There’s a tendency to underrate the perceptive capacities of thriller writers. You get so bound up in the pace and action of a plot that observations that would give you pause for thought in a more pedestrian work are left for dust.
I’ve always thought Ian Fleming’s insight into human character to be especially fine, which isn’t to say he doesn’t have his shortcomings. Of course he loves to stereotype, and many of his characters (particularly his villains) are awfully cartoonish. He has an antiquated and rather unappealing habit of marking out ugliness of character with physical deformity, and the less said about his portrayal of homosexuals, perhaps, the better. (Though I was delighted to read that apparently at one stage he wanted his best mate Noel Coward to play James Bond in the films. Can you imagine?)
Public opinion of his writing has also been irrevocably tarnished by that infamous line in Casino Royale: ‘The conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape’. A thoroughly detestable line to modern ears, but rather unfair to tar Fleming himself with, I think, whatever the revelations over the years about his own relationships. Part of the point of fiction is that the character is not the author, even and perhaps especially when that character is James Bond. Fleming’s Bond is not a kind or noble man, though his cruel streak has rarely made it as far as the big screen. In fact, in the Bond novels, one rarely sees the world through the eyes of good men and women, but that doesn’t make their notions any less interesting or valuable.
I bring all this up because I was recently reading From Russia with Love. In my last job, we had a lady come in to give us a day-long course on ‘persuading and influencing people’, which was more interesting than it sounds, but could have benefited from the inclusion of the following passage from the novel. It’s from an internal monologue by Kronsteen, Moscow chess champion and head of the planning department at SMERSH.
‘…Nor did the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have a place in his vocabulary. To him all people were chess pieces. He was only interested in their reactions to the movements of other pieces. To foretell their reactions, which was the greater part of his job, one had to understand their individual characteristics. Their basic instincts were immutable. Self-preservation, sex and the instinct of the herd – in that order. Their temperaments could be sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric or melancholic. The temperament of an individual would largely decide the comparative strength of his emotions and his sentiments. Character would greatly depend on upbringing and, whatever Pavlov and the Behaviourists might say, to a certain extent on the character of the parents. And, of course, people’s lives and behaviour would be partly conditioned by physical strengths and weaknesses.’