Short stories are tricky things for me. Books usually take around 30 pages to grab my interest. If I’m not thoroughly hooked by the 50th page or so I know it’s going to be a rough slog to get through. So with short stories where the author may only have 30 pages total to tell their tale I need something that will hook my interest immediately. I tend to have problems with short story compilations featuring different authors. The disparate styles are jarring to me and I have a harder time completing those collections despite the shorter length. I am much more comfortable with collections of the same author, especially Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. I find I can slide from each story into the next with very little acclimatization period. Such is the case with the collection of Ian Fleming short stories, Quantum of Solace.
Released as a tie in to the 2008 film of the same name, this collection – like most James Bond stories – has nothing in common with the movie other than the title. For the first time all of Fleming’s short stories are gathered in one volume. Reading the table of contents it is immediately apparent how many Bond films found their names from these short stories. “From a View to a Kill”, “For Your Eyes Only”, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”, and “Quantum of Solace” have all been used for movie titles. In addition to those are 4 other stories, the essay “007 in New York”, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, “Property of a Lady” and “Risico”. Incidentally, the latter story was the basis for the film For Your Eyes Only.
Each story is different in tone and execution as well as setting. “From a View to a Kill” finds Bond called in to solve the mystery of a dead NATO courier in Germany. In “For Your Eyes Only”, the head of English secret service, M, sends Bond to the backwoods of Vermont to assassinate a Cuban national responsible for the murder of a close friend. “The Hildebrand Rarity” has Bond on holiday and mixed up in the affairs of an abusive Texan, his terrorized wife, and the search for the rare fish at the center of the narrative. “Octopussy” changes the focus from Bond and puts it squarely on his prey; a petty war criminal tracked down in the Bahamas by Bond. The entire story is from the quarry’s perspective and while the character is a bad guy, he is so eaten up with guilt that you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.
For me the stand out story is the most unique among the group, the titular “Quantum of Solace”. This short story finds Bond at a boring dinner party in the Bahamas. Bond and the governor are making idle conversation after the other party goers have left. The night is getting late and the 2 are engaged in small talk. Bond makes mention of the benefits of dating a stewardess since in his line of work he sees them most often. This leads the governor to tell Bond a story of an old friend who did just that. This chilling tale of love gone irrevocably wrong will stick with you long after the other stories have faded. Even Bond is shaken by the story of a cuckold’s revenge on the wife who betrayed him. The story is utterly unlike anything you would associate with a James Bond story but it is absolutely enthralling nonetheless. This is a dark tale and terrifically well written. The strange title of the story is explained as follows:
“Quantum of Solace – the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself.” – James Bond
Each of these stories, and the other 4 as well, are all supremely well written and exciting. Fleming is a master of using precise wording to perfectly describe characters, settings, and events without going overboard with flowery language. He rarely gets in the way of his own narratives so the reader is effortlessly transported to the exotic locales and experiences the action and adventure right along with Bond.
With each book I read by Fleming I am continually impressed by his sheer talent. I have read before that the movies, especially the latter Connery and most of the Roger Moore outings, were positioned almost as parodies of the outsized super-agent genre with each one trying to trump the last in terms of outlandish stunts. The original books and stories are suspenseful, imaginative, and serious affairs that deserve to be experienced in their intended form. I’ve been a fan of the movies all my life, some more than others admittedly. Now that I’ve been reading the books it’s like discovering the character anew. Rather than the super human quip spewing killing machine portrayed in the movies the James Bond of Fleming’s works is a methodical, cautious, and professional assassin that does the dirty jobs not because he likes it but because he is good at it.
And nobody does it better.