Nov 3, 2010

Repost: Moneypenny Diaries Review

Continuing this week's blogiversary celebration, here's another repost.  The Moneypenny Diaries series is another one of my favorite things (in this case a series of books) that I've reviewed in my four years of blogging about spies that I feel has gotten unfairly overlooked.  While the premise of a first-person series of James Bond continuation novels focusing on Miss Moneypenny (a fairly minor character in Ian Fleming's books) sounded doubtful, author Samantha Weinberg (writing as Kate Westbrook) achieved a considerable feat: she not only made it work, but penned three of the most enjoyable 007 continuation novels to date. Sadly, they were launched with a cheap gimmick and then horribly marketed, with the second and third novels never even being published in America.  It's really too bad, because all of Weinberg's books were far superior to the massively hyped Sebastian Faulks continuation novel Devil May Care.  Oh well; I've beaten that point into the ground before.  My purpose here is to shine a light on The Moneypenny Diaries by reposting my review of the second book, Secret Servant, which was probably my favorite of the lot.  American Bond fans should take the trouble to track down the last two books.  They're well worth it.  Anyway, here's the first part of the review and a link to the rest at the end:

Review: The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant

Samantha Weinberg’s second James Bond novel (writing as Kate Westbrook), The Moneypenny Diaries Vol. 2: Secret Servant, is even more fun than her first. Yes, despite that misleading cover that doesn’t even mention the main commercial attraction, this is a Bond novel. 007 just doesn’t happen to be the main character. Instead, as with the first volume, Ms. Weinberg uses the supporting character of Miss Moneypenny to examine the world of Bond’s Secret Service, and how M, Bond, Tanner and the others weathered the spy scandals that rocked real life England in the early Sixties.

I really like the way Weinberg has integrated real, historical events into Fleming’s world. Obviously, he couldn’t deal with issues so contemporary and scandalous when he was writing the books, but by placing Bond in a historical context (a good decision on the part of the new regime at IFP), Weinberg can. And forty-odd years later, she has access to information that Fleming couldn’t possibly have known, and a historical perspective. (In one retrospectively embarrassing attempt at injecting current events into his fiction, in the short story "Quantum of Solace," Fleming had 007 aiding Castro’s Cuban rebels against Batista! Who knew where that would lead?) It’s fascinating to see M and his team (usually glimpsed only in a single chapter of each Fleming book) grapple with these events. After all, a Soviet mole in the heart of British Intelligence poses a much greater threat to a man like M than a madman sending missiles off course from his private island! (And, lest one think that Soviet moles could never penetrate M’s Secret Service they way they did the real one, remember that Fleming himself mentions Burgess and Maclean in From Russia With Love, in which Bond is assigned to a Committee of Inquiry on the matter!)

While the first novel dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis, this one revolves around Kim Philby’s defection. It works better, because the Cambridge spy ring was an espionage event that involved MI6 much more directly than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Possibly because of that, Weinberg also works Moneypenny (or Jane, to use the first name she’s given her), into the action much more organically. The first book’s greatest weakness was the barely credible way Moneypenny ended up in Cuba with James Bond. The way she gets caught up in the Philby affair is far more convincing. Really, how could she not? The secretary to the head of MI6 at the time would have been right in the thick of it all. It’s still impossible to believe that M would risk sending someone with as many secrets as Moneypenny into the heart of the Evil Empire–Moscow–for any reason, but the reason Weinberg comes up with is the most plausible I can think of. And it’s never been a requirement for any Bond novel to be entirely grounded in realism.

Secret Servant also revisits a particularly interesting period in Bond’s own fictional history. It begins following the events of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, when Bond is presumed dead, and continues through his dramatic return in the opening of The Man With the Golden Gun. (For those a bit rusty on their Fleming, an amnesiac Bond comes back brainwashed by the KGB and attempts to assassinate his boss!) Witnessing these events through Moneypenny’s eyes gives us a unique perspective on a unique situation in the Bond canon, and allows Weinberg to fill in a few gaps from Fleming’s final novel, which he never had a chance to fully finish. (Bond’s "de-programming" is fleshed out somewhat more, for one thing.) Secret Servant ends just about where TMWTGG does, so the third (and supposedly final) Moneypenny Diary will give Weinberg quite a bit more freedom in how she uses 007 himself as a character.

Fleming never gave us much detail at all on Moneypenny. She rated a few sentences in most of the books, but managed to make enough of an impression that the filmmakers, and actress Lois Maxwell, were able to turn her into the iconic figure she is today. Weinberg goes even further, though, fortunately. Her Moneypenny is a fully realized character, very occasionally in contradiction with Fleming’s version, but that’s excusable since she really belongs to Weinberg now. (That sentence may shock purists, but it’s true. Moneypenny is the main character of these books, and for their sake the author has the right to tweak a date here or there if it serves her version of the character better.) I found myself really caring about the character, and eager to get back to Moneypenny’s world, not Bond’s, while reading the books. Furthermore, since reading the first Moneypenny Diaries, I’ve enjoyed her brief appearances in the Fleming books even more as I’ve been re-reading them....

Go here to read my full review.

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