A review of Ian Fleming: The Complete Man by Nicholas Shakespeare

Reviewed by Meredith Whitford

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man
by Nicholas Shakespeare
Harvill Secker
Oct 2023, ISBN-13: 978-1787302426, Paperback,

Ian Fleming had a golden typewriter. It was smuggled in from the USA by a friend, just after he finished Casino Royale  in 1952. Vulgar? Yes of course, but he enjoyed the joke. (Presumably only the outside was gilded; those old manual typewriters were very heavy to use even without an extra coat of paint.)  Although not made to order, it cost one hundred and seventy-four pounds, a lot of money in those days. Fleming had not inherited much of his very rich family’s fortune, but he could afford luxuries. 

Somehow that typewriter seems suitable for the writer of the James Bond novels, which are crammed with lovingly, or naively, detailed luxuries that must have been both enviable and cheering for readers in the grim post-war “Spam-munching” Britain. Bond was stated in Casino Royale to be comfortably off but not obscenely rich on two thousand pounds p.a. after tax, and perhaps Fleming’s readers vicariously enjoyed his treats.

But of course there was much more to Fleming than the Bond phenomenon. Nicholas Shakespeare has spent several years prising Fleming’s real character/career/relationships from the second-hand stories, memories and other biographies. In his beautiful, silken prose with its undertone of humour  — not jokes, except for the cracker on the first page, just a sensible and often charitable humour – he does his best to explain whether Fleming was a ‘war-winner’ or a desk-bound fantasist in Naval Intelligence, and what he was up to before, during and after the war.

This is a very long book, but never less than intensely readable. Another reviewer (Anthony Cummins) has said that Shakespeare’s book must be read as ‘a promise to give the reader what was left out of previous biographies’, but Shakespeare directs his huge cast of characters through war, sex, adultery, deception, friendships and enmities so deftly that the reader is never at a loss. Many of the people named in the book are familiar to anyone who has read much about the between- and post-war period: aristocrats, literati, politicians, military and civilians, and by naming them , to me Shakespeare is not showing ‘his assumptions of his audience’. (Showing off, in other words.) Anyone who wanted a shorter biography that relied less on primary sources and descriptions of Fleming’s eras would find several slighter books.

It’s not the purpose of this review to repeat much, or any, of Fleming’s life, his various jobs, relationships and in particular his wartime experiences. That’s what the book is for. Whether one ends up liking or disliking Fleming, thinking the (in my opinion mostly rather awful) Bond novels were the result of a midlife crisis or a desire to make money out of real or second-hand experiences, is a toss-up. But certainly Shakespeare has given his readers every chance to decide, on a good deal of evidence. I think Fleming was not a happy man, finding real love only in his son Caspar (1952-75) and in his beloved Jamaica. To paraphrase Her late Majesty Elizabeth II, “opinions may vary.” But Ian Fleming: The Complete Man is a seriously good and engaging book by an outstanding biographer. I read its 700-odd pages in a week and I recommend it highly, whether or not you like Fleming as a man or an author. And also whether or not you care for James Bond in books or films. In fact, at times Shakespeare’s book makes one forget about Bond. Good.

About the reviewer: Meredith Whitford has published two successful historical novels, Treason and Shakespeare’s Will, and a biography, Churchill’s Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly. She is also an editor and manuscript assessor, director of Between Us Manuscript Assessment Service. Her latest novel is a contemporary fiction called Missing Christina, published by Endeavour Press UK. Find out more at: http://meredithwh.wixsite.com/home