me was a disappointment. And Ian, always over sensitive to criticism, never again tried to have a female hero, a less-than-breathy meal, or an unmysterious baddie. 

Airbrushed out?

Poor Spy Who Loved Me! A typical Ian Fleming biography has a creation story for most of his novels, showing how Ian researched it and talking about the real people renamed in the novel. Not so here; this one merits only a few sentences, either damning or apologetic. So little respected is this quirky creation that in a book entitled JFK and the Masculine Mystique, it is not even included in a list of all Ian produced.

It is an indication of how great Ian’s control was over his own mythmaking that scholars tend to avoid The Spy Who Loved Me. Ian only wrote twelve full length novels, so to ignore SWLM is to ignore one twelfth of his body of output, a mind-blowing omission. Not only that, but Spy Who Loved Me was pivotal, illustrating Ian’s relationship with Northern New York in a way no other book did, and its failure changed his writing for the rest of his short life. It is my opinion that The Spy Who Loved Me should have increased attention, both because it is so different, and because the “experiment” of creation both revealed and caused huge changes in Ian’s life.

Ian had established a pattern of writing one major Bond book a year. He did the bulk of his research in the year before his holiday, write for the months of January and February at Goldeneye (his property in Jamaica) and submit after that, for the long process of bringing his book to fruition. So, The Spy Who Loved Me, his 1962 release, was researched in 1960. 

Early New York Connections

Well, sort of. Ian had had a relationship with the Northeast dating back to World War II, when spy duties took him both to Montreal and to Washington, D.C. At the time, the best route from Montreal to New York City was Route 9, which passes through Lake George, Glens Falls, Saratoga, Albany, and Poughkeepsie, to name a few, on the way south.

Ian would sometimes stay with his friend from childhood, Ivar Bryce, when he was in New York City. Bryce also owned a “farm” several hours’ drive north, on the border between Vermont and New York State. The guest book at Black Hole Hollow Farm showed ten Ian Fleming signatures between 1954 and 1960, but he did not stay there exclusively when in Northern New York. He told a long Island newspaper, “I come to the states about twice a year . . . Occasionally I stay in a motel and I love them . . . I’ve examined the Lake George area rather thoroughly. . . ” 

Photo: MacImages/Courtesy of LandVest/Christie’s International Real Estate

Locals to the Glens Falls and Lake George area of Northern New York have stories about Ian. In particular, the late artist Michael Sherman had an account of Ian hiking the Adirondacks.

“He was researching The Spy [Who Loved Me]. I was thirteen and David [the artist David Smith] asked if I could help out a guy that needed ‘quietude.’ So we set up a camp for him at Forest Lake. I carried his typewriter.”

A Switch in Tack

By the time he began Spy Who Loved Me, Ian had written eight James Bond novels, of which seven were already published and the eighth, Thunderball, (which became another life-changing nightmare) was off to the publisher. Bond had already met Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, Hugo Drax, Dr. No, and Goldfinger, and Ian’s pattern of “oddly charismatic bad guy brings Bond someplace exotic” was wearing on him. In addition he was hearing from friends, including Raymond Chandler, that he could be a better writer, and “not limit himself to thrillers.” He also had met then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who said he was a fan.

It was Fleming’s Jonathan Cape editor Michael Howard, who suggested that a female point of view might be the answer, since “the prospect of returning to the cardboard cut-out figure of James Bond repelled him.” Howard duly accepted his share of the blame in the perceived failed experiment.

On the home front, things were not so rosy. Ian’s only son, Caspar, had grown from a treasured infant to an obstreperous child, and Ian was not naturally paternal. And, as Caspar was the reason they went from lovers to married in the first place, it should not be a surprise that the relationship was rocky. Each of them took lovers and bitterly resented the other for doing so.

With his marriage failing and floundering as a parent, it is no wonder Ian decided to make a change in something he could control.

Perhaps Ian believed that his popularity was so great he could take chances in a bold way, much like the Beatles in their Indian music phase. However, the Beatles didn’t care whether they made any more money, and Ian was of a type that never would be satiated in that area.

