I never quite got round to reading Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana until recently. It is a story about a vacuum cleaner salesman, Wormold, who lives in Havana, whose adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that dumbfounds him. So when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income; he is tempted. In return for the boost to his finances all he has to do is file a few reports. Wormold, thus, ends up working for MI6. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place. Espionage, murder, torture, poisoning, embezzlement and nail-biting tension are the elements that bubble away in the cauldron of this classic of the spy genre. It is also a love story of sorts. However, you could be misled into thinking that the book is just another po-faced thriller engineered to keep readers on the edge of their seats. But it’s not. In actual fact, the book is a brilliant satire of that particular genre and parts of it are hilarious.
Faced with the practical difficulties of spying, when you are stuck in a retail outlet all day and haven’t a clue how to go about the task, Wormold starts sending fake reports to London about a secret installation that is being built in the mountains of Cuba. He invents agents, puts them on the payroll, and purloins the salaries of these fictitious employees to pay for his daughter’s excessive retail therapy. However, his reports prove so thorough and interesting, that a small team of helpers is sent from MI6 headquarters in London to work for Wormold in Havana and to set up a station there for him to aid in the work of spying on the enemy. Wormold then has the problem of how to keep his imaginary operatives from ever meeting anyone in the team. For, although none of the names he has given London, are actually agents, he does furnish names of actual people living in Havana, by taking them from the membership roster of an exclusive country club.
I used to think that the James Bond novels and short stories were merely mass-produced potboilers that were churned out by Ian Fleming in order to keep him in the sybaritic lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. Then I decided to read some of the books. Turns out he’s actually a very good writer in terms of his descriptions and plotting. What I can’t swallow, though, is some of the preposterous detail he includes in a story with the hope that readers are so engrossed that they won’t notice that the villains he has come up with are like stick figures. Bond himself is not difficult to work out. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures. Sex and violence seem to be the main ones, which is why the books are so easily adaptable to the big screen, I guess.
I recently finished reading “Doctor No.” I’d read it before years ago but this time I marveled anew at both Fleming’s skill in description and his ineptitude at creating believable villains. As he is recovering from being poisoned on a previous case, James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two MI6 operatives. His superior, M, views it as a rest cure, but Bond, it seems, is determined to whip the whole mission up into a cause célèbre that will prove to M that he still has what it takes to be a pain in the ass to master criminals the world over. Archvillain Doctor No has an installation on the island of Crab Key for mining guano – yes, you read that right, bird-shit-shoveling. He is very secretive and anyone who goes to the island is never seen or heard from ever again. Predictably, Bond goes to the island. There he meets the love interest, a young lady with the unlikely name of Honeychile Rider, Honey for short. Among her many accomplishments she seems, for no apparent reason, to have developed a severe clothing allergy, because throughout the book she tediously appears in various situations wearing various combinations of nothingness and scraps of cloth, much to the delight of Bond and no doubt the reading public. After being chased around the Island of Shit by an outlandish flame-throwing armored swamp buggy in the shape of a dragon (sigh), Bond and Honey are captured by the mysterious Doctor No. No treats them to a sumptuous dinner, during which he regales them with his own brand of megalomania, which includes ruining the U.S. nuclear arms program, developing his own weapons and, of course, ruling the world.