I’ve lost count of how many novels I’ve read over the years that fictionalize author Ian Fleming’s involvement in Naval Intelligence in World War II. In each case, known history, speculative biography, and obvious literary invention meet. Most yarns by the likes of Damian Stevenson and Aaron Cooley seek to present foreshadowings of what Fleming would write in his James Bond books. The imaginations of such writers are usually quite fanciful with Fleming being more the action figure than he actually was.
I can’t recall any previous work quite as literate as Francine Mathews’ To Bad to die which weaves flashbacks from Fleming’s childhood into his investigation into a Nazi plot to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at their November 1943 conference in Tehran to plan out the Normandy invasion. Very convincingly, Mathews sketches many portraits of important historical figures from the “Big Three” to their entourages and family members, code-breaker Allan Turing, broadcaster Edward R. Morrow, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek, and U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, Averell Harriman.
Although little of this story happened or could have happened in 1943, Mathews is especially believable creating the milieu in which all these figures walked, notably using vocabulary and terms of English schoolboys when Fleming was young. Hints of the Bond books to come include references to martinis shaken, not stirred, a voice inside Fleming’s head giving him the alter ego of 007, a false passport giving Commander Fleming the fake name of James Bond, and a torture scene is clearly meant to seem the inspiration for a very similar situation in 1953’s Casino Royale. The death of Fleming’s father during World War I is offered as the psychological motivation for Fleming’s spinning out fantastic yarns. In short, Mathews digs deeper than many other writers to give readers more than a hot and fast page-turner.
Obviously, Bond fans, World War II buffs, and lovers of espionage yarns in general are a perfect audience for Too Bad to Die. Aficionados of suspense and mystery stories should find much to appreciate from Francine Mathews’ descriptive tale, even if few readers will miss the obvious clues that reveal who the main villain is long before he levels a pistol at Fleming. Still, I can’t help but think the actual creator of James Bond would approve of this one.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Oct. 29, 2016: