The official books that continue the adventures of James Bond beyond those written by Ian Fleming constitute a long, occasionally rewarding, often perilous minefield of reading material. For every success in the series, there is a scene of…oh I don’t know. James Bond visiting Euro Disney. Or James Bond sitting down at University of Texas student party hang-out Chuy’s to eat out of plastic basket while slurping flavored frozen margaritas. Which is to say that being “better” than most sanctioned 007 adventures is something of a loaded compliment. Apart from these official books, there has been of late a bit of a cottage industry in spin-off Bond adventures, from the semi-official “Young Bond” series to books that recast Ian Fleming himself as a secret agent. One of the earlier examples of these “expanded universe” type books was The Moneypenny Diaries (later subtitled Guardian Angel, after two more books were added to turn it into a series) by Samantha Weinberg, writing under the pseudonym Kate Westbrook. Framed as excerpts from the secret diary of Jane “Miss” Moneypenny, it’s a surprisingly complex, bittersweet, even realistic (within limits) alternate view of James Bond, as well as a meditation on the politics of the 1960s and the impact of Bond’s lifestyle and attitude on those around him — especially the women. It’s also a damn sight better than most of the official Bond continuation novels.
Moneypenny is one of the most interesting characters in the Bond franchise because she is one of the least interesting. Or rather, she is one of the least developed. Very few authors or screenwriters, Ian Fleming included, have given much thought to Moneypenny as anything other than a chance to fire off a couple of gags. Only John Gardner saw fit to take Moneypenny out of the office and have her join in one of Bond’s adventures (1986’s Nobody Lives Forever), but for most of that book, she is simply missing. When she does appear, she’s a victim of the fact that Gardner’s odious handling of women makes Fleming’s old-fashioned chauvinism seem positively enlightened. Moneypenny is basically in the story to yell, “James! Help me!” Beyond that book, it really wasn’t until the film Skyfall that anyone bothered to think of Moneypenny as anything other than a woman behind a desk trading a couple de rigueur double entendres with Bond before telling him he can go in and see M now. Skyfall‘s recasting of her as a junior field operative works within the context of that story and the tone of the Daniel Craig films, but it wouldn’t have worked for the literary Moneypenny, especially not if she is still grounded in the time and events of Fleming’s novels.
My initial trepidation about this book was that it would do to Moneypenny what other authors have done to Ian Fleming: position themselves as the true story of the subject, recasting them with a fannish over-enthusiasm and super secret agents cut from the same cloth as James Bond. “Oh, did we never mention that Moneypenny is a super kungfu bad-ass who punched Hitler and also loves tea?” sort of nonsense. It shows very little understanding of a character and does little more than cater to the modern need to turn everyone into a superhero. Such reinvention of established characters, such “shock reveals” can be fun, but we live in a time of their over-abundance. To do so would be not just a violation of the character, but a disservice to the many women (and men) who served in the secret service in capacities other than “Double-0 killing machine.” My fears proved unfounded. Samantha Weinberg understands espionage fiction. And she understands Moneypenny. Although the endlessly sexually harassed personal assistant to M does end up in the field, it’s not as a slam-bang action caricature. She’s not suddenly possessed of skills and strength she never had before. Instead, what Moneypenny faces is something much more in line with a John Le Carre novel, though slightly less bitter and more bittersweet.
The gist of the book is that they are portions of a diary Moneypenny kept in violation of her employment, discovered decades later, and after Moneypenny’s death, by her niece (the pseudonymous Kate Westbrook), who then took it upon herself to research, corroborate the entries, and add footnotes. The period of time covered by the diary begins immediately after the murder of Bond’s wife Tracy at the hands of Blofeld (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and his departure for Japan on a mission of revenge (You Only Live Twice). It is a time during which Bond is emotionally crushed. Depressed, inattentive at work, self-destructive. Such things are mentioned in Fleming’s books, but here we get a much more detailed look behind the scenes. While dealing with the impact of 007’s crack-up at work, Moneypenny also has a problem of her own: she’s been approached by an agent, presumably East German, offering information about her long-missing father (he disappeared on a botched mission during World War II) in exchange for seemingly innocuous information from her office. Complicating matters is the fact that her boyfriend, already under suspicion simply because anyone dating someone from MI6 is automatically under suspicions, seems like he might very well be in league with the agent, passing personal information about Moneypenny that can be used as further leverage against her.
