(Jonathan Cape, 1955)
Just one of the twelve full-length James Bond novels is set entirely in the UK, and this is the one. There is another aspect in which Moonraker is unique, and we’ll come to it in a moment.
It is hard ever to review a Bond book without giving a big spoiler alert, despite the outlines at least of the various plots being widely known. At any rate, consider yourself alerted.
The story opens in London, at the height of the Cold War. Sir Hugo Drax, an industrialist of uncertain provenance, is a national hero. He has pledged his fortune and engineering expertise to provide Britain with what we would probably now call an intermediate range ballistic missile, the nuclear-armed Moonraker of the title.
For the establishment, there is, however, a fly in the ointment. As the head of MI6, ‘M’, explains to Bond: ‘Sir Hugo Drax cheats at cards.’ He is bound to be caught and exposed, and the resulting scandal may well lead to his withdrawing the offer of the Moonraker, with dire consequences for national security.
As a first step to trying to contain this potential mess, M takes Bond to his St James’s gaming club, Blades, to observe Drax in action at the card table and confirm that he is ‘helping himself to the odds’.
Bond twigs that Drax is employing one of the oldest tricks in the book, using a highly polished cigarette case as a mirror to give him a look-see at the cards. Bond out-cheats the cheat, to Drax’s fury, and ends up winning £15,000 – more than £390,000 in today’s money.
M and the club chairman, Lord Basildon, rather hope this will be the end of the matter and that Drax, knowing he has been paid back in his own coin, will behave himself thereafter. And indeed, there matters may have rested were it not for a double killing at the Moonraker base on the Kent coast. One of the workers at the site marched into a nearby pub, shot dead the security officer, Major Tallon, and then shot himself.
His last words suggested it was an argument over a woman, Gala Brand, supposedly private secretary to Drax but in reality a Special Branch officer keeping a watchful eye on the industrialist for her masters at Scotland Yard.
Fleming had a tricky job explaining why MI6, in the shape of Bond, should be sent down to the Moonraker site both to investigate the deaths and to replace Tallon as security officer, given the Secret Service has no domestic jurisdiction. The excuse given by M is that the service had been responsible for the original vetting of the Moonraker workers and ‘we’ve got the dossiers on all of them’. Mm, that the best you can do Ian?
Anyway, Bond heads for the site, just outside Dover, and dinner with Sir Hugo Drax:
‘Ah, my dear fellow,’ said Drax, boisterously, striding forward to meet him and shaking him cordially by the hand. ‘So we meet again. And so soon. Didn’t realise you were a ruddy spy for my Ministry or I’d have been more careful about playing cards against you.’
I’ve long held that, when 12 or 13 years old, I read the Bond books for the sex scenes and, in adult life, for the loving descriptions of delicious meals and excellent drinks in beautiful surroundings, but at no time was I much interested in all the ‘I am going to kill you, Mr Bond’ stuff. That’s true, as far as it goes. But I do have a separate fascination with Fleming’s villains – Mr Big, Dr No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the rest.
In this regard, Drax is of the highest quality. He is tall, broad and loud, with red hair, a red moustache and protruding teeth. He sweats freely. However:
The general effect of the face … was flamboyant. It put Bond in mind of a ring-master at a circus.
Installed at the Moonraker base, Bond is torn between deprecating Drax’s boorishness and admiring his energy and vision. The Moonraker is ‘one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen’, 007 tells Drax.
He felt a glow of admiration and almost of reverence for this man and his majestic achievement. How could he ever have been put off by Drax’s childish behaviour at the card-table? Even the greatest men have their weaknesses.
But Bond is convinced there is more to the killing of Tallon than meets the eye, and comes to suspect there are wrong’uns on the base, perhaps working against Drax and the Moonraker project. He is half-right, in that there are plenty of wrong’uns. However, Drax is wrong’un-in-chief, as Tallon seemed to have spotted, or be about to.
Before this comes to light, Bond, naturally, turns his thoughts to Gala Brand:
That innocent, desirable girl, he reminded himself, is an extremely efficient policewoman. She knows how to kick, and where; she can break my arm probably more easily and quickly than I can break hers, and at least half of her belongs to the Special Branch … Of course … there is always the other half.
These martial qualities are of little immediate help when, simultaneously, Drax discovers she is spying on him and she realises the Moonraker’s pending test flight is nothing of the sort. In fact, the instrumentation in the nose cone has been replaced by an atomic warhead, supplied by the USSR, and the target is London. Drax and his henchmen are Germans, seeking revenge for the defeat of the Third Reich.
Gala made a last effort to understand … The thin needle of the rocket. Dropping fast as light out of a clear sky. The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
However, she and Bond manage, inevitably, to foil the plot, although sitting in M’s office afterwards, 007 reflects that it was a close-run thing.
How nearly there might have been nothing now but the distant clang of ambulance bells beneath a lurid black and orange sky, the stench of burning, the screams of people still trapped in the buildings.
It would have happened, too, had it not been for a string of apparently trivial events, starting with Drax’s unsporting behaviour at the card table. Reflecting on this, 007 hazards a somewhat un-Bond like suggestion of Divine Providence.
All that would have come about … but for a whole pattern of tiny circumstances, a whole pattern of chance.
Superficially, one of the more improbable premises of Moonraker is the notion of a millionaire building a military rocket off his own bat. Not really, at that time. For example, three companies produced rival versions of the nuclear V-bomber: Valiant, Victor and Vulcan.
Far less likely is that the Kremlin would entrust an atomic warhead to someone like Drax, not least because, even if he really does use it on London as opposed to somewhere nearer the Socialist Motherland (not impossible, given Drax is avenging a defeat in which the Russians played maybe the biggest role), how will the Americans react?
The first suspicion of the White House, on learning of the destruction of London, would be the correct one – the Russians did it.
No Bond novel, one would have thought, would be complete without 007 either sleeping with his love interest during the narrative or at least heading verifiably for the sack with her as the story closes. And, duty done, he and Gala are told to take plenty of leave, all expenses paid.
Bond plans to take her to a French farmhouse for a spot of comment est votre pere, but it is not to be. She tells Bond she will, the following afternoon, be marrying her intended, a fellow copper.
He held out his hand.
He touched her for the last time and then they turned away from each other and walked off into their different lives.
That is the second unique feature of Moonraker – 007 doesn’t get his leg over.