James Bond investigates a popular self-made millionaire with surgically enhanced looks, an interest in rockets, and a relentless, larger-than-life personality.
No, not Elon Musk, but the parallels intrigue. This mogul is Hugo Drax, a man of mysterious origin who gifts Britain with the “Moonraker”, the country’s first nuclear missile program.
With the government’s blessing, Drax begins construction in an isolated compound near Dover. All goes well until the security chief dies under curious circumstances. With the maiden test launch on the horizon, sabotage fears abound. This triggers an unusual arrangement where Bond steps in as the new security head.
Fleming sets this up with a terrific prologue where M invites Bond to his private club after suspecting Drax of cheating at cards. Bond susses out Drax’s trick and bleeds him for fifteen-thousand pounds. This section proffers some of the book’s most memorable lines.
A Bond-ism on shaving:
Then he went into the bathroom and had a quick shower. Before leaving the bathroom he examined his face in the glass and decided that he had no intention of sacrificing a lifetime prejudice by shaving twice in one day.
Another on sprinkling pepper atop vodka:
‘There’s often quite a lot of fusel oil on the surface of this stuff – at least there used to be when it was badly distilled. Poisonous. In Russia, where you get a lot of bathtub liquor, it’s an understood thing to sprinkle a little pepper in your glass. It takes the fusel oil to the bottom. I got to like the taste and now it’s a habit.’
And in describing M’s private club, Fleming drops choice details:
Only brand-new currency notes and silver are paid out on the premises and, if a member is staying overnight, his notes and small change are taken away by the valet who brings the early morning tea and The Times and are replaced with new money. No newspaper comes to the reading room before it has been ironed.
The section closes with Bond offering a resonant meditation on gambling.
Before he slept he reflected, as he had often reflected in other moments of triumph at the card table, that the gain to the winner is, in some odd way, always less than the loss to the loser.
Indeed, I found Moonraker the best Bond book so far—by a wide margin. Maybe it’s the structure, which hews closer to mystery than espionage thriller. Or maybe it’s the British setting, which avoids the cultural anachronisms of the prior Bond works. Maybe it’s the unglamorous touch of seeing Bond’s downtime, reporting to his shared office, eating a canteen lunch, and reading through briefings. Or maybe it’s just Fleming honing his craft.
But I suspect the biggest reason I enjoyed Moonraker was Bill Nighy’s narration. His baritone matches my mental picture of Bond, and I appreciated his minimalist style, allowing the drama to flow from the narrative, not the performance. Hearing him proved a revelation, and having an English narrator may prove a necessity for future Fleming works.