James Bond: The Spy Who Nearly Came in from the Cold

by Jonathan English

[As the new Bond film No Time to Die showcases a character who has deepened, growing more mature, emotionally honest, and even sacrificial, the following groundbreaking article looks back nearly 60 years to explore overlooked depths in the 1962 Ian Fleming short story “The Living Daylights.” Further, as illuminated here, the dark vision and bleak Berlin setting of “The Living Daylights” bear striking similarities to John le Carré’s 1963 masterpiece The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Such similarities raise provocative possibilities of influence. –Encomia]

Ian Fleming once claimed, in self-deprecating fashion, “I am not ‘involved.’ My books are not ‘engaged.’ I have no message for suffering humanity.” Critics likely agree with him. He wanted to entertain, period. Yet after reading a story like “The Living Daylights,” one begins to suspect that the claim is not always true, that occasionally, as in this story, he smuggles in serious ideas with serious intent. This underrated story merits reappraisal as it grapples with dark, competing moral vision, in the vein of John le Carré, whose masterpiece it may have influenced.

In a laconic and understated way, the story orchestrates a sustained motif of sight and vision, evoking ideas of moral perception and moral judgment. These ideas, in turn, bear a striking similarity to ideas engaged in John le Carré’s masterpiece The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In fact, as explored below, distinct parallels in plot, theme, setting, timing, tone, and mood between “The Living Daylights” and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold raise a fascinating possibility that Ian Fleming’s short story may have influenced elements of John le Carré’s novel, even though the two authors are generally quite distinct in style. First, consider the dark vision of “The Living Daylights.”

Moral Vision in “The Living Daylights”

The premise seems straightforward. Bond is sent by M. from London to Berlin in early fall of 1960 to act as sniper. (This was a year before construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.) In order to protect a Western agent (identified as “Number 272”) attempting to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin, Bond is instructed to spot and kill the enemy sniper who has been assigned to assassinate 272 as he crosses from East to West. The crossing, and the assassination, is to take place at the future location of Checkpoint Charlie. 272 would cross over on any one of three consecutive nights.

A motif of vision and perception runs throughout the story in provocative ways. In the opening paragraph of the opening scene, Bond is engaged in target practice at a range outside London eyeing a six-foot-square target five hundred yards away. Fleming writes, “to the human eye” the target “looked no larger than a postage stamp.” “But,” he continues suggestively, “Bond’s lens, an infra-red Sniperscope fixed above his rifle, covered the whole canvas. He could even clearly distinguish the pale-blue and beige colours into which the target was divided, and the six-inch semi-circular” bull’s eye. Already, in the first paragraph, an impression is created of Bond’s observation, training, and clear perception, in a way that may imply metaphor as well as clearer vision than that of other characters.

Perception informs judgments of various kinds. Early in the story, in his meeting with M., Bond asks a question that forces clarity and a direct answer from M.: “Perversely, Bond wanted to force M. to put it in black and white.” In a pattern that repeats, increasing perception or clarity shapes Bond’s moral judgment, and he speaks more directly and clearly than anyone else: “This was going to be bad news, dirty news, and he didn’t want to hear it from one of the Section officers, or even from the Chief of Staff. This was to be murder. All right. Let M. bloody well say so.” M.’s own judgment resembles but varies from Bond’s: “Sorry to have to hand this to you. Nasty job. But it’s got to be done well.”[1]

The story is unrelentingly dark. The assignment is referred to as “ugly business.” Bond “sneer[s] at his profession.” As sniper, Bond wears “a black velvet hood stitched to a waist-length shirt of the same material. The hood had wide slits for the eyes and mouth. It reminded Bond of old prints of the Spanish Inquisition, or of the anonymous operators on the guillotine platform during the French Revolution.” Bond thinks of his role as an “executioner.”

The West seems subject to critique too, not just the East. Berlin is perceived as a “glum” city, in Bond’s eyes, “varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motorcars.” It’s as if the appearance of East and West differ due to this “brittle veneer,” but the essence, the soul, is similarly glum. And is it merely by chance that the “brittle veneer” is compared to American motorcars?

Interestingly, Bond never entirely justifies his assignment. He wavers perhaps. Assassination is against the law. But might one argue that such a killing was justified, a preemptive killing in defense of another? The closest he comes to justifying the killing is back in London, on the way to the airport, when he thinks, “it was the life of this man ‘Trigger’ [the sniper on the East Berlin side] against the life of 272. It wasn’t exactly murder. Pretty near it, though.” Later though, on the final night of the mission, Bond lashes out at his British contact in Berlin, the aptly named Sender, portrayed as a dutiful state tool: “Look, my friend, . . . I’ve got to commit a murder tonight. Not you. Me. So be a good chap and stuff it, would you? . . . Think I like this job? Having a Double-O number and so on? I’d be quite happy for you to get me sacked from the Double-O Section.”

