We do not learn how the inspector of taxes responded to this request, but we can now be sure that Fleming was cannily and obsessively concerned with protecting, boosting and complaining about his earnings throughout his career. His fear that he might be victim to some grand scheme of exploitation by his publisher, Jonathan Cape, seldom abates even at the height of his success. Fleming chose not to have an agent in the UK, and his negotiations with Cape are often blunt, wheedling and grasping, an approach one seldom associates with a writer of such public grandeur. In May 1953, for example, he was concerned that his royalties would only just keep his wife Ann “in asparagus over Coronation week… I do hope you will sympathise with my financial aspirations which, I am afraid, are serious.” Agent 007 would have shuddered at such pleading.
Fleming happily compared himself with the other big hitters of the day, Eric Ambler and Len Deighton. On this evidence he generally found plot construction or characterisation a breeze, and he treats his writing rather technically, a cerebral and strategic template for thrills and suspense. But he did struggle repeatedly with jacket designs and titles. Live and Let Die will always be one of the quintessential Bond calling cards, but it could easily have been The Undertaker’s Wind (a suggestion later relegated to a chapter title). Or how about The Inhuman Element or Wide of the Mark in place of Moonraker? Fleming also had rather tortured exchanges over marketing campaigns, more than once offering to contribute a large spend on his own promotion.
Fleming suffered mixed fortunes from the critics, although even scathing reviews seemed to have little impact on his soaring sales. Vulnerable, prickly and bullish, he judged his books primarily as entertainments, and was swift to respond to those who perceived a cruelty and inhumane chill in his writing.
In April 1958 he replied to accusations in the Manchester Guardian that his work exhibited dangerous signs of moral decay. “It is true that sex plays an important part in James Bond’s life, and that his profession requires him to be more or less constantly involved in violent action.” The intention, he argued, was to establish a particular depth of character, but maybe there were also psychological explanations: “Perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion.”
Fleming wrote fast – 14 Bonds in 12 years, in addition to Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bangand three nonfiction titles – and his ambitions were never sated. The roots of his desires – for more acclaim, more money, more respect – may lie in his earlier privileged life or his wartime service as a naval intelligence officer, but we get few clues here.
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