Octopussy & The Living Daylights was the last Ian Fleming James Bond novel, published shortly after his death in 1966. It’s not actually a novel as such; nor is it the pairing of two novellas that it’s sometimes generously referred to as. It’s actually just a pair of fair-sized short stories cobbled together to squeeze a few more pennies out of the passing James Bond novel range.
Running at a brisk 95 pages, the 1966 edition featured only the titular two stories, but later editions bulked out the content with the short stories Property of a Lady and 007 in New York. My copy is an original 1966 hardback, albeit a well-thumbed ex-library copy still adorned with a forbidding red stamp declaring SOUTH TYNESIDE LIBRARIES – WITHDRAWN FROM STOCK. I digress; on with the review.
The first story in the collection is Octopussy, which is barely a James Bond story at all. It tells the tale of a corrupt British Army Major, whose shady behaviour during the Second World War has left him rich but living in exile. In poor health and self-destructively ignoring his doctor’s advice, he spends his days smoking, drinking and scuba diving. Then an agent of the Secret Service turns up and tells him that his past misdeeds have been discovered and he’ll have to return to Great Britain to face the music.
The agent is, of course, James Bond – though it might as well not be for all his relevance to the plot. Basically he’s just the bloke who comes and tells Major Dexter Smythe that Her Majesty’s Government are onto him. We’re given very little insight into the agent that might set him up as Bond and if we weren’t actually told his name he could very easily just be A. N. Agent, without any detriment to the narrative, which is entirely about the decline and fall of a disgraced old soldier and not at all about any British secret agent licensed to kill who might spring to mind.
Octopussy is a good little character piece and an interesting short story, but in truth it’s got bugger-all to do with James Bond. You get the distinct impression when reading it that Fleming might have originally written Octopussy as Bondless, and just added his best-loved character to make it more saleable. Any paucity of 007 in the first half of this book, however, is more than made up for in its second instalment, The Living Daylights.
In The Living Daylights, the British Government are anticipating the defection of a double-agent known only as Number 272, but they fear that the Soviets will try and assassinate him when he attempts to cross from East to West Germany. Consequently, Bond is charged by M to act as counter-assassin and to take out the Soviet gunman before he can assassinate 272. Holed up in a hotel room overlooking the border, waiting for the moment when he will have to act, Bond uncharacteristically allows his mind to wander as he becomes interested in a female cellist that he spies through the lens of his sniper rifle.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the 1987 Timothy Dalton Bond film which shares the name The Living Daylights, utilises the short story almost in its entirety before branching off at various tangents. Of course, Octopussy was also ‘adapted’ for the screen, but the 1983 Roger Moore film shares almost nothing with its source material apart from its title and the vague suggestion that the Major Dexter Smythe character may have been the titular female villain’s father.
The Living Daylights is a lot more satisfying as James Bond fare than Octopussy; it has everything that you expect from our favourite secret agent, including an early briefing from M. It also allows a somewhat queasy insight into the workings of 007’s brain as he considers attending a nearby brothel as a possible method of killing time! Both of these stories are distinctly of their generation and this edition’s imprint of Octopussy uses certain outdated diving terminology that would be considered unsuitable in a modern novel. I’d be interested to know if the word in question remains in modern editions.
Octopussy & The Living Daylights is a curiosity rather than a page-turner. It can easily be read in one indulgent sitting and is probably best done so. I don’t think anyone would ever claim it as the best Bond novel and I imagine it works a lot better as a short story collection with the two other stories I mentioned earlier. Definitely worth a look, but a long, long way from being essential James Bond.
This edition of ‘Octopussy & The Living Daylights’ was published by Jonathan Cape (1966). Current UK edition published by Vintage Classics.