Book Review: Moonraker (1955) by Ian Fleming

“Peace In Our Time -This Time”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The third novel in Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series, Moonraker, offers a uniquely memorable story –one that shares very little in common with the silly 1979 Eon film of the same name. Whereas other 007 adventures take us across the world to various exotic locales, Moonraker remains grounded entirely in England. This wonderful tale is a drastic step up from the previous outing in Live and Let Die. In Moonraker, we return to the thrill of high-stakes card games a la Casino Royale, and from there an investigation leads to the cliffs of Dover, a high-speed chase in London, and finally an experimental rocket launch along the coast of England.

One of my favorite parts of this book occurs at the beginning, as Ian Fleming paints a colorful portrait of daily life inside the Secret Service. James Bond, freshly sunburned from a recent vacation down south somewhere near the equator, is completing target practice before he takes a lift to the eighth floor of MI6 where he is greeted by his motherly secretary Loelia “Lil” Ponsonby (she hates to be called “Lil” by Bond). We learn that Bond is one of only three active assassins currently working inside the 00 program –the other two being 008 (“Bill”), who recently escaped from Peenemunde and is now resting in Berlin, and the other is 0011 who disappeared without a trace two months ago in the “dirty half-mile in Singapore.” We also learn that Bond typically has only 2-3 assignments per year, the rest of his time is spent like a civil servant at a desk job at headquarters. Personally, his hobbies include: evenings spent playing cards, making love to married women, and playing golf. He rarely takes holidays and earns approximately 1,500 pounds per year while living in a small, comfortable flat on King’s Road. I thought these details of the true Bond were helpful to round out this somewhat elusive character.

At any rate, Bond is summoned to M’s office on the ninth floor –Ian Fleming describes a large green baize door and inside is a pipe-smoking M and we also meet his flirtatious personal secretary Moneypenny. M makes an interesting reference to the events of Live and Let Die in which he mentions that the UK will likely retrieve the missing gold after all, despite some ongoing deliberations in the Hague. The conversation quickly turns to quiet suspicions that M has on Sir Hugo Drax, a popular millionaire magnate in the British metal industry. Sir Hugo Drax is always in the papers, and even Bond regards Drax as “a national hero.” He is a man of the people who bears scars from the war after being injured in a German “werewolf” guerrilla explosion behind enemy lines wherein half his face was blown away causing amnesia for over a year. Since he could not remember his identity, he just assumed the name of Hugo Drax, an orphan from the Liverpool docks. Drax has since risen to become a multi-millionaire, the successful ore magnate of a material known as Columbite which is necessary in jet engines. Drax quickly cornered the Columbite market via his company, Drax Metals, which has grown into a global conglomerate by buying up uranium mines in South Africa and selling military products to the Americans. Presently, Drax is a member of a high-class London gentleman’s club, Blades, where he plays cards but he still cannot fully recall his true identity. He has begun to live a lavish lifestyle and has recently gifted his entire holding of Columbite to Britain as a national gift in order to build a “super atomic rocket with a range that would cover nearly every capital in Europe -the immediate answer to anyone who tried to atom bomb London” (18). Naturally, the queen has graciously accepted Drax’s gift and has bestowed upon him a knighthood. Now, Drax’s rocket is nearly ready for a test launch –it is known as The Moonraker.

Anyway, M frequently plays cards with Drax but he has begun to grow suspicious after he realizes that Drax has been cheating. In hoping to avoid unwanted attention from the press, and since Bond is the best card player in the business, M asks Bond to join him at Blades for the evening to investigate Drax’s cheating. Naturally, after an intense exchange involving Bond ingesting copious amounts of Benzedrine and champagne, he defeats Drax in a high stakes card game. Drax, an arrogant contemptible redhead, scoffs: “Spend it quickly, Commander Bond,” and the tense exchange leads Bond to psychoanalyze this strange titan of industry:

“Why should Drax, a millionaire, a public hero, a man with a unique position in the country, why should this remarkable man cheat at cards? What could he achieve by it? What could he prove to himself? Did he think that he was so much a law unto himself, so far above the common herd and their puny canons of behavior that he could spit in the face of public opinion?” (77).

Bond considers spending his new windfall on a Rolls-Bentley convertible, some diamond clips, and a few other things like a new coat of paint for his flat and so on while investing the rest in gold so he can retire –but he is quickly summoned back to M’s office where he learns that two men from the Moonraker plant have been killed at a nearby public house. Both men were German experts at the R.A.F. installation located along the southern coast, a facility totaling about 1,000 acres in Kent along the cliffs between Dover and Deal. Since the entire novel takes place over only a few days, Drax intends to conduct a test launch of the Moonraker on Friday, in four days-time.

Following the suspicious murder-suicide, Bond is sent out to investigate the situation on the remote coast of Dover. M reminds him that there are apparently fifty or so Russians working on the project, and it would be a colossal victory for the Soviets to sabotage the Moonraker on the eve of its test run. When he arrives, Bond meets with Drax, and his sadistic henchman named Krebs, as well as a leading rocket scientist Gala Brand (secretly a double agent). Bond is given a tour, and he notices many of Drax’s employees are men with shaved heads and thick, bushy moustaches. Gala and Bond sneak away in the morning but they are nearly killed in a cliff-fall (it appears to be a sabotage attempt).

