"Ian Fleming: The Complete Man" by Nicholas Shakespeare

Perfectly stated! So many bad reviews follow an agenda, not the actual text.


Three more American reviews have come in.

Pico Ayer in Air Mail praises the book:

…it is the crafty genius of Shakespeare’s surely definitive account to suggest that Fleming had, in spades, the upper-class Brit’s gift for concealing both his talents and his intelligence…Yet even as the scrupulously reticent soul refused to talk much about his greatest achievements, he came to be known for dreaming up a rather empty smoothy who had in fact a far less distinguished career, especially when it came to intelligence, than his maker…At some level, he produced books he could look down upon—his “great annual cowpat” is how he referred to the winter frolic he sent every year to his publisher—so he wouldn’t have to risk looking serious.

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man is spiced with delicious tidbits on every page…Shakespeare is ready to track down the names of 30 people said to have been the basis for James Bond, and to tabulate every other reference to flagellation in the novels. Best of all, he serves up a rich and fully fleshed portrait of the small world of born-to-the-manner Brits who all but controlled a quarter of the globe in the first half of the 20th century, deciding the fate of nations in their London clubs or Caribbean hideaways.

…Close friend to John le Carré and sterling biographer of Bruce Chatwin, Shakespeare knows just how to keep up with elusive characters who keep their secrets to themselves. But where le Carré created a kind of ideal father in Smiley (donnish, loyal, and honest), Fleming fashioned a fantasy alter ego. And where Chatwin was an attractive writer undone by all the lies he spun in life, Fleming comes across as a shy writer devoured by the winning character he created on the page.

James Parker in the Atlantic, who wrote contemptuously about Bond several years ago, enjoyed Fleming’s biography and found him an interest subject but couldn’t resist getting in a few digs at his work:

…The weird thing about the Bond books (it may be their secret) is that they read like the work of a gifted and faintly sociopathic fantasist-researcher—somebody with no actual experience of espionage, geopolitics, money, travel, fighting, or, indeed, humans. In fact, Fleming was worldly to a degree and, if anything, overqualified to write spy novels.

Casino Royale is an odd book: oddly written, oddly paced, and suffused with an obsessive, almost sickly sensuality…The action is mostly bungled—until the famous torture scene…And Bond is an odd character, an odd and very modern hero. An automaton and a sybarite. He is mentally efficient, almost clinically so, with an emptiness of head that anticipates Jack Reacher…But he’s also extremely fussy, American Psycho–style—about drinks, cars, what to wear in bed.

Anna Mundow in the Wall Street Journal is very positive:

From the first arresting moment in Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography Ian Fleming: The Complete Man it is clear that we are in good hands…world events might well have eclipsed personal biography. Mr. Shakespeare is so adept, however, at distilling complex history and conjuring cinematic images…that entire eras materialize in artful sketches while the portrait of Fleming acquires texture and shade with each trial and triumph.

Marriage to the abominable Ann, for instance, whose “true interest was herself,” is as riveting a drama as any wartime escapade. The creation of James Bond, occurring late in Fleming’s life, seems almost pedestrian by comparison. Summoning the concision and discipline honed at Reuters, Fleming simply wrote like a demon, flinging each completed page out of sight, until a book was finished.

…Whether airborne or underwater, trading blows or banter, the suave Bond was forever Britain as it wished itself to be. Much of the factual detail of Fleming’s life has been examined by previous biographers, notably John Pearson (The Life of Ian Fleming, 1966) and Andrew Lycett (Ian Fleming, 1995), whose work and assistance Mr. Shakespeare acknowledges…Given these previous exhumations, Mr. Shakespeare was cautious about conducting another. When invited to do so by the Fleming estate, however, he was gratified to unearth a fresh specimen. Not, he writes, the “prickly, self-centred bounder” he imagined but “another, more luminous person.” A Fleming of many contradictions consequently emerges: loving yet cruel, arrogant yet insecure, spiteful yet generous.

…this jaded cynic remained loyal to his empire, citing its “vast contribution to the health and sanity of the world.” The apparent contradiction is one of many in this remarkable biography.