Some judgments turn out to be incorrect. (Spoilers ahead.) On the final night of the mission, as 272 begins his run, Bond spots the enemy sniper, who turns out to be not a man, as assumed, but the blond woman with the cello he had seen each previous night. She has been humanized already, for Bond and the reader, through his imagination. Instantly, Bond reacts by adjusting his aim before firing. The shot hits the Kalashnikov, tearing it off its mounting, instead of killing the woman. Bond was quick with his adjustment, but the woman had begun to shoot. Yet 272 crosses safely.

The final judgments are fascinating. Sender says he has to report the incident, stressing, “You had clear orders to exterminate ‘Trigger’.” “He paused. His eyes flicked over Bond’s shoulder, avoiding Bond’s eyes. ‘Sorry about the report. Got to do my duty, y’know. You should have killed that sniper whoever it was.’”

Bond has the last words: “With any luck it’ll cost me my Double-O number. But tell Head of Station not to worry. That girl won’t do any more sniping. Probably lost her left hand. Certainly broke her nerve for that kind of work. Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book, that was enough.”

Sender stresses duty. Bond, however, adapts and disregards his orders. Recognition of the adversary’s individual identity prompts Bond to act in accordance with his prior, uncoerced moral vision or conscience. As the story unfolds, the ordered killing (as opposed to mere shooting) does not seem justified. Arguably, by targeting the rifle or the sniper’s hand in the first instance, Bond would have prevented the sniper from even getting off a shot. (One could argue that this latter aim would require a more difficult shot than targeting the body. Yet the sniper, like Bond, was dressed in dark camouflaging clothing, making a shot to the body uncertain too.) If this is correct, then M.’s orders and Sender’s judgments were wrong. Fleming doesn’t clearly answer the question however. One wonders if Bond’s superiors were trying not just to save 272, but to eliminate the sniper to prevent her from acting in the future, perhaps representing an extension of wartime mentality in (Cold War) peacetime.

But given that Fleming was an intelligence officer during World War II writing for an audience in the wake of that war, the story inevitably raises the specter of the “just following orders” defense relied on by Germans in response to accusations of war crimes. (Fleming’s war service included founding and running 30 Assault Unit, which seized German documents, such as the German naval archive, later used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.)[2] The Nuremberg Trials famously judged the “just following orders” defense inadequate to defend against certain crimes. Significantly, Bond was content to lose his role as 007 over his insubordination. In this way, he nearly came in from the cold.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Parallels to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold are striking. John le Carré’s novel opens and closes with attempted crossings at night from East to West Berlin, interrupted by rifle fire, echoing basic setting and plot elements of “The Living Daylights.” The weary, jaded James Bond, depicted as willing to lose his job in “The Living Daylights,” resembles the jaded, hard-drinking protagonist Alec Leamas, who elaborately enacts burnout and firing from the service. (Though the firing, in this case, is a set up for Leamas to defect and infiltrate East German intelligence.)

Both stories question whether the ends can justify the means. Leamas’s boss, Control, says frankly, “I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?” Leamas turns away from this view in the end. So, too, Bond deviates from his orders, adopting a more measured, proportional, and human response to an actual threat, accomplishing “enough . . . [i]n [his] book.” Admittedly, though, Bond’s motivation is not quite so high-minded, inspired as it is, in part, by his attraction from afar to the unnamed blond agent. Still, both stories, through the attitudes adopted by the protagonists, arguably critique the type of covert assassination attempts carried on by the CIA in the decades after World War II.[3]

Bleakness of mood, tone, and setting recur. Leamas comes to see his mission as a “filthy, lousy operation.” Just as Bond’s mission is referred to as “ugly business” and a “[n]asty job.” The intelligence world is darkened to a dingy shade of grey in these stories. Intelligence officers who turn away their eyes, attempting to evade moral vision or responsibility in Fleming’s story seem to reappear in John le Carré’s “grey men” in the grey world of intelligence-gathering described throughout his novels. Yet both Bond and Leamas strive to maintain moral clarity and moral responsibility in these stories. Though Leamas’s ending is bleaker, more sacrificial, each in the end turns away from their superiors’ plans, willing to give up the grey world. Thus, despite the bleakness afflicting both East and West in the stories, both protagonists reflect the courage and aspiration of free individual conscience that is often associated with the “free world” in the Cold War.

In this sense, like Leamas, Bond comes in from the cold, temporarily. The author William Boyd points us back to something Leamas’s superior, Control, said earlier in the novel: “We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible, of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really. I mean . . . one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold . . . d’you see what I mean?” Boyd elaborates, “So, ‘coming in from the cold’ also means displaying a fundamental human empathy, of living with sympathy for others. It means the very opposite of being ‘hard’.” Thus, in the end, Bond, like Leamas, shows sympathy to another human being, and in doing so, comes in from the cold.