Like John Le Carre, much of Weinberg’s book deals with the toll intelligence work takes on a person’s personal life, rendering it all but impossible to forge any sort of meaningful relationship and turning everything from a person’s past, no matter how innocent, into something that could be potentially used against them. Weinberg isn’t as serious minded as Le Carre, or as angry, but neither is she as frivolous or fantastic about tradecraft as was Fleming and most of the other Bond authors. In this aspect, The Moneypenny Diaries is a thoroughly grounded, low-key espionage thriller. Privy as we are to Moneypenny’s predicament, we understand the temptation, even when she knows the reward offered is probably a lie. Against this plot, we get glimpses into her past, from growing up in Kenya to the death of her mother, the disappearance of her father, and how she came to be in the employ of British Intelligence and M. And looming over this, but by no means overshadowing it, is James Bond and her relationship with him. It’d be easy to simply turn The Moneypenny Diaries into a critique of Bond’s treatment of women, but while that is certainly part of the story, it’s more complex.
Granted we are catching Bond at his worst in his own timeline. His banter, his come-ons, his flirtatious invitations take on an air not so much of sexism as they do desperation, loneliness, and self-loathing. Pitiful in their way, a life-preserver cast out by a man who has only ever forged a single meaningful relationship in his life only to have it yanked away. This might set some Bond fans against the book — unless they remember that this part of Bond was very much there in the Fleming books. So bad was he that at one point in the Fleming novels, M even considers the possibility that they might have to not just push him into retirement, but kill him. Moneypenny finds herself as the receptacle for Bond’s depression, the woman forced to make the man feel better. Smile at them. Defer to them. Tolerate their intrusions. There is a quiet power, and a deceptively profound comment on the way women are expected to — forced to — behave around men when Moneypenny quips with Bond about a dinner date then writes, earnestly and in private, “I wish he wouldn’t say things like that.”
A rather mundane seeming series of events (well, as mundane as they can be when they involve nuclear war and John F. Kennedy) in which Moneypenny accompanies M to a summit in DC and Miami culminates in Moneypenny taking a clandestine trip to Cuba, where Bond has been sent because 1) there’s a job to be done, and 2) because in an office full of people who have lost loved ones, his drunken ennui is starting to seem self-indulgent and they are hoping a mission will snap him out of it. In Cuba, Moneypenny is meant to do nothing more than deliver a radio transmitter to Bond, but of course, this is the James Bond universe. 007 is captured by the Soviets and, Moneypenny observes, seems to actually welcome the thought of his own execution. The only person on the ground who can help him is, of course, her. This entire adventure, which despite the shoot-out on a Soviet ship, is relatively grounded, is built upon the mention in one of Fleming’s book of a job that the depressed James Bond botches (before he is sent off to Japan). Of course, Fleming never implies that Moneypenny had anything to do with saving James’ bacon. In this, as well as in a return to Cuba to finish what was started, Weinberg shows a flare for writing action without going overboard. Again, Moneypenny is trained and competent, but she is also not a field agent. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a backflipping killing machine. She does her best, a believable best.
