During his relatively short, but prolific career as the mastermind author behind licensed to kill super spy, James Bond, Ian Flemming spent a lot of time and effort on various correspondences of one kind or another, with the majority in hand-written letters to friends, fans, critics and publishers. Luckily, a lot of these have been kept and they’ve been pulled together and published in a new book called The Man With The Golden Typewriter, edited by Ian’s Nephew, Fergus Flemming.
Released on hardback through Bloomsbury Publishing the collection of letters is about as close as you’re going to get to the day-to-day life and thoughts of the writer of thrillers like Dr. No and Moonraker without the need of a time machine and a very good bugging device. It makes for a fascinating read on many fronts and gives us a brilliant window into the way the writer worked, what he honestly thought of his protagonist and how close his own personal life had parallels with his now famous character.
What you’re struck with as you read the first few letters is that he was an incredibly lively writer with a much altered style from that of his books. He builds in a lot of charisma into each letter, which usually results in him either getting his own way or winning people over somehow and for that reason alone it’s worth reading The Golden Typewriter to learn a bit more about the subtler art of persuasion and leverage.
What’s surprising is how much of an astute businessman Ian Fleming was, getting involved in all aspects of the publishing process in an unashamed bid for success and riches, to fuel his gregarious and opulent lifestyle, which is embodied in his early purchase of a terribly gauche, but very fun golden typewriter, which has inspired the title of the book. It’s not clear if this also had a hand in the titles of Goldfinger and The Man With The Golden Gun, but it’s this sense of escape through material things and experiences that helped to make his books so appealing to the masses.
For aspiring writers, it’s a must-read to get a flavour of the extent to which you might need to go to get your own project off the drawing board, how not to take criticism too personally and how to pull on your various support networks to make things happen. There’s a slight cynicism to it all, but then if any number of interventions and nudges weren’t made back in the early days by Fleming then the Bond we know and love to watch in films like S.P.E.C.T.R.E today probably wouldn’t be as big a deal.
For the most part, the collection is an absorbing read, littered with nuggets of entertaining revelations about the man, his most famous creation and the work that went in to making him the biggest name in spy fiction. It’s told chronologically, with just a few hops back and forward here and there for effect or to continue a particular thread, which makes it easy to follow and place in history. It’s also been constructed into chapters that relate to a particular Bond book, which again helps to give collection of letters a bit of focus to them, which they obviously had when they were first written.
Things only flag occasionally, so you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of slow patches, but they are sort of unavoidable as you get into the minutiae of a particular situation that isn’t quite as thrilling as his letters to writer pals Raymond Chandler, Somerset Maughan and Noel Coward. The book is also a little sparse in terms of contextual explanations so you might be forgiven for missing the point of a few of the letters without the necessary preamble to make them relevant within a particular timeframe.
There’s very little in the way of any attempts to tackle the more negative criticism of Ian Fleming’s writing for the James Bond stories as containing racist, sexist and misogynistic remarks or tendencies. However, what is clear is that Ian Fleming didn’t ever consider 007 as a hero at all, so any of the negatives with the character are just that. It still feels a bit like thin ice, but there is something to the concept of a writer writing a character without necessarily endorsing their actions or even liking them.
The minor criticisms aside, The Man With The Golden Typewriter is a thoroughly fascinating book and while it does a little to de-glorify James Bond it does a lot to provide some understanding for how he came to be the world’s most famous fictional secret agent. There are guns, cars and some excellent correspondences between Ian Flemming and his weird and wonderful readership, so definitely one to add to the read list if you’re a fan of either the books or the films.
The Man With The Golden Typewriter by Ian Fleming and Fergus Fleming review: 3.5/5