The Beatles no longer cared for critical acclaim. Ian did. His brother Peter had critical success as a writer of travelogues. His sister, Amarylis, was an acclaimed cellist. If this experimental book were a critical success, he would be on par with his critically successful siblings. 

What were the literary risks Ian took?

Bond books are known for thrilling locales, luxurious foods, beautiful women, and terrifying but charismatic bad guys. He kept only the beautiful woman.

Ian here wrote a Bond book with unsexy sex, boring food, and one that, rather than celebrating the locale, disparaged it. It’s as if he wanted to use his evocative writing to turn the spy inside out: See how good I am?—I don’t need Bond’s clichés to be a good writer.

Ian made a point of describing the trees, the wandering roads, the lake with its steamboats, but refused to praise the village of Lake George, calling it “gimcrack” and “honkytonk.”  Rather than finding this exciting he chose to disparage. By comparison, casinos can be depressing in their sweaty din, but Ian made the din exhilarating. He can only have purposefully made his locale of SWLM unappealing.

It takes a stubborn blindness to not extol the loveliness of Lake George, presently considered the most beautiful lake in the United States, and praised as far back as before the Revolutionary War by Thomas Jefferson. On examination, Ian was left with no choice but to disparage it. Although Bond books are in the third person, the reader knows Bond’s tastes and opinions, and the sensual Bond normally tells us about the beauty of the great outdoors. Having Viv unimpressed is imperative to make her voice separate from Bond’s, and it works. You never hear the “voice” of Bond in any of Vivienne’s monologues. However, in differentiating her voice, Ian let go of one of the most appealing attributes of a Bond thriller.

The plot of The Spy Who Loved Me is that a young Canadian woman, Vivienne Michel, has had bad romances which lead her to make a change in her life. She takes  money she has earned, buys a Vespa, and motors down the east coast of North America.  She’s only as far as Lake George, New York, when she takes a job closing down an Adirondack motel, which small time hoods plan to burn down for the insurance money. Being fiends, they also try to rape her. Bond appears, saves her life, and after a sweet (but controversial) night together, he leaves, and though the captain of the Glens Falls Police warns Viv that adventurers should be avoided no matter what side of the law they are on, Viv doesn’t care. She confidently continues her adventure.

Ian here treats Bond with some disdain. Not only does Bond initially make a mess of trying to save Vivienne, Ian pokes fun at his abilities. Bond asks Viv if the baddies, Sluggsy and Horror, smoke cigarettes, and she says they do not.  “That’s bad,” says Bond, “It’s only the professionals that don’t,” before he and Viv share a pack or two.

Why had he set The Spy Who Loved Me in the Adirondacks?

Two reasons immediately come to mind. The first is that the Adirondacks are as far, ideologically speaking, as you can get from a typical James Bond book. If, when you think of Bond, you think of a noisy, sweaty casino, the furthest distance would be the peace of the wind through pine trees. Even if you include the luxurious feel of the Caribbean, contrast occurs, as his books set in Jamaica frequently have Bond lamenting the humidity and sweltering heat, where the Adirondacks are decidedly more pleasant. (Those of us who think the Adirondacks are humid have not spent time in Jamaica.) 

The other is simply that Ian knew the Adirondacks well. “I can’t write about a location I have not visited,” is a direct Ian quote.

Lake George in the Adirondacks

Lake George in the Adirondacks

What did he get right?

Ian created a heroine who was gutsy, motivated, and largely believable. (Critics were divided by gender, with women critics generally in favour of Vivienne and men finding her implausible.)

His knowledge of the area is its usual level of expert. If a fan of Spy Who Loved Me wanted to recreate Viv’s journey from Montreal to Glens Falls it could easily be done, although the fan would need an old map—or better yet, and old-timer—to recognize the locations. Some of the locations Viv mentions have an improbably kitschy sound, but Ian used the actual names of businesses then extant. Specifically, the mention of the name “Gaslight Village” narrows the window for a visit to the Adirondacks. This retro theme park did not open until 1959. Ian mentions the “costumed chimps” of Animal Land, which also was on Route 9. Moreover, Vivienne intensely dislikes “Storytown” (a “terrifying babyland nightmare”) which had opened in 1954 and quickly became a landmark. 

