1. To Whom It May Concern: 'Octopussy'

    By Evan Willnow on 2002-05-09


    It seems common for a review of Fleming’s final story Octopussy to quickly dismiss the story. The reviewer may even give the story a positive review, but will usually say the story is a simple morality tale and will complain of James Bond’s small part. I personally have always had a bit of a different take on Octopussy.

    Please pardon me if this theory has been presented before as I have always found it a bit obvious. Since however I have to date not personally read of anyone else who has shared it, I thought I might as well be the one to share. This article, however, is not an attempt to convince others to see Octopussy the way I do, but rather to show how I have come to see it this way.

    At the conclusion of my first reading of the short story Octopussy, I sat in awe and stared its final page. I was amazed by this tale. I saw it as a unique and brilliant story in the Fleming James Bond canon. For the first and only time in the series, it was not its main character, James Bond, that I saw symbolising the author. Instead Fleming stood represented by Major Dexter Smythe, an aging British military officer who was able to hide the signs of age and still present himself as respectable, dashing man of honour. Both Major Smythe and Fleming had retired to Jamaica and had suffered heart ailments. The parallels between Major Smythe and Fleming are numerous, but rather than bloat this article to the length of a short story itself, I will leave to the reader to make the comparison.

    In the story Major Smythe was a man who had earlier in life committed a single, despicable crime to insure a comfortable lifestyle. As the reader will know the Major is confronted with this crime by James Bond and is given the chance by Bond to end his life and still maintain his honour.

    At the time I did not know much about the Ian Fleming, but I was sure that Major Dexter Smythe was the author’s alter ego for this tale. But if Smythe was Fleming than I had two issues: Was this story an admission of a crime by the author? And more importantly, was Octopussy not just a short story, but also a suicide note?

    I knew the date of Ian Fleming’s death and knew that the book Octopussy And The Living Daylights was released after that date. Surely, Octopussy had been a previously released story reprinted from a magazine as I knew most of the Bond short stories were. I turned to the book’s copyright page. ‘Octopussy © 1965, 1966 by the Literary Executors of Ian Fleming deceased,’ the page read. It was that point when my fascination with the character of James Bond extended to its creator.

    The crime, I thought, would be something I could never prove, but Octopussy being a suicide note, that should be quickly proved or dismissed by a simple check into Fleming’s death.

    Later that week I took a walk to my town’s library and found a since forgotten magazine with a brief biography of Ian Fleming. The magazine said Fleming had died of heart failure. I supposed my suicide note theory was wrong and checked out a copy of You Only Live Twice and went about enjoying Bond as I had always done before.

    But Octopussy always nagged me, there was something more to it. I read later read another short biography, which confirmed heart failure as cause of death.

    It wasn’t until I read an in-depth story about the film and book Thunderball that I had my next clue to Octopussy‘s mystery, but this was the half of the mystery I previously thought unsolvable, the crime. Fleming had taken the story of a screen treatment created by himself, screenwriter Jack Whittingham, and producer Kevin McClory to create the novel Thunderball–without credit to either McClory or Whittingham. That was the crime, I thought, Major Smythe’s murder of his guide after finding the horde of Nazi gold. The non-credit of McClory and Whittingham was minor compared to murder, but this was still a Bond story. And one thing I had learned from reading a few minor Fleming biographies was that often James Bond scenarios were incidents in Fleming’s life with a bit of murder and mayhem added to spice things up.

    So half of my theory had some merit. And everything in the other half, Octopussy being a suicide note, fit except one thing; Fleming did not commit suicide. A suicide note needs a suicide. Perhaps I was wrong; maybe the Major’s death was just some kind of metaphor for Fleming’s pending death.

    Or maybe it was just a story.

    Regardless, I hung on to my seemingly odd theory, but kept it mostly to myself. It wasn’t until three weeks ago that I finally found the last clue, the piece of information that made this story make complete sense to me. It was an article by William Boyd on Times Online entitled ‘Kedgeree, shaken not stirred‘ about the last days of Fleming. Boyd contented that in Fleming had a death wish and was purposefully disobeying the doctor’s order in order to speed death along. At last, I knew my whole theory had weight.

    Okay, I could have been a bit more proactive and sought out some more biographies and found this information out earlier. I have read a few, but they mostly dealt with Fleming’s early life. Other clues had been there Fleming’s death wish, such as the conversation Fleming had with Pedro Armendáriz (Kerim Bey) at the wrap party for the film From Russia With Love. It is told that Fleming and Armendáriz, who was himself dying of cancer, spoke about how they each admired Ernest Hemingway’s choice of suicide rather than prolonged suffering with his cancer. Within a month of the party both Fleming and Armendáriz were dead, the latter from a self-inflicted gunshot. Yes, I’m sure I could have found more evidence of Fleming’s death wish, except, as a fan, I really never wanted to find out that Fleming committed suicide.

    So here we have it; Major Smythe represents Fleming, the crime of stealing the gold is Fleming’s plagiarism of Thunderball, the Octopus probably represented Fleming’s simple deadly pleasures such as smoking and drinking or perhaps his illness. The one question left who does James Bond represent? Kevin McClory? No, I doubt Fleming would put any positive spin to McClory’s stand-in. Perhaps a kind lawyer who had given Fleming similar time to put things in order. No, again, it doesn’t fit. I have to believe in this case that James Bond represents James Bond, or rather Ian Fleming’s fame gained by his creation of the character. If this is true it would seem that Fleming felt the popularity of James Bond, which stood at the eve of its apex, had not only shown that he could not hide from his crime but also had given him his opportunity for reprieve–his chance to die while still holding his dignity.

    There are possibly other representations in the story–personifications for the Foo brothers, a meaning in the serial number of the Webley & Scott .45–but I have found enough to satisfy my belief. Perhaps I’ll search for other subtle meanings later, but it has been twenty years since my first reading of Octopussy, and I doubt that I shall dig any more without stumbling over a shovel and a sign reading ‘dig here’.

    Fleming’s life did end on 11 August 1964, and though it was never considered a suicide, neither was the death of Major Smythe. As with the Major, Fleming had just let himself die. Fleming had been told that if he did not quit his vices of smoke and drink that his life would end. Instead of abandoning these vices in favour of a longer life, he embraced them and encouraged death to come. When he was finally successful in bringing life to its end there was no suicide note.

    But there was Octopussy.