The story then leads to London where Gala manages to sneak Drax’s notebook from his pocket which outlines an alternative route for the Moonraker, one not previously noted anywhere –according to these new coordinates, the rocket will fire upon London! “On each page, under the date, the neat columns of figures, the atmospheric pressure, the wind velocity, the temperature…” (171). However, before she can report the crisis to MI6, she secretly returns the notebook to Drax’s pocket, but Krebs catches her in the act thereby revealing that Gala is actually a spy. She is then dragged away and tortured in a radio homing station in London.

Meanwhile, Drax Metals has begun selling large holdings of sterling, which sends the pound fluctuating wildly. Bond is then sent again to investigate the disappearance of Gala, but following a wild car chase around London, Bond is captured and tied up with Gala. They are taken back to the location of the Moonraker which appears to Bond to be like “a giant hypodermic needle ready to be plunged unto the heart of England” (200). As it turns out, Drax is actually German, his real name is Graf Hugo von der Drache. He was educated in England up until the age of twelve, and then he went to work in family’s German steel business which produced shells for the war. He then joined the German Nazi army during WWII in the 104th Panzer Regiment and then was finally transferred to intelligence. He claims Hitler was betrayed by his generals as the English and Americans were allowed to land in France –he is filled with resentment and anger. Drax was then sent behind enemy lines into the Ardennes in 1944 along with Krebs, a skilled executioner, as they were both part of the secret “werewolf” German assassin troupe. While behind enemy lines, Drax was accidentally injured and, still undercover, was mistaken for a British soldier named Hugo Drax so he simply accepted the identity and returned to England. First, he robbed and killed a Jewish moneylender, and then began to build his Columbite empire around the world. He developed an elaborate supply chain which extended far behind the reach of the Iron Curtain with products traveling via submarine to the cliffs of Dover in order to create a volatile nuclear warhead within the Moonraker rocket. All the bald men with moustaches that Bond spotted earlier were merely disguises to hide their true identities.

As with all megalomaniacal villains, Drax is eager to explicate his diabolical plot before leaving Bond and Gala to die alone. He abandons them to be destroyed the following day when the rocket is set to strike London. However, Bond works quickly to use Krebs’s nearby blow torch to free one of Gala’s hands, allowing both of them to escape. They silently sneak through the base so that Gala can inform Bond on how to redirect the coordinates of the Moonraker such that it falls into the sea instead of the center of London. Before the rocket launches, Drax addresses the British people in an oddly ominous, yet triumphant speech, but he then escapes into a Soviet submarine to flee, however, thanks to Bond, the submarine is unexpectedly struck by the Moonraker after it launches according to the new coordinates instituted by Bond and Gala. The blast has apparently killed everyone on board –including Drax and Krebs—as well as a couple hundred other people who have been unfortunately killed along the southern coast of England.

Back in London, #10 Downing attempts to twist the story so that Drax is portrayed as a noble patriot who sacrificed for his country in order to preserve a sense of national unity. Meanwhile, Bond reflects on what might have happened to London had the rocket actually hit its originally intended target:

“How nearly it had come, thought Bond, to being stilled. How nearly there might be nothing now but the distant clang of the ambulance bells beneath a lurid black and orange sky, the stench of burning, the screams of people still trapped in the buildings. The softly beating heart of London silenced for a generation” (239).  

In the end, 008 is headed back to MI6 while Bond and Gala are instructed to immediately flee the country until the Drax scandal finally blows over. While Bond looks forward to his time alone with Gala, she has a confession. She solemnly explains to Bond that she is actually engaged to another investigator in the agency. Sadly, they must part ways. Bond says he pursues “no false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette” (244). Moonraker concludes on a touchingly poignant note as Bond is once again left alone in the world.

Moonraker is often highly regarded among fans as one of Ian Fleming’s best, and ironically it could not be more distinct from the amusing 1979 Roger Moore film of the same name. In fact, the plot of the book and film have almost nothing in common, aside from the villain’s name (Hugo Drax), the presence of the Moonraker rocket, and a particular moment wherein M makes an offhand acknowledgement that he plays cards with Drax. Otherwise, in the film Drax is not portrayed as a secret Nazi who has been pumped full of Naazi resentment and propaganda. Instead, in the film, he intends to launch a new human civilization into space based on his own theories of eugenics. In my view, Ian Fleming’s novel greatly overshadows the film. Apparently, Fleming once conducted significant research in preparation for the novel –particularly on the German “Werewolf” resistance forces and the V2 rockets.

Moonraker is a patriotic novel –an homage to England– which expresses deep skepticism toward the Ayn Randian mega-millionaire magnate class. The “otherness” of Hugo Drax, aside from him being secretly a Nazi, is highlighted in his physical features. He is a large, lurching man with fiery red hair and bad teeth, as well as a horribly scarred face. A war wound garnered in the service of England is honorable, but his injury sustained in the service of Germany is shameful. Drax manages to navigate his way through these cultural biases without failure. His rocket is the symbol of his ultimate revenge on behalf of the German people. Moonraker is a cautionary tale about what happens when the public trust is placed too strongly in the hands of one man.

Fleming, Ian. Moonraker. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1955 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.

Click here to read my review of the film Moonraker (1979).

Click here to return to my survey of the James Bond saga.

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