Article by Frieda Toth
James Bond is the most famous spy in the world. It doesn’t take much deep thought to parse that, in the words of the satirical musical Spies Are Forever, that makes him the WORST spy in the world.
Bond’s flashy dress, catchphrase, and need to win at every game he plays make him conspicuous, but nothing for ineptitude compares with Bond’s terrible aliases, both in the books and in the movies. From John Bryce of Live and Let Die to Mark Hazard in The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond’s pseudonyms and personas are a joke, just as meme-worthy as Captain Kirk’s satyriasis. But why? Why does this continue to happen? Why did it EVER happen?
Why are his names such a problem? There are several reasons: the names are terribly obvious, matching rather underdeveloped personas. In addition, there are two angles: Why are Bond’s aliases so pathetic, internally, within the structure of the story, and what made Fleming, an intelligent, well-read man whose writing was so ingenious that the term “Fleming effect” was coined to refer to vivid writing, consistently fall down on this important part of his books? Did it serve a conscious purpose, or was it just bad?
When I say the aliases are pathetic, one aspect is that I mean they are easily seen through, and this is true for both the books and the movies. In Bond’s first outing, Casino Royale, Bond is informed that his cover is blown before he has even done anything particularly interesting, spy-wise.
A pivotal part of both versions of Live and Let Die centers on Bond thinking he is unrecognized while the team of bad guys contact one another on radios, letting each next one know where their prey is headed. There is a particularly odious exchange in the movie version, wherein Bond asks the Black driver to go to a dangerous section of town and offers him twenty dollars, and the driver grins, “For twenty dollars I’d take you to a Ku Klux Klan meeting.” This bit leads us to believe the driver is stupidly avaricious, so it is satisfying when he proves he is on to Bond, possibly smarter than Bond, when the driver radios “He’s going in,” to the next contact. In a similar vein, the whole, “Welcome Mr. Bond” meme shows intelligent and sly villains toying with Bond and capturing him safely.
This device, the letting us know that the cover has not worked, serves the purpose of telling us that Bond’s enemies are not to be trifled with. They are smarter than they let on, so we can become frightened for Bond, or at least uneasy, even when things appear to be going well.
Bond makes little effort to come up with a back story when he uses an alias, most of the time merely assuming a name. There is no characterization reason Bond uses “John Bryce” in Live and Let Die but “David Somerset” in From Russia With Love, as they are both merely married businessmen Bond pretends to be in order to allow himself to travel in the company of a young woman. Pretending to be a husband makes him a chaperone, really, and no further explanation is needed. (“Chaperone” in the sense of getting some place safely, and not, as we know, in the sense of avoiding sexual activity.)
Bond does his homework, his school work, when assuming an identity, but that is it. He works to learn Peter Franks’s skill, diamond trading, in Diamonds Are Forever, but nothing whatever about the man himself. Bond is, in literal terms, all business. Bond is many great things, but master of disguise he is not.
The villains should easily be able to see through disguises that show little work or imagination a little sooner than they sometimes do, such as when Bond pretends to be Sir Hillary Bray but doesn’t bother to learn anything about Bray’s background apart from a smidgeon of heraldry. He even goes to meet Sir Hillary in person but asks nothing about who he is, his food preferences, or where he grew up. Bond’s Bray wouldn’t stand up to the most casual of interrogations.
There’s a slightly different problem when in The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond introduces himself to Scaramanga, who has certainly read the classic Samuel Clemens books by now, as “Mark Hazard.” Clemens’ pen name of “Mark Twain,” in case it has been a while since you have read this, means, “Note this, two fathoms,” a safety measure for boats. Fleming, therefore, gave his protagonist the alias “Mark, there is a hazard,” or “Look out for danger.” As self-evident as Bond’s aliases are, it should be noted that they are at least more subtle than those of Bond women. You notice the Bond aliases but they are not so poetic or so silly as to take you out of the action, as do Bond girl names such as Vesper Lynd or Pussy Galore.
Then again, Fleming has a need to make Bond almost ordinary. He is not intended to be a man of imagination, only of strength and determination. As Kingsley Amis pointed out in his great work, The James Bond Dossier, the reader may think. “If I just worked a little harder, I could do these marvelous things.” The lack of imagination in the aliases helps keep Bond grounded, and may even have the reader believing, as we do when the blonde in a horror movie goes upstairs, that we could do better. It’s really a marvelous level of ingenuity and comradery to make Bond incompetent.
Sometimes even Bond’s allies see through his disguises and don’t bother to tell him, treating him like a foolish child, which bothers neither the book nor the movie Bond, as seen when Bond hops on to the sunken Queen Elizabeth in the movie The Man with the Golden Gun only to be greeted by M’s staff. The message is that Bond is a man of action, not intrigue, and it works.
I do not think, as some scholars do, that Bond books are without humor. Indeed, it is Fleming’s ability to poke fun at the genre, and sometimes at Bond, that is one of its greatest strengths. (A famous spy? Really?) Yet Bond himself does not crack jokes, is not very playful, and it is difficult to imagine him delightedly planning a cosplay in the manner of the once-famous bank robber Willie Sutton. If you have not read about Sutton, I urge you to read his memoir, Where the Money Was, wherein he describes the joy of planning, dressing up for, and robbing banks.)
There are times when the aliases or even just the names used in Bond books are a matter of vanity and lack of time. Fleming turned out a book a year for about a dozen years, every spring, and didn’t revise a great deal. He didn’t leave himself time for very complicated plots and once something was on paper, rarely revisited it in detail, so the name he dashed out with after a swim at Goldeneye might not have been the name he’d use if he had given himself more time. And he tended to honor his friends and dishonor people who annoyed him. His best friend, Ivar Bryce, appears as Felix Leiter (Felix was Ivar’s real first name) in several books and as Bond’s alias “John Bryce” in Live and Let Die.
Bond does not give himself his next-to-last name, Taro Todoroki, used in You Only Live Twice, but it is still a Fleming not-trying-terribly hard one. Taro means eldest son, Todoroki means, roughly, the noise thunder makes, and while Todoroki is not a common Japanese family name, it is common enough that Kissy named her lover “John Smith.” Todoroki is now a well-known Japanese name in the United States, having been given to the pugnacious family in the manga My Hero Academia.
We can see that Bond’s terrible aliases are at once the result of sloppy and hasty writing and marvelously effective for the genre they inhabit.
Ian Fleming probably would have been surprised and flattered and self-effacingly modest to know that we are still talking about his writing all these years later, as it was never intended to be great literature. He wrote Bond first to see if he could accomplish writing a thriller. As time went on, he became dependent on the income the books and movies brought in. If he’d known at the time of writing that we’d take him so seriously now, he probably would have been delighted, but would not have changed a thing.