Another positive review, this time from Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. Some excerpts:

Some years ago, I gave a talk to the graduating seniors at a local school. Whatever I said that night — probably something about the importance of books and reading — has utterly vanished from my memory except for three words. During the question period, a young woman stood up and asked, “Mr. Dirda, what fictional character would you most like to be?” A number of possibilities flashed through my mind, and I almost said Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, because then I’d be married to Elizabeth Bennet. But instead, I put on my most sardonic smile and silkily whispered into the microphone, “Bond, James Bond.”

…One of the strengths — or, arguably, weaknesses — of Shakespeare’s 821-page biography is its length. If not exactly too much of a good thing, there’s always a little more than seems necessary. Take the long central section devoted to Fleming’s wartime intelligence work. While documentation is sketchy, since the relevant records were either destroyed or remain classified, Shakespeare deduces that Fleming was far more than the deskbound assistant to the head of Naval Intelligence and quite probably the department’s guiding mastermind. In these chapters, he describes in detail espionage strategies, meetings with American spymasters and botched operations — all of which may well be catnip to students of military history but will send other readers off for a cat nap…

Overall, though, Ian Fleming: The Complete Man is a dazzling, even dizzying achievement…Again and again, Shakespeare’s biography reminds us of what a tight little island Britain could be for those of its privileged class. If you’ve read any of the books about the Brideshead generation, you’ll find many of the same people cropping up in Fleming’s life…As with his excellent biography of the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, Shakespeare has produced one of those books you can happily live in for weeks. It will deservedly become the standard life of Ian Fleming, replacing a fine one by Andrew Lycett that appeared almost 30 years ago.

Bond devotees, however, should be aware that there are no close analyses of the novels, and the only films discussed are the early ones with which Fleming was involved. But Shakespeare certainly recognizes that Bond’s creator, especially when young, behaved much like his hero toward women — in fact, much worse. He regularly comes across as a callous, sexist jerk…A far more likable, even mellow Fleming appears in his letters, edited by his nephew Fergus Fleming for the book The Man With the Golden Typewriter (2015). The creator of James Bond could be remarkably courteous in answering correspondents…

Do the original James Bond thrillers stand up to rereading in the 21st century?
All too often, the only version of 007 most people are familiar with is the one created by Hollywood. Until the humorless, even unpleasant, albeit gripping Daniel Craig films, most of the Bond movies could be likened to commedia dell’arte, drawing on a set formula and softening the violence with cheeky quips, double entendres and even a weird campiness…The movies remain, above all, pure eye candy through their glamorous settings, expertly choreographed action sequences and one gorgeous “Bond girl” after another. Not that Bond himself isn’t the ultimate heartthrob. As I once heard a woman sigh, most men are boys, Sean Connery is a man.

Over the years, the movies have paid less and less attention to the Fleming thrillers from which they borrow their titles. In my experience, the original books — a dozen novels and two short-story collections — remain compulsive page-turners, while being grounded in their time, the Cold War era of the 1950s. Bond is nothing if not patriotic and deeply conservative. In Casino Royale, he maintains that “women were for recreation,” while in Live and Let Die the Black characters are largely stereotypes. Whether working for SMERSH or SPECTRE, Fleming’s villains invariably turn out to be “foreigners"…Still, the best novels — Casino Royale, From Russia, With Love, Dr. No, Moonraker and Goldfinger — surmount any occasional drawbacks, energized as they are by elements from Fleming’s own life as well as by the speed and freshness of his prose. Who else could make a long chapter about a bridge game (in Moonraker) so riveting? Little wonder that poet Philip Larkin spoke of Fleming’s “mesmerizing readability.” What’s more, though the books emphasize action and violence, they don’t utterly shy away from elegance and lyricism, or even the occasional philosophical reflection:

“Mania, my dear Mister Bond, is as priceless as genius. Dissipation of energy, fragmentation of vision, loss of momentum, the lack of follow-through — these are the vices of the herd.” Doctor No sat slightly back in his chair. “I do not possess these vices. I am, as you correctly say, a maniac — a maniac, Mister Bond, with a mania for power. That” — the black holes glittered blankly at Bond through the contact lenses — “is the meaning of my life. That is why I am here. That is why you are here. That is why here exists.”

Those last three sentences, and particularly the last, demonstrate that when Ian Fleming is on point, nobody does it better.


I’m about 130 pages in and find it riveting. It’s a smooth, accessible read.