Book Review: “The James Bond Dossier” by Kingsley Amis (1965)

How many people today know who Kingsley Amis was? He is, or at least was, widely considered one of the greatest English novelists, but you rarely hear him mentioned much these days. Probably most readers know him only as Martin’s father.

Besides being a novelist, Amis was also a big fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and he wrote this book as a defense of 007’s adventures against a variety of literary critics. In it, he goes through the entirety of Fleming’s Bond books, analyzing different aspects in each chapter: Bond himself, his allies, his love interests, his enemies, and so on.

I admit it; I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. There’s just nothing like reading what what one superstar thought of another. Like reading Napoleon’s commentaries on Caesar, learning what the great English comic novelist thought of the great English thriller novelist is just unpassupable.

In a way, I felt a kinship with Amis right off the bat. He’s writing to defend his preferred entertainment from critics’ charges that they are not serious, or in some sense artistically illegitimate. I have often been in this same position vis-à-vis video games.

Amis is out to prove there is more depth and complexity to Fleming’s novels than one would think at first, and with his light touch and plenty of witty footnotes, he makes his case. Seriously, this book is worth reading for his footnotes alone, as when he makes passing reference to Catherine Earnshaw and then adds a note saying, “just to save you looking, she’s the heroine of Wuthering Heights.”

Even better is when Amis takes pains to establish points about Bond’s character: such as that he has to train intensively for certain missions, or that while he is certainly a crack shot, his marksmanship is inferior to the marksmanship trainer. Amis is defending Bond against charges of being too good; of being what in modern lingo we call a “Mary Sue.” The language is different, but the concept is the same.

Where it gets really interesting is when we get to the social commentary aspects of 007. For example, the chapters on Bond’s treatment of women. These chapters are simply incredible. I can’t even quote from them. Let it suffice to say, I don’t think Amis’s defense is successful. But why not? Is it because Bond the character is a chauvinist? Is it because Fleming the author was a chauvinist? Or is it because Amis himself was? Or is it all three?

Honestly, it’s really hard to tell. And note that just because I think Amis’s thinking in this chapter is misguided does not at all mean I don’t think it’s worth reading. It’s absolutely worth reading. Indeed, literary critics are often at their most valuable when they are wrong.

Speaking of wrongness, in passing, Amis gives his opinion on the Bond films:

“Sean Connery’s total wrongness for the film part of Bond is nowhere better demonstrated than [in his lack of aristocratic bearing.] Mr Connery could put up a show as a Scottish businessman all right, but a Scottish baronet never.”

Wonder what he’d have made of Daniel Craig?

If you can’t tell, I like Amis’s style, if not always his opinions. He writes in a light-hearted, breezy way, as if you’ve just sat down next to him after he’s had a few drinks and asked him “So, Kingsley, what do you think of James Bond anyhow?” Sure, his takes can be rambling and he often will drop obscure references to things that are only tangentially related… but do you seriously think I am going to knock anyone for that?

But the real reason to read this book is for Amis’s tips to writers. The guy is considered one of the great English novelists for a reason. Here he is talking about the many excellent meals Bond dines upon:

More than anything in fiction, the detailed descriptions of meals generates a sympathetic warmth, a close and ready feeling of identification with the people doing the eating and drinking. All those gigantic feasts in Dickens achieve this triumphantly: we’re never more there, in the story with the characters, than when the roast goose and the plum pudding are going down. The trick is still effective when–as here with Bond–conviviality is miles away.

As someone who is generally bored by writing descriptions of anything, but especially of food, I have to believe he’s on to something here. I am forced to look at myself in the mirror and ask, “Have you, Berthold, sold as many books as Fleming and Dickens have just since they have been dead?” And the answer comes back a resounding “no.” In my next book, I will include “six page descriptions of every last meal.”

Oh, yes; Amis launches some brutal assaults on the minimalist school of description that I tend to favor:

We suspend our disbelief in SPECTRE and its designs while we’re believing heartily in Petacchi’s earlier history, in his surrender to the Allies in World War II with his Focke-Wulf 200, one of the few of its type in the Italian air force (not just ‘with his plane’), and its load of the latest German pressure mines charged with the new Hexogen explosive (not just ‘a new type of mine’).

I feel attacked. 

At the end of the book, Amis includes a table that briefly summarizes each Bond book with the following categories:

TitlePlacesGirlVillainVillain’s ProjectVillain’s EmployerMinor VillainsBond’s FriendsHighlightsRemarks

Maybe it’s just because I make Excel tables for a living, but this struck me as an interesting way of breaking down the elements of a story. Then again, if a series can be easily categorized like this, doesn’t that mean it’s a bit formulaic? And in these days, doesn’t this kind of systematic approach seem like it could lead to writers making a career of entering new data under these headers and letting an AI do the rest?

At this point, you might be asking, do you need to be a James Bond fan to enjoy this book? Well, I don’t really consider myself a Bond fan, and I’ve only read two Bond books, (Casino Royale and Moonraker) but I enjoyed it. Just as a work of criticism, or as an instruction manual for writers, it’s fascinating to read. 

Now that I’ve got you all pumped up about how fantastic it is, I must deliver the bad news: it’s really rare. You can get a physical copy on Amazon, but it costs big bucks. Much as I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t pay the prices they’re asking for it. I got lucky, and was able to get a copy from a library. This is partly why I transcribed those bits quoted above; they’re the most critical parts for writers.

So, what I’m saying is, whoever owns the rights to this should put the thing on Kindle. Re-release it when they make a new Bond film or something like that.


  1. When I was going to our writer’s group here, a number of writers would lecture on the do’s and don’t of writing and one of the most common was leave out describing meals. I like how he reasons why their important. I’ll have to check my library and see if I can get a copy. I’ve only read one Bond book, You Only Life Twice, Jesus did they ignore that book in the movie. The Death Garden where every plant is poisonous is finally in the latest movie.

    1. I hope you’re able to get a copy. Funny enough, the Death Garden is something Amis talks about quite a bit.

  2. I have heard of Kingsley Amis, but when I did a search for his books, I realised that I’d never read any of his writing. Sadly I won’t be reading this one either as I’m not much interested in the whole Bond thing. I’ve watched Bond movies, who hasn’t? but they’re just not my thing. :/

    1. Haha true. Amis didn’t like the films either; he thought they were too campy and over-the-top compared to the books.

      If you want to read something by Amis, I recommend starting with “Lucky Jim”; his most famous comic novel. I read it recently and liked it. Although, be warned, there are some things in it that are a bit shocking to modern sensibilities.

  3. Oh, interesting. I have read a few of the Bond novels and enjoyed them just fine (although I didn’t love them) but reading an analysis of them would be fun. If it could be obtained for free from the library, anyway!

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