Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Books: "Thrilling Cities" By Ian Fleming


Thrilling Cities: Fourteen Cities Seen Through The Eyes of Ian Fleming, the Creator of James Bond

By Ian Fleming

William Morrow Paperbacks; paperback, 304 pages; $18.99

Ian Lancaster Fleming is best known for creating one of the most famous characters of all time, James Bond, with the first novel on the super spy, Casino Royale, published in 1953. He went on to write 13 other Bond books, which earned praise from Raymond Chandler, who called Fleming "the most forceful and driving writer of thrillers in England," and President John F. Kennedy, who cited From Russia with Love as one of his favorite books. He was a natural to write a character like Bond because he worked in Naval Intelligence during World War II, which came after he worked at the Reuters news agency and a brief stint as a stockbroker. Fleming also wrote the children's classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Fleming's work had an authority which came from his journalism and wartime experiences, as well as his extensive travels around the world, which included New York, Hong Kong, Monte Carlo, Honolulu, and Vienna.

In 1959, Fleming was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write a series of dispatches from the world's most beguiling locales, which turned into this incredible volume, Thrilling Cities. He was set to do this global round trip within 30 days, giving him roughly three days in each city, making it all the more remarkable.

This work is not your typical travel guide, as Fleming abandons the tourist sites for underground haunts to capture what is actually happening in the places he visits. He mingles with celebrities, gangsters, and geishas along the way, crossing paths with such well-known figures as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, and Lucky Luciano.

The fascinating thing about what he writes about New York is a lot of his observations could be written today, which in a way shows that cities go through cycles. Fleming said he enjoyed New York the least of the cities he encountered, and that each time he returns, he feels, "that it has lost more of its heart. Steel and concrete, aluminum and copper sheathing for the new buildings have smothered the brownstone streets that had so much warmth in the old days." 

Fleming did add, "There are still thrilling moments - when your taxi goes over the hump on Park Avenue at 69th Street and the lights turn to red and you pause and watch them all go green the whole way down to 46th, your heart turns for New York. But this is an architectural, a physical thrill. Go into the first drugstore, ask your way from a passer-by, and the indifference and harshness of the New Yorker cuts the old affection for the city out of your body as sharply as a surgeon's knife." He also wrote that, at the time of his visit, the city was being roiled by the release in the Nation of an expose on the rackets that held undue influence over its municipal government called "The Shame of New York."

The essay on Honolulu was quite fascinating because he writes of what it was like to fly there from Europe via Japan, with all its twists and turns and near-calamities. Fleming was a frequent visitor to Hawaii, and in this essay he writes that, "since my last visit, Hawaii had some of age. She had become the fiftieth State of the Union and her population of over 600,000 had almost doubled since 1944." He writes how he was certain it wouldn't be long before it would double again because its eight islands were becoming a tourist resort and - something that might be surprising - a retirement destination that could rival Florida.

In Fleming's visit to Los Angeles, he writes of being wooed by Hollywood, as he said most foreign authors who were viewed as fresh were at that time. After that, he meets with a friend of his who's the Head of Intelligence of the Los Angeles Police Department, and what he investigated surprised him. The Mafia was gaining a foothold in the labour (as he writes in the way they spell it in Europe) protection racket, and they were doing their usual tactics of protection and extortion, among others, just under the auspices of the unions. In addition, Fleming writes how the Chief of Los Angeles Police, W.H. Parker, said, "Los Angeles has become a Mecca for the dregs of civilization." At that time, Crime was up 150 percent of the rate in 1950, and was increasing six times as fast as the city's population, with massive problems due to narcotics and juvenile crime. In this section, Fleming also tacked on a jaunt to Las Vegas, which was at the height of the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin Rat Pack era, and it's riveting from the second he describes the oxygen machine in the airport.

This is part of William Morrow becoming the Fleming publisher in the United States, and the re-launch of his work includes the entire sixteen volumes of backlist fiction and nonfiction, with 12 James Bond novels, two volumes of Bond short stories, and two nonfiction essay collections. 

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