“Animal Land”

It was just south of Storytown that Viv took the turn which put her on the “alternate” route between Lake George and Glens Falls. Following her route soon puts the reader on Bay Road, which more or less matches the sketchy map depicting a road “between Lake George and Glens Falls” except in that it lacks a lake, and the correctly placed lake is important to the plot.

“Gaslight Village”– Ariel shot. Lake George in background. Theme park mid left. Route 9 is the road at the bottom of the photo.

Where did he get it wrong?

While the Adirondacks are well-described, The location of the Dreamy Pines Motor Court seems to be Ian’s imagination, as there is no route from Lake George to Glens Falls which has a small lake on only the west side. It seems, though, that a significant flaw occurs on the first page of SWLM, which describes her location as ten miles west of Lake George. 

There is no town ten miles west of Lake George. No city, no village, nor was there ever one. The village of Lake Luzerne comes closest to being “ten miles west” of Glens Falls, but it is southwest, not west, and in any case it is not on a route from Lake George to Glens Falls. Glens Falls is on a direct route about ten miles south of Lake George. As a local, it is my considered opinion that the word “west” is simply a mistake that should have read “south.”  Every other geographical indicator places Viv on a north-south route between the village of Lake George and the city of Glens Falls. Ian or his editors made a mistake.

Map from the 1962 American, Book Club edition of TSWLM

Map from the 1962 American, Book Club edition of TSWLM | It is likely that this incorrectly oriented map contributed to the error that the action was west of Lake George. While a typical map is oriented with north at the top of the page, this one depicts north to the right.

Ian’s authenticity suffered in the dialogue of Spy Who Loved Me, and in his defence, he did get an American to read it over for edits. But time was not on their side, and it went to print largely unfixed. The “gangster lingo” is cringe-worthy, was even at publication, giving a false feel to the story and casting a shadow of doubt on even the things Ian describes well.

Then what happened?

Michael Sherman describes Ian’s trip to the Adirondacks as restorative, and indeed, his letters after submitting The Spy Who Loved Me manuscript are cheerful and confident. He was sure the experiment would work.

After having submitted the manuscript, another life-changing event occurred: Ian’s first heart attack. Even so, he remained upbeat and completed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from his hospital bed.

Ian was surprised when the book critically came short. The drubbing he took at the hands of the critics was so great that he ordered the book never to go into paperback in England. Even so, The Spy Who Loved Me was not actually the financial disappointment its reputation would lead us to believe. I don’t think most authors would consider a book unsuccessful if it went into eleven paperback printings in its first two years, as Spy Who Loved Me did in its American edition. (This annoyed his avaricious wife, who lamented to a friend that she wanted to reverse “this foolish decision” because she wanted new curtains.)

At first, Ian did not believe the criticism would have legs. He defended his decision in letters. But when he changed his mind, he changed it big. No paperback. No movie rights.

It is interesting that a man as motivated by money as Ian Fleming ordered his creation to have a short life. Whether Ian was fundamentally a man of honor, and chose not to inflict his experiment on more people after he was ashamed of it, or whether he was simply so embarrassed he wanted to expunge it, is a matter for debate.

Nothing to do with the book!

Ian’s refusal to make every last pence from his experiment lessened its profile, making it easy to ignore. The title’s being used in a movie that had nothing to do with his book muddles the awareness of Spy Who Loved Me; people think they know it because they have seen the movie. And since the movie has nothing to do with the book, awareness of Ian’s love affair with Northern New York has been largely lost.

Ian had become dependent on Bond both for money and identity, and if he were to continue the money machine that was Bond, Ian knew he could no longer deviate from the formula. Every subsequent book has a charismatic bad guy, a third-person narrator, and a villain-driven plot. Car and ski and other “chases” return, although Ian was by then so ill that the ski chase in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was inspired by skiing he had done twenty years previous to his writing.

It was a Faustian bargain; to make the money, Ian had to give up any hope of the innovation which had been so delightful, and while there are flashes of Fleming brilliance in the later books, the freshness and risk-taking were gone. The Spy Who Loved Me had no ubervillain but was an original take on characterization. The Man With the Golden Gun had a villain who was fantastically powerful and evil and yet not at all as interesting or terrifying as Red Grant, the mere assassin of From Russia With Love.

