Written by Jim Lawrence
Art by Yaroslav Horak
Published in the Daily Express from February 19th, 1975 to July 15th, 1975
007 and fellow MI6 agent Suzy Kew (making a return appearance following Beware of Butterflies) are crouched in a tree overlooking the luscious Zurich estate of one Herr Rubin, more commonly known as Mr. Ruby. Ruby is not home presently, but his wife, Roanne Dreux, is. Bond and Kew’s mission involves ensnaring Roanne into a plot that would have Ruby believe his wife engaged in promiscuity with a British man, none other than Bond himself. While the set-up is quite elaborate, what MI6 wants to extract from the ordeal is something rather simple: the location of one Mr. Carver, a figurehead of Ruby’s own espionage cell, the latter wishing to be employed by that most dastardly and deadly of enemy organizations: SMERSH.
The title to this 9th and final story included in Omnibus 004 is a bit of a misnomer. More accurately, it is a collection of a term, name, and colour that together combined make it sound as if Bond will be involved in an adventure with a heist as its focal point, be it as an agitator or protector of whatever is sought after. The caper in question is only fleetingly important and dealt with very early in the story as Bond and Kew successfully retrieve from Herr Rubin’s office a little book with information protected by code language that requires demystification. The Ruby is ostensibly the popular name given to the chief antagonist. The black may be a reference to three things. The aforementioned book 007 steals from Ruby is black, which is the obvious reference. It also happens that that Bond Girl du jour is an African American, model Damara Carver, whose father is the real centre of everyone’s attention and must be found in order to foil a potential SMERSH plot. Lastly, Ruby’s ultimate objective is a plan baptized Operation Black Storm. Viewed in that light, the title is cleverer than one would initially suspect as it alludes to a variety of intriguing elements explored in the story itself as opposed to highlighting a single one.
There is a fair amount that serves its purpose in The Black Ruby Caper, and said positives will be broached soon enough, but it is only fair to mention in what respects Jim Lawrence ‘s and Yaroslav Horak’s efforts fails to hit all the sweet spots. For one, the sequential logic that should bind the adventure’s first and second halves is not especially strong. A surprising amount of time is spent on Bond’s undercover plot to get Ruby onto his own trail by faking Roanne’s infidelity. In doing so, Ruby is expected to come to learn that Bond is a secret agent with the intention of rustling the gangster’s Ghana-bound terrorist ambitions that may or may involved SMERSH as well (that point is actually never made clear. No SMERSH agents ever appear in the book, at least not explicitly). The entire sequence with Roanne goes on for several pages, only for her to be bought off by MI6 and sent to South America with some protection in the event that Ruby ever chooses to kill her off out of spite. Roanne is actually never seen again the story, which is fair game given how Damara Carver needs to be the focus point later on anyways, but one cannot help but feel that the yarn’s first leg could have been dealt with more expediently in order to get the real mission underway.
Criticisms aside, the opening sequence unapologetically displays Bond’s cold heartedness. First and foremost, Roanne, an innocent women, is thrust into obvious danger by 007 himself, forcefully so . The manner in which he goes about the ruse is equally harsh, what with Bond threatening Roanne at gunpoint to strip and kiss him on the estate’s veranda whilst Suzy Kew take photographs of the act that will be sent to Ruby shortly thereafter. It’s all rather misogynistic towards a woman whose biggest crime was being a villain’s main squeeze. Some will bristle as they read the book’s pages and take in the protagonist’s hardened ways while others will appreciate the story’s acceptance of Bond’s cruelty, a regular focal point of the original novels. The 007 of the Fleming novels was more often a jerk than he was an angel, and even when he opted to commit to something altruistic, there was frequently reluctance on his part. The first half of The Black Ruby Caper is an example of the secret agent at his coldest, harkening back to the source material in ways that will make some blush.
On the topic of unfortunate aspects to Lawrence’s and Horak’s endeavour is their propensity to have women strip for the flimsiest reasons imaginable. After Bond makes contact with Damara, the two have a conversation in the latter’s hotel room during which Damara takes off her top and casually has a drink with Bond as he attempts to explain why he needs her and how her father may be in grave danger. There is no logical reason why Damara would get topless immediately after meeting with Bond. It’s at moments such as these that the modern reader feels as if Lawrence and Horak were trying their utmost to be as racy and titillating as possible, even when the circumstances did not require them to do so. Sadly, having read read an entire omnibus of their stories, this also appears to be a regular feature as opposed to a rarity.
Even so, it is appealing to have a Black Bond Girl, the second in just a few stories from Lawrence and Horak. Even though it is mostly cosmetic (her being Black really doesn’t play into the story other than the fact that her father is somewhere in Ghana), it makes for a bit of a change and encourages Horak to flex his artistic muscles a bit more than he usually does with his twin-like blondes. Astute Bond fans will notice that Damara’s surname, Carver, is the same given to Rosie Carver, Bond’s buffoonish MI6 contact in 1973’s Live and Let Die. Thankfully, Damara proves vastly more witty and capable than Rosie ever was.
The more enthralling aspect to caper is Bond’s travels to Ghana where a game of cat and mouse ignites between Bond, Ruby and one of the latter’s criminal partners involved in Operation Black Storm. 007 rarely sets foot on the African continent, and on the few occasions when he has done so it usually means he is travelling the Maghreb region, north of the Sahara. This time the secret agent is closer to the continent’s heart, right off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. It changes the dynamic somewhat, although because Lawrence and Horak only have so much time to tell the story the reader does not get to indulge in much Ghanaian culture or sightseeing. In fact, a lot of the action takes place at night, either in and around storage complexes or in jungle flora, thus robbing the book the opportunity to shed pertinent light on the African country. Nevertheless, it is a neat idea and provides the tale with slightly different flavour, such as the statuettes paying respect to ancestral African culture that become significant as Bond reaches the finish line.
There are moments of solid action, as their needs to be in any good Bond adventure. 007’s telescopic vaulting pole used in the opening scene is a clever device courtesy of Q Branch (who aren’t as involved as they could be in the Daily Express strips), and there is one brawl that pits the Englishman against an extremely butch German woman guarding Ruby’s Zurich home that is both thrilling and comical given how the descriptive text boxes constantly allude to the fact that Bond doesn’t like shooting women, thus has to find a different to strike his opponent down in as ‘gentlemanly’ a manner as possible.
Omnibus 004 does not necessarily end on the highest of highs, but the concluding Black Ruby Caper represents an improvement over the preceding mission, the disappointing Phoenix Project. Lawrence and Horak would collaborate on a few more stories, and while the quality of their output is never of consistent quality, when they hit their stride the results are impressive, as with Isle of Condors and The Girl Machine. The Daily Express Newspaper strips are not perfect by any means, yet represent an adequately engaging interpretation of Ian Fleming’s most famous and revered creation.
Titan Books’ James Bond Omnibus 004 ends…but James Bond will return.