The Cuban mission serves to lend the book its political backdrop. Fleming never had much time for politics, but the structure of this book, as a diary being annotated after the fact, allows for much more in-depth fleshing out of the political climate (which begins shortly after the Bay of Pigs and culminates with the Cuban Missile Crisis). Bond remains characteristically apolitical, but M and Moneypenny (and Bill Tanner! Good ol’ Bill Tanner!) do not have that luxury. Real political figures and crises are woven organically into the story, with Weinberg-as-Westbrook providing copious footnotes explaining people and events, both real and from the James Bond universe). When the book puts Moneypenny and M in the same room as John Kennedy, I had momentary flashbacks to the awful John Gardner book where Bond hangs out with Thatcher, Reagan, and Gorbachev (to say nothing of the Thatcher role in For Your Eyes Only). But The Moneypenny Diaries is a much better book than Win, Lose, Or Die and the meeting between our fictional Bond characters and the actual U.S. President is brief and well-handled.
Upon its initial release, people obsessed with canon (oh, those people) fretted over whether or not The Moneypenny Diaries is part of the official 007 timeline. you know, the one that has gone on since the early 1950s but still features a man in his late-30s/early-40s despite being a veteran of WWII. Apparently there were even some folks taken in by the gag that these were the actual diary entries of an actual “Jane Moneypenny” writing about an actual James Bond (code name) whose exploits Ian Fleming became aware of in his capacity as personal secretary to the head of British Naval Intelligence (making Fleming much more a Moneypenny than a Bond) and fictionalized in a series of books. I’m thinking perhaps those claims were a bit of clever marketing, but you never know when it comes to the gullibility of people. Some of this stems from what I find to be the book’s one misstep: mentioning Ian Fleming. In the notes added by Moneypenny’s niece, Fleming is mentioned several times, turning him into a character, however tangential, in his own creation. It’s kept to a minimum, and only in the notes, but its a bit jarring and serves to shake, rather than expand, the reality Weinberg/Westbrook has created. My other small criticism is that at times the voluminous nature of the footnotes can interrupt the book’s actual narrative flow. On the other hand, most of the footnotes are interesting, fleshing out real world events and people or adding new dimension and new context to people and events from the Bond books.
Confusion over whether or not this book was “Bond Canon” even delayed it’s release int he United States. Published in 2005 in the UK, it didn’t reach American shores until 2008. In the end, it was announced that, yes, The Moneypenny Diaries “count.” While debates regarding canon are utterly uninteresting to me, what is interesting is that the decision by Ian Fleming Publications gives the official Bond series its first female author and…OK, technically, it’s the series’ second book written from a female point of view, but I think we’d be unwise to saddle The Moneypenny Diaries with comparisons to The Spy Who Loved Me. That puts a lot of weight on Weinberg’s shoulder,s unfairly or not, but she’s an abler carry of the Bond baggage. She brings something new to the franchise without subverting it, and she shows a keen interest in the history of Bond as well as the thematic and emotional make-up of the series — far more so than some of the other authors have shown. Inspired perhaps by the more emotionally complex approach of the Daniel Craig movies, she’s the first author since Fleming himself who has been willing to really dig into Bond, to portray him as vulnerable and confused, even as petulant and spoiled.
But while she pays ample attention to 007 himself, this is still Moneypenny’s story. She is not pushed out of the spotlight, even though she is a character that remains forever out of the spotlight. Her escapade in Cuba with 007 is thrilling, but the book’s real tension comes from the trouble she faces back in London. Sure, we know in the end Moneypenny is not going to betray England, even on a small scale; but Weinberg makes it exciting regardless. The Moneypenny Diaries succeeds where Ian Fleming failed with The Spy Who Loved Me, in looking at James Bond from the point of view of characters in his periphery, his colleagues, his victims, those who experience him and are then left with the wreckage he inevitably leaves behind, physical and emotional. Fleming might have fared better with his experiment had he not chosen to try to write it from the viewpoint of a twenty-something American woman. But then, analyzing Bond’s impact on the life of a woman is more interesting than the impact on a man. Even Fleming must have thought this about his creation. He just didn’t have the experience (as a gender; not writer) to pull it off. Weinberg does, and she does. The Moneypenny Diaries succeeds most of all not just because its insightful analysis of James Bond, not just because of its tense spy action, but because of the empathetic connection the author — and by extension, the reader — forges with that mysterious, impish woman sitting outside of M’s office.