It would be a boon for understanding and awareness of Ian Fleming for more research to be done on his creation of The Spy Who Loved Me. Is it as good as the other Bond books? That is a matter of taste. While it is in no way as thrilling as the others, it was not meant to be. It succeeds as a look into the mind of a young woman in an early romance, and how sad for the world that this is not what Bond fans were looking for. I believe that had this book been printed under a pseudonym, or, as is popular these days, as a “companion” to the series, it could have attained the critical acclaim that would have justified to Ian and his fans his experiment.

In his last filmed interview, Ian was asked if he would ever give up James Bond, and quipped, “I couldn’t possibly afford it,” which was meant to be a cynical, devil-may-care line. In hindsight, it is sadly true.

With special thanks to The Folklife Center, Crandall Public Library (photos apart from author photo) Saratoga Room, Ian Fleming Bibliographical Archive/Jon Gilbert, Saratoga Springs Library, the late Michael Sherman, Jon Cuneo and Solange Herter.

Incidental Intelligence

Read more by Frieda Toth.

Frieda and daughter at Lake George

7 thoughts on “Six to Four Against – The Spy Who Loved Me

  1. An interesting piece about a book that got me into a lot of trouble.
    Back in the day, it wasn’t just the paperback and the movie rights that he blocked. He did a damn fine job of burying the JC hard back launch. Very few bookshops stocked it.
    He was clearly very stung by the criticism.
    Sad in a way because it really stands up as something quite different. Personally, I think he wrote from the female perspective quite brilliantly and I think he delivered a gritty and believable noir. Very much in a sort of Key Largo style.
    The other thing that he managed in TSWLM was to capture the zeitgeist of the ’60s.
    Despite the fact that he wrote several Bonds in the ’60s he didn’t make any stylistic attempts to embrace the decade. With TSWLM he did and I thought he did it rather well.
    Well done Frieda. A great piece.

  2. I think SWLM is absolutely wonderful. The best thing about is is Vivianne, her voice, her character. Fleming totally gets inside the head of the young woman. Although I am not the same character as Viv and haven’t had the same experiences there are things about her and her life I could really relate to when first reading the book at a similar age to her. It makes me very very sad that Fleming wasn’t able to enjoy his achievement – I wish he were still alive so I could tell him how much I enjoyed it.


  3. David, yes, totally, got the feel of the time and place–and didn’t do that so well, ever again. Zoe, I too find Viv inspiring!

    Ian was a much better writer than he gave himself credit for and TSWLM is a gem of its own sort.

    Thank you for your kind words.

  4. Excellent article (as always with Frida!). I’ve always wondered what the rest of Viv’s travels were like, and what she did with the rest of her life. A testament to how vividly Fleming portrayed the character!

    Fleming’s embarrassment over the harsh response to The Spy Who Loved Me perhaps stems from the fact that it was autobiographical. Vivienne’s entry into journalism undoubtedly also draws on Fleming’s early days. More importantly, as Andrew Lycett wrote in his biography, Fleming “recorded, in what several critics thought was rather too graphic detail, the seduction of his heroine Vivienne Michel on the floor of a box at the Royalty Kinema in Windsor’s Farquhar Street. As Ian later told his friend Robert Harling, this was where and how he first made love to a woman.” Another friend, Ernest Cuneo, intriguingly mentioned that Fleming had a “terrifying experience which he remembered with horror” and claimed “it was psychologically traumatic, and modified, it appears as one of the incidents in his books.” Sounds like the cinema seduction!

    Though this grim scene was based on Fleming’s own experience, it’s portrayed from the female point of view, and Derek becomes a self-portrait of the author as a young cad. The rest of the men Vivienne meets are even worse. Fleming presents a devastating portrait of male hypocrisy, brutality and selfishness toward women–the only good man Vivienne meets is James Bond, an eternally unattainable fantasy figure. TSWLM is the closest thing we have to a feminist Bond novel, and Fleming’s “literary tranvestism” proved successful enough to creep out male critics.

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