Continuing my slightly out-of-order journey through Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, I just completed Thunderball.
Thunderball is a pretty pivotal book in the literary Bond series because of its introduction of SPECTRE and Ernest Stavro Blofeld. Like many of the early Bond movies, the movie version of this book is very close to the book version.
The book starts comically enough with Bond being sent by M (who is on a health-kick) to Shrublands – an all-natural health spa. Apparently there is a good in-story on this. Fleming had been accused by critics that his books were too immoral. The whole Shrublands portion is comically lampooned by Fleming – and later in the book makes a big point of pointing out that Blofeld doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, rarely eats and is apparently a virgin. Take that do-gooders! Being ‘healthy’ will just make you frustrated and a sexless evil villain! Anyway, while at Shrublands, Bond unwittingly has a run-in with a SPECTRE member while trying everything to avoid the rigors of the food and health treatments.
Upon returning to duty, it is learned that SPECTRE has stolen two nuclear weapons via hijacking a training flight and landing it in the waters of the Bahamas. Bond is sent on a hunch to check out the possible Shrublands guest which leads him to the Bahamas. While there, Bond pairs up with Felix and learns of a ‘treasure hunting’ expedition that has all the right equipment for the kind of recovery operations that an operation like SPECTRE’s might need. Further suspicions are aroused by their overly-squeaky clean crew and sailors headed by Emilio Largo. While keeping up the public treasure-hunting facade, Largo is actually SPECTRE’s #2, and in charge of the recovery and delivery of the nuclear devices to their targets. In the process of investigating, Bond meets Largo’s mistress Domino who actually snubs Bond’s first advances. We meet the ruthless SPECTRE organization that kills it’s own dissenting members and get to see Bond at his trademark card-table antics when he takes a pile of money from Largo while sizing him up. The story rises to a head as the clock ticks down and they chase Largo’s boat to the target and get into one big underwater battle with everything at stake. It’s non-stop action, sinister characters, and Fleming’s usual vivid descriptions that make this a great read.
While there are far too many lucky coincidences that lead Bond down the right track, this is still a great (and a little terrifying) story. Despite it’s grandiose plot and characters, it is handled very believably. Honestly, many people have claimed that such a hijacking/nuclear threat was, and still is, just a matter of time. While today it is more likely someone would get their hands on such a device from the fallen Soviet Union, or from a middle-east country, the threat is still very real today. Even if the device stolen were fairly small yield – it would be more than enough to destroy the heart of most US cities and leave countless dead and irradiated. It’s a terrifying and real threat in our world even today.
Overall, I think this book steals the top prize from my other top pick of the series – Moonraker. The writing by this point in Fleming’s career has gotten the kinks worked out, and the characters are very palpable, unique, and much more believable. I give this a solid A and a highly recommend rating for anyone that just wants to pick one or two of the original Bond series to read.