Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Letters of Ian Fleming

In 1952, to celebrate the publication of In 1952, to celebrate the publication of Casino Royale, his first novel featuring James Bond, Ian Fleming ordered a gold-plated Royal typewriter from New York. It cost $174.00, or about $1600.00 in 2016 dollars, and he had a friend smuggle the machine into England so that he wouldn't have to pay the custom duties on it. Over the coming years, he used the typewriter to complete the remainder of his Bond adventures plus a couple of nonfiction books and various assorted columns and stories. He also used it to write a huge collection of letters to friends, relatives, fans, publishers and others. His nephew, Fergus Fleming, has now gathered many of these letters into this collection.

After a brief introduction that provides the salient details of Fleming's life, the book is organized into seventeen chapters, most of which are titled for and organized around the details of each of the fourteen Bond novels. Three additional chapters involve letters exchanged between Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd, the man who would advise him on Bond's armaments; letters between Fleming and Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, and letters between Fleming and Herman W. Liebert, a scholar who advised Fleming on the differences between British and American English.

The collection will be of principal interest to devoted fans of James Bond, who will be interested to see the way in which these novels took shape, and to other writers, who will be relieved to learn that even an author as successful as Ian Fleming obsessed about the same sort of small details that bedevil virtually all writers. How large would his print runs be? (Almost never large enough to please him, at least early on.) How much money would the publisher be spending to promote the books. (Again, never enough.) As with most other authors, Fleming was very much concerned with the cover art for his novels along with the amount of his royalties. He fretted about negative reviews and lamented the movie and television deals that never came to fruition. Other writers reading these letters will, for the most part, simply nod in agreement and sigh heavily.

If these letters are any indication, Fleming also enjoyed hearing from readers and was always very gracious in responding to their concerns, even when they were critical of something he had written. The letters that passed between him and Chandler are also very interesting for the light that they shed on both men.

In a day and age before email and when long-distance telephoning was still fairly expensive, Fleming (like many others, of course) was a prolific letter writer. It's impossible to know how selectively Fergus Fleming has pruned his uncle's correspondence and to know if the letters reproduced here are representative of the totality of Ian Fleming's letters. Still, this is an entertaining volume that provides an interesting glimpse into the life of the man who created one of the world's most durable super spies.

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