The Hero: James Bond; The Bond Girl: Gala Brand; The Villain: Hugo Drax; Supporting Characters: “M”, Commander Vallance, Moneypenny, Loelia Ponsby; Locations covered: London, U.K. First Published: 1955
Moonraker is the third of the Fleming Bond novels, and one of the best. As a “Principal Officer in the Civil Service”, 007 makes £1500 a year, and lives in a “comfortable flat” off the Kings Road, London, with his devoted housekeeper May (who cooks a wicked breakfast).
In Moonraker, Bond has 8 years to go before he is automatically taken off the OO list and given a staff job at headquarters. “At least eight tough assignments. Probably sixteen. Perhaps twenty-four. Too many.”
Moonraker begins not with a mission, but a suspicion. Sir Hugo Drax is a soldier from Liverpool. He was wounded in the war – half his face was blown away, and he had almost complete amnesia. After his discharge, he cornered the market in columbite, a metal with an extraordinarily high melting point that is essential to the manufacturing of jet engines. He became a multimillionaire who gave generously to charity and spent £10 million of his own money to build an atomic rocket (the “Moonraker”) with a range that would cover nearly every capital in Europe – “the immediate answer to anyone who would try to atom-bomb London.” He is extremely popular, and, with his work on the Moonraker, a national hero. However, M has concerns about Drax who is a member of M`s club, Blades. It seems that Drax cheats at bridge. A scandal is brewing. In 1950s London, about the only crime that can smash a man of Society is card cheating.
It turns out that Bond was trained in card sharping before the war, and would be the ideal person to expose Drax. A high-stakes bridge game ensues, and Fleming goes into a detailed description of every hand (a device he would use later when describing the golf game between Bond and Auric Goldfinger). At the end of the evening, Drax is down £15,000 and advises Bond to “spend the money quickly.”
As Bond begins to delve further into Drax`s operations, more questions are raised. All of the people working on the Moonraker project are Germans, which, relatively soon after the end of the war, naturally makes the British nervous. Drax`s explanation is that the men worked on Germany`s V2 rockets, and were the best rocket scientists in the world. There are only two non-Germans on the site – a Major Tallon from the Ministry of Supply, appointed as security officer, and Gala Brand, Drax`s personal secretary. The night before, one of Drax`s men shot Tallon in a pub, then shouted “Heil!” and shot himself. Supposedly, the men were involved in a love triangle with Brand.
There are further complications. Brand is a policewoman with the Scotland Yard Special Branch, planted on the site to keep an eye on Drax. MI6 gave a security clearance to the man who shot Tallon. As a result, the operation is dumped in MI6`s (and Bond`s) lap, even though the story unfolds entirely in Britain.
Bond stays in Tallon`s room on the military base where the Moonraker is being readied for a test launch. He discovers charts kept by Tallon showing the location of something out in the water – but what? It`s clear that, whatever it was, it was something that Tallon was not supposed to see, and he wasn`t killed because he was in love with Brand.
At this point, the plot starts to move along rapidly, and it would spoil the read to go too much further. Suffice it to say that Drax does not have Britain`s best interests at heart and it`s up to Bond and Brand to stop him.
Moonraker shares many traits with the other Fleming novels. The plots tend to unfold slowly at first, with time given to understand the motivation of the villain. Meals are described in meticulous detail. Bond is capable of downing an incredible number of drinks, waking up a few hours later with no trace of a hangover. There are usually exciting car chases. Bond`s past and his talents (such as the card sharping and the fact that he is fluently bilingual in German) come out slowly, one fact at a time, over the course of the books. Happily, the women are more like the Bond girls in the recent films, rather than the earlier ones. They are strong-willed, intelligent and self reliant, and these are precisely the qualities that Bond finds attractive in them. Unhappily, the books also show that Fleming was a racist and an anti-Semite, although probably no more so than other British men of his class at the time.
Moonraker is an excellent introduction to the Fleming canon, even if it does not offer exotic locales. It is a well-paced, interesting thriller that provides Bond with more than enough challenges and the reader with more than enough excitement.