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The SPECTRE Trilogy concludes
on January 27, 2002
Taking place nine months after the tragic ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice was the last of Ian Fleming's truly completed Bond books. (The Man With The Golden Gun, released after Fleming's untimely death, is considered by many to be only a first draft.) It also served as the conclusion to the trilogy, beginning in Thunderball and continuing through OHMSS, that detailed James Bond's epic battle against Ernest Stavro Blofeld, founder of SPECTRE and essentially the anti-Bond. (Blofeld, we are reminded, refrains from almost all excessive behavior -- even being described as a virgin in Thunderball though he later somehow contracted syphillis in the later books. Of course, while he doesn't smoke or drink, he does seem to spend a lot of time thinking up ways to blow up the world.) While Fleming's prose is better than ever in this novel (showing his uncanny ability to mix sophisticated urbanity with hardboiled cynicism), its still somewhat of a disappointing end to the trilogy.
The plot does start out quite promisingly. Nine months following the death of his wife, James Bond has sunk into an alcoholic wave of depression. M, rather cold hearted in this book after being humanized in OHMSS, comes close to terminating his service but instead, gives Bond a mission designed to respark his love of espionage. Bond is sent to Japan to try to convince the head of the Japanese secret service -- Tiger Tanaka -- to ally himself with the English. These sections of the book are very strong. Bond's mission is believable, the plot (which is quite cynical while detailing how even allies like America and England are actually rivals when it comes to espionage) is compelling, and Tiger Tanaka is one of Fleming's strongest connections. The scenes in which Bond learns about Japanese culture (while containing the well-meaning condascension that of which Fleming -- like most writers of that era regardless of genre or nationality -- was often guilty) are well-written and actually quite interesting. Quite late in the book, Tanaka recruits Bond to investigate the Suicide Gardens of the mysterious Dr. Shatterhand (again, a very promising premise -- Shatterhand basically has constructed a garden of poisonous plants designed to encourage visitors to commit suicide). This investigation leads to Bond's final battle with Blofeld and it is here that the book, unfortunately, disappoints. Blofeld feels like a tacked-on addition and, unlike the previous books, his plot makes absolutely no sense. (Fleming even admits this when Bond concludes that Blofeld's gone insane -- however, his scheme is so ludicrous that it actually detracts from his status as a worthy antagonist to Bond.) Whereas the previous books made Blofeld as fascinating a character as Bond, in this book both of them feel a little bit bland and as a result, their final battle doesn't carry the emotional wallop one might have hoped for.
However, in Fleming's defense, it should be noted that he was quite ill when he wrote this book and it is a testament to his often maligned talents that, even while ailing, he still managed to create a book that -- while uneven as a whole -- still contained some fantastically strong early scenes and a character as vivid as Tiger Tanaka. No, this book is not perfect or even one of the best Bond novels but it will still be enoyed by fans of the original Fleming novels.