ElCicco #CBR5 Review #28: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley


The Spy Who Loved is the biography of Polish socialite Christine Skarbek who became British spy Christine Granville during World War II. While Christine’s life is fascinating in and of itself, this biography also reveals the difficult road of women who served in non-traditional roles during the war as well as highlighting Poland’s tragic history in the 20th century.

Mulley has clearly done an enormous amount of research on her subject, who certainly didn’t make it easy. Granville left very little behind, and the men who served with her and loved her made a pact not to reveal details of her life and to protect her memory after her death. Mulley tracked down sources written by contemporaries and was able to access personal archives as well as interview some who knew her. When her sources differ on the details of an event, Mulley goes to great pains to present the reader with all the conflicting stories before offering her own opinion as to what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether or not Ian Fleming and Christine were acquainted or involved with one another, and perhaps Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale is based on Christine. Or not. One of my criticisms of this book is that it gets bogged down in details that could have been relegated to a footnote. Another is that the writing is sometimes repetitive. As a result, the story can drag along.

The best chapters are those that deal with Christine in action. When the war broke out in Poland, she was in South Africa with her husband. They made their way to England and Christine was the first woman involved in British special operations (spy stuff). Her goal was to get back to Poland to fight the Nazis and win back Poland’s freedom. The missions she supported were thrilling to read about. It was also interesting to note that because Christine was in Poland on behalf of Britain, the Poles who supported the government-in-exile were suspicious of her and wouldn’t work with her. This led to frustrating complications for Christine that had an impact on her work throughout the war.

As the Nazis conquered Eastern Europe, Christine in her lover/lifelong friend Andrzej Kowerski managed to keep ahead, working their way through the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean before reaching Cairo. Honestly, this section of the book is somewhat tedious but it does show how Christine struggled to get placed on missions despite her exemplary and daring track record. Eventually, she wa
s sent to occupied France, where the story gets very interesting again. By all accounts, Christine had a magnetic personality, not just winning over many men as lovers, but also talking her way around the Gestapo and even charming their guard dogs. She was a fearless and courageous patriot, who seemed to thrive on danger and adventure.

Once the war was over, Christine’s treatment by the British was shameful. She struggled to get citizenship, even when being offered some of the highest service awards for her contribution to the war effort, and she never really found meaningful work that would make the most of her formidable talents. Her tragic death in 1952 came just as she was about to move from London back to Europe.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, and I think that Christine’s story is amazing and inspiring, those who would like to learn more about women’s roles in intelligence during WWII might find a more accessible read in Sarah Helm’s 2006 work A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Helm is a journalist and seems better able than historians or biographers to cut through the detail to put a readable story together (her book is longer than Mulley’s but seemed shorter to me). Plus, the women and men whose stories are featured in Helm’s book are some of the same people you meet in Mulley’s. Just not Christine.

TylerDFC CBR5 #4 Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories by Ian Fleming

quantum of solaceShort 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.

TylerDFC CBR5 #3 Live and Let Die by Iam Fleming

live and let dieJames Bond returns in Ian Fleming’s second novel, Live and Let Die. This time we find James traveling to New York City to track down the source of mysterious gold coins that have started to flood the market. The trail leads to a Harlem kingpin named Mr. Big, a hulking giant of a man, who controls all criminal action on the eastern seaboard. With the help of CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond tracks down Mr. Big only to find that Bond is the one who is being hunted. With the beautiful fortune teller Solitaire in tow, Bond escapes Mr. Big time and time again until the final confrontation on a secluded island in Jamaica where every passing second means the difference between life and a watery grave.

Live and Let Die portrays a more likable Bond than the cold and hard man at the center of Casino Royale. Even though Live and Let Die was written before publication of the first novel it is evident that Fleming actively worked to make Bond a more likable character. While still an assassin, now Bond works to protect Solitaire from danger and his affection for both her and Felix Leiter are evident throughout. Rather than the action heavy adventures the movies tend to be, the novels are more easily classified as thrillers. Time after time Bond and companions narrowly escape attempts on their lives as they continue to search for the source of the gold coins. There are moments of pure suspense, in particular a night time undersea crossing of a lagoon that makes the reader feel all the fear and dread that Bond is experiencing right along with him.

Live and Let Die was written and set in the 1950’s and the attitude at the time towards black people is unavoidable in the narrative. References abound to Negroes, negroid, Negresses, and harsher racial epithets. The main villain, Mr. Big, is black as are all of his henchman and informants. A large chunk of the narrative takes place in Harlem and Jamaica and nearly every adversary Bond and Felix go up against is black. The interesting thing is that the anachronistic descriptors are not invoked to cast aspersion but rather as adjectives. One chapter is titled “Ni**er Heaven”; the title meant to describe a jazz club in Harlem that Bond and Felix are casing for Mr. Big. It’s jarring to see something that we deem as hate speech used in the narrative so nonchalantly but Bond and Felix never talk down to any of the black characters and some of them end up aiding the heroes. I bring it up because it is an element of the novel that can and, to be honest, should make modern readers uncomfortable. Live and Let Die is not a racist book and Bond is not a racist character but both the character and the novel are of their times.

One of the fun things about reading the novels is reading scenes in their original form that has since shown up piece meal in the movies. At one point there is a shootout in a large aquarium warehouse. This same sequence was used in the Timothy Dalton Bond film License to Kill. One of the big scenes in the novel is two characters being keel hauled through a reef bed, the same scene occurs in the Roger Moore film For Your Eyes Only. Interestingly, the movie adaptation of Live and Let Die uses very few of the elements from the book unfortunately. The characters of Solitaire and Mr. Big carry over but they do not closely resemble their written counterparts. Given that the movie is, to be blunt, not good this probably is for the best.

This is the second full length Bond novel I have read and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Once you get past the anachronistic (to us at least) language and social mores the novel proves to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #2: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first novel featuring British secret agent James Bond. Though I enjoyed the book, it is very much a product of its time. Some of those artifacts were charming, but many more weren’t. Worse, though book is only 181 pages, pacing problems make it feel much longer. Continue reading