Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

ex libris

-- ex libris -- bondage. secretarial bondage

The Moneypenny Diaries
by "Kate Westbrook" (Samantha Weinberg)
volume 1 (London: John Murray, 2005, published in Britain with subtitle "Guardian Angel"; New York:Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press, 2008)
volume 2: The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant (London: John Murray, 2006)
volume 3: The Moneypenny Diaries: Final Fling (London: John Murray, 2008

So, you always wondered what Miss Moneypenny got up to while James Bond was off saving the world, right? After all, she couldn't have been waiting there for James to come back and flirt with her again, no matter how the movies made things look. Well, with The Moneypenny Diaries, we finally get to find out.

The premise is: "Kate Westbrook", Moneypenny's niece, is send a trunk 10 years after her aunt's death in what appears to be an accident at sea. When opened, the trunk reveals the diaries that Jane Moneypenny kept through the 1960s. She kept the diaries as a way of maintaining a sort of contact with her father who died in WWII -- though, it turns out, not quite as they'd always heard. Needless to say, keeping written diaries, in which she discussed the various operations of the Office, was in direct contravention of Britain's Official Secrets Act, and she could easily have been fired and jailed for her offense. She was pefectly well aware of the consequences, and yet kept the diaries. One of the threads of her diaries is what it was like to be in the intelligence services during the time of Philby and other British intelligence failures, and she knows full well that her diaries would be seen in the same light, and could be just as valuable if obtained by Redland (the Soviet Union's code name). It also turns out, however, that there may have been another mole planted in British intelligence, and the diaries are also a record of what Moneypenny and M and others were trying to do to catch that person. Kate Westbrook determines to publish her aunt's diaries, and she winds up waking some sleeping dogs, who are determined to stop her.

Where Weinberg excels is in wrapping Bond history around actual history, in wonderfully seamless ways. (I thought, for example, that Prenderghast was a real person, and it took a bit of digging to discover that he was only a Bond person.) She uses footnotes to refer you back and forth, but without letting you know whether she's talking about something real or something Bond. Weinberg also evokes the times and the then-traditional role of women very well, as when Moneypenny worries about whether or not she should wear pants into the Savoy.

Weinberg also draws Jane Moneypenny herself very well, showing how she's so very good at her job that she briefly gets seconded as acting head of Jamaica section (the one where Bond keeps getting the section heads killed, yes -- in fact, that 's kind of why she goes out there). And think about it: as the secretary to M, and the person who sees and vets all the 00-agent reports, she has a security clearance probably second only to M himself; certainly a more stringent clearance than any of the 00-agents themselves have, since all of them report through her. She started out in the cipher unit, so she has a very quick and analytical mind. She also winds up on missions of her own, once by accident, twice on purpose, and one sort of self assigned (trying to discover the Sieve, the last mole in British intelligence at the time, and who may or may not even exist). She knows exactly how seriously to take James Bond and his flirting, but they're also real friends. And she has a romantic life of her own, though it comes under severe strain due to her job, and the fact that she can't ever tell the truth about what she does.

Weinberg also illuminates some points of Bond history that either I'd never read in the books or had completely forgotten. For example, it turns out that "James Bond" is a use name for MI6; the most effective agent gets that name on their promotion to the 00- unit. (I wouldn't be surprised if, over time, the 007 call sign winds up permanently linked to the "James Bond" house name.) It also turns out that, very briefly, Bond had a number in addition to 007, because he was administrative head of the 00 unit. It didn't last long; shortly after that promotion, he went to Japan and got involved in the "You Only Live Twice" mess. Fleming's books -- though apparently not the films -- also exist in that reality, as a sort of version of James Bond's diaries transcribed by Fleming. "James Bond", in one of those oddly ironic moments, winds up outliving Moneypenny, and we even meet him as part of the story. Very technically, we aren't meant to know that at the time -- Westbrook certainly doesn't -- but honestly, it feels very anvillicious. That said, I don't know if it was more obvious to me because I read the entire series over two weeks; if I'd read it over three years, as originally released, some of the clues might have been less apparent.

The one part of the series that's less successful is where Weinberg creates a conspiracy of people coming after Westbrook, possibly to prevent publication, or possibly for something more nefarious. It's possible that it could be MI6, of course, but at that point they've demonstrated how very easily they can ruin her life without threatening it, so if it's them, it would have to be some rogue faction within the unit. And in the event, when the conspirators are revealed, they make so little sense that the story even acknowledges that fact. To be sure, I understand why Weinberg might have felt that he story needed something of the sort, if Westbrook's story is going to be as involving as Moneypenny's story; it just doesn't really work as well. And honestly, I'm not sure that it was necessary; the detective story, where she does the research to prove her aunt right, kind of works well enough on its own.

In any event, the Moneypenny Diaries are a fun summer read, and a good Bond story in their own right. Something good to read while we're waiting for Quantum of Solace. And I have to admit, I got a kick out of imagining Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny doing all these things. And back when she first got the renewed Moneypenny role, Samantha Bond would have made an interesting Westbrook.

Highly recommended.

Posted by iain at 04:12 AM in category ex libris