Based on the screenplay for an aborted film project, Thunderball is notable for introducing SPECTRE to the series. The book is the first in what is sometimes known as the “Blofeld trilogy”.
Author: Ian Fleming
Publication date: 26th March 1956
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Cover artist: Richard Chopping
Fleming had been working with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham on a film project, but when it fell through Fleming turned the material he had into Thunderball. It is a great story, which still has resonance today, but landed Ian Fleming in trouble.
In this article
Although McClory and Whittingham were unable to prevent publication, they sued Fleming for plagiarism. The stress of the 1963 court case caused Fleming to have a heart attack and instead the two parties reached a settlement. Subsequent editions of Thunderball acknowledge McClory and Whittingham’s contribution to the film scripts. The court battle is thought to be a contributing factor to his death at the age of 56, but of course he smoked and drank heavily.
McClory was also awarded the movie rights to Thunderball, which caused the case to rumble on for years. Although Eon Productions teamed up with McClory for the film, McClory later used his rights to the film scripts to make Never Say Never Again and continued to threaten another Bond film until his death in 2006.
It was finally ended in 2013 when EON Productions obtained the full rights to Thunderball from McClory’s heirs.
What we say
This time Bond finds himself in the Bahamas on the tail of SPECTRE, the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. After hijacking an experimental plane with two atomic bombs, SPECTRE attempts to blackmail the West into paying a large ransom. Unless they receive payment they’ll detonate the warheads somewhere of their own choosing.
As well as most of the action taking place in the Bahamas, with Fleming’s love of the ocean on display, the book includes Bond’s stay at a health farm. Ideally the book should be read before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice.
Friends & foes
A number of characters contribute to the intricate web of espionage, romance, and danger that defines Thunderball. Apart from the Secret Service regulars these are:
Felix Leiter is now working for Pinkerton’s but called back into service by the CIA to help track down the mission atom bombs. He provides invaluable assistance to Bond, offering his expertise and resources to aid in the mission, as well as a drinking buddy for Bond, loyal, with a dry sense of humour.
Domino Vitali is a pivotal character in Thunderball. She is Emilio Largo’s mistress and becomes a central figure in the plot. As the story progresses, she realizes Largo’s true intentions and becomes sympathetic to Bond’s cause, ultimately siding with him. Domino is portrayed as a strong and resilient woman, capable of making tough decisions for the greater good.
Patricia Fearing is a nurse working at Shrublands health clinic, where Bond has been sent to detox and regain his health.
Emilio Largo is the main antagonist in Thunderball. Operating as SPECTRE’s number 2, Largo plans to hijack nuclear weapons and hold the world to ransom. He is a wealthy and influential criminal mastermind, known for his cunning, ruthlessness, and sophisticated tastes. Largo is a formidable adversary for Bond.
Count Lippe‘s involvement in SPECTRE’s plot is compromised when he takes on Bond at Shrublands. In the end SPECTRE terminates him for endangering the mission.
Thunderball sees James Bond embark on a thrilling adventure that spans from his home life in London to the sandy shores of the Bahamas via a health clinic in West Sussex.
During a meeting with M, Bond learns of his poor physical condition due to excessive drinking and smoking. M sends Bond to a health clinic for a two-week treatment regimen aimed at improving his well-being.
Bond’s stay at the Shrublands Health Clinic becomes a pivotal part of the narrative. Here, he encounters Count Lippe, a member of the Red Lightning Tong criminal organization from Macau. Lippe’s mission is to oversee Giuseppe Petacchi, an Italian Air Force pilot involved in SPECTRE’s sinister plans. However, Bond’s discovery of the Tong connection triggers a dangerous clash with Lippe, who attempts to kill him by tampering with a spinal traction table. Bond’s survival is owed to nurse Patricia Fearing, and he retaliates by trapping Lippe in a steam bath, causing severe burns that land him in hospital.
After returning from his stint in Shrublands, Bond is rejuvenated. However, his new easy going, health conscious life is abruptly cut short when he is sent to the Bahamas to investigate the hijacking of two nuclear bombs by SPECTRE. Nassau, the Bahamian capital, boasts stunning tropical landscapes and azure waters. It’s where Bond’s mission to thwart SPECTRE’s plans truly unfolds.
In the Bahamas, Bond teams up with Felix Leiter, recalled to duty by the CIA. Together, they investigate the mysterious activities surrounding SPECTRE and the stolen atomic bombs. Bond’s interactions with Dominetta “Domino” Vitali, Emilio Largo’s mistress, end with him recruiting her to spy on Largo.
Largo is leasing Palmyra, located at Lyford Key, which was inspired by Ian Fleming’s friend Ivar Bryce’s property Xanadu. It turns out Largo is leasing the property from a Mr Bryce. Bond and Leiter visit Largo aboard the Disco Volante, his hydrofoil moored just offshore. Ostensibly making an enquiry about Palmyra, they are equipped with a hidden Geiger counter which shows that the bombs are not aboard. When Bond dons scuba equipment and takes a close look at the hull of the Disco Volante he finds hidden doors below the waterline. They conclude that the bombs are therefore hidden nearby and have been transported aboard the hydrofoil.
The climax of the novel unfolds as Bond and Leiter join the crew of the American nuclear submarine Manta to capture the Disco Volante and recover the stolen bombs. A dramatic underwater battle ensues, leading to the demise of Largo and the successful recovery of the bombs.
The story kicks off with Bond suffering from a severe hangover, courtesy of a night of bridge and eleven whisky and sodas. It’s clear that Bond enjoys his spirits, and he’s not afraid to indulge, even if it results in a rough morning.
After being called into M’s office he is confronted with the results of his latest medical. Bond’s medical report reveals some eye-opening statistics about his drinking habits. He’s a heavy smoker, consuming 60 high-nicotine cigarettes daily, and he drinks around half a bottle of spirits with alcohol content ranging from 34% to 40% proof. These habits have taken a toll on his health, leading to frequent headaches and various physical issues.
In an attempt to restore his health, Bond is sent to Shrublands. After coming close to death on “the rack” at the hands of Cunt Lippe, nurse Patricia Fearing his tasked with helping him recover. During a deep massage session Bond, never one to refuse a good drink, asks for a double whisky on the rocks, showing that even a health retreat won’t curb his love for spirits. She does have a bottle of brandy with her though. After downing his glass he immediately requests a refill.
Bond’s first encounter with Domino in Nassau involves drinks. While she opts for a double Bloody Mary with plenty of Worcester sauce, Bond opts for a vodka and tonic with bitters.
After Felix Leiter checks into their hotel they go up to his room to discuss their mission and order double dry martinis on the rocks. After lunch they have a second double dry martini on the terrace. Invited aboard the Disco Volante that afternoon by Largo, Bond and Leiter opt for plain tonic. Perhaps they had overdone the lunchtime martinis.
Later Bond sends a report back to London from the police HQ. After returning to the hotel, Bond showers then indulges in a double bourbon old-fashioned before having a well-earned nap. When Bond later meets Felix in the hotel bar the CIA man immediately orders dry martinis. “I asked for a martini and not a soused olive”, he complains to the barman. After a lesson in bar economics Felix asks him to mix two large dry martinis to be served without olives and with slices of lemon peel served separately.
Later at the casino, Bond and Felix enjoy coffee and Stingers before Bond takes on Largo at the Chemin de Fer table. Later, he treats Domino to a bottle of Clicquot rosé and $50 worth of Beluga caviar.
As the story reaches its climax, Bond orders a club sandwich and a double bourbon on the rocks prior to boarding the USS Manta as Largo and his men prepare to set sail.
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