Finally, consider the uncanny proximity in timing of the two stories. “The Living Daylights” was first published in The Sunday Times on February 4, 1962, a publication with a wide audience and a circulation that had recently climbed to one million.[4] One month later, on March 11, 1962, David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) wrote to Ann Cornwell, “I’ve just hit on a very good plot (I think) for another [novel].”[5] This novel was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It seems quite likely that the young author David Cornwell would have read a new short story by the famous spy novelist Ian Fleming, if merely out of curiosity.

Of course, the similarities and timing noted above don’t necessarily mean there was any direct inspiration from the shorty story. The author revealed the inspiration for his character Alec Leamas in his essay appended to the fiftieth anniversary edition of the novel. (Though he hedges: “Or so my memory, not always a reliable informant, tells me.”) Further, le Carré had developed a harsh view of Bond by 1966, when he was interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge, and he later described Bond as “totally materialist” and mercenary. Moreover, le Carré’s novel is intricate, with complex characters and a far more complicated plot than just two different attempts to cross over the just-constructed Berlin Wall. And for a writer-spy, the construction of a wall through the middle of the divided city in the midst of a Cold War surely roused the imagination. He recounted, “Staring at the Wall was like staring at frustration itself, and it touched an anger in me that found its way into the book.”[6] (Actually, le Carré was stationed in Bonn, not Berlin, at the time.) Yet in dismissing the suggestion of conscious influence from a different work (Agatha Christie’s short story “The Witness for the Prosecution”), John le Carré acknowledged that “I think there are a whole bunch of influences that kick around in one’s head at such a time, and one draws on them because they are apposite, often without recognizing where they come from.”[7]

Regardless of the perhaps unanswerable question of influence, the parallels between the two stories are notable and underappreciated. Fleming significantly described himself as a writer not just of “thrillers” but of “Thrillers designed to be read as literature.” Particularly in his short stories, where the salaciousness and the action quotient is less and the literary quotient may be more, Fleming arguably experimented along lines he would not in the novels. In “The Living Daylights,” Fleming seized such literary expression, in his own laconic way, achieving a dark and sober vision akin to that of John le Carré, nearly ending Bond’s career.

[1] On point here, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the protagonist asks a police officer at the now official Berlin checkpoint, “What are your rules for shooting to protect a man coming over? A man on the run?” The officer answers, “We can only give covering fire if the Vopos shoot into our sector. . . . We can’t give covering fire. That’s the truth. They tell us there’d be war if we did.”

[2] See, e.g., “Littlehampton grants town freedom to James Bond unit,” BBC News (Oct. 5, 2013) (available at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-sussex-24398930).

[3] The Eisenhower Foundation website, for example, notes that Eisenhower’s “New Look” national security policy, adopted in 1953, called for “using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to carry out covert actions against governments or leaders that were directly or indirectly under Soviet influence. Eisenhower believed that covert actions were a cost-effective manner to counter Soviet expansion while allowing the U.S. to largely avoid responsibility for publically challenging actions. CIA tactics included subversion as well as assassination attempts.” Eisenhower Foundation, “Waging Peace,” in Eisenhower Memorial “Pivotal Moments,” (available at https://www.eisenhowerfoundation.net/experience/#/waging_peace/151221) (click on “Covert Action”). For example, under both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations, the CIA repeatedly attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro, with one attempt reportedly occurring the day Kennedy was killed. See, e.g. “CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro with poison pen on day of JFK’s assassination,” The Independent (available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/cia-fidel-castro-jfk-assassination-attempt-poison-pen-a8047096.html) (citing a May 23, 1967 Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro, available here). Such covert activity led to backlash. On February 19, 1976, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 banning political assassination by anyone employed by the United States government. Two years later, President Carter issued Executive Order 12036 (Jan. 26, 1978) which broadened the prohibition, banning any assassination by anyone on behalf of the United States government. The prohibition was extended under successive administrations, being repeated in Executive Order 12333 (Dec. 4, 1981) by President Reagan. The definition of assassination can become an issue when applying such rules. See, e.g., Elizabeth B. Bazan, “CRS Report for Congress, RS21037, Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333: Brief Summary” (Jan. 4, 2002) (available at https://irp.fas.org/crs/RS21037.pdf).

[4] “The Sunday Times,” Wikipedia (accessed Sept. 23, 2021) (citing Harold Hobson, Philip Knightley, and Leonard Russell, The Pearl of Days (1972), 339).

[5] Adam Sisman, John le Carré: The Biography (New York: Harper, 2015), ch. 11, n. 32.

[6] Ibid., ch. 11, n. 34.

[7] Quoted by Adam Sisman, John le Carré: The Biography (New York: Harper, 2015), ch. 11.

The photograph above, a still from the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), recreates Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing between East and West Berlin.