Monday, June 02, 2008

Devil May Die

100 years and five days ago, Ian Fleming was born in London. The man who’d later create James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was two days older than Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, and three years older than Thora Hird.

To celebrate this (well, the 100 years bit), Penguin have produced a new James Bond novel, written by Sebastian Faulks. Faulks had previously pastiched Fleming’s style in Pistache, and Devil May Care makes every effort to be the book Fleming would have written had he not died prematurely at the age of 56 – just as Bond was becoming a screen icon.

It’s set in 1967, eighteen months after the events of Fleming’s final Bond (in which a brainwashed Bond tries to kill M, and then tries to make up for it by chasing a man with a golden gun). Bond is on enforced sabbatical, wandering the world and struggling to decide if he’s going to quit the Secret Service.

In Marseilles, his killer instincts spot a man wearing one glove. And then in Rome he acts completely out of character, declining nookie with an amazing, married woman. What do these chance encounters have to do with a corpse in Paris that’s had it’s tongue torn out, and with the terrifying increase in heroin addiction amongst posh kids in London and Manchester?

This is very much the Bond of the books – a man who hates gadgets because they are cheating, and who doesn’t always get the girl. Yet Fleming was himself influenced by the films, and gave Bond a Scottish mother in the wake of Sean Connery.

(I’d argue that the films cast a much more definite shadow over the subsequent, post-Fleming Bond novels. The ‘M’ in Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun reads just like Bernard Lee, while there’s a tricky moment in John Gardiner’s novel of Licence to Kill where he has to rationalise Felix Leiter getting fed to sharks twice.)

Faulks, though, consciously steers away from the films. As early as page 4 we’re following Rene Mathis – a loyal friend in the books, but a suspect in the most recent film. It’s a neat and immediate signpost that this Bond’s not Daniel Craig.

Throughout, there’s evidence of Faulks’ spotless research, with a great weight of references back to Bond’s earlier adventures. He remembers his card games with Le Chiffre and Sir Hugo, or his time on the Orient Express with Tanya. There’s the skin graft on his right hand, and mention of his various adventures in Jamaica. (Fleming would also reference his previous books, with footnotes explaining which books you should have read already.)

Bond aficionados will also spot specific Fleming turns of phrase: the comma of hair that hangs down over one of Bond’s eyebrows, or how we always know exactly what he’s wearing. The pornographic detail for clothes and food and pretty objects remind us Bond is an eagle-eyed watcher. Yet his constant omelettes and whiskies remind us that while he may be a snob, his tastes can be pretty bland. He likes simplicity: beautiful women who don't wear too much make-up, cooking that doesn't need fuss. For all he likes good wine, he often order food more as fuel than pleasure.

This is an old-skool secret agent, who despairs at the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and doesn’t like using gadgets. It’s the villains who have the cool new vehicles and ways of cheating at tennis. There's also something rather gentlemanly about how, while clothes and lipstick are painstakingly documented, we get no description of girls when they're naked. (When clothed it's okay to keep mentioning their breasts.)

But Bond’s muttering about silly, middle-class kids ruining their lives smoking marijuana makes him sound out of touch; from a generation and set of values that is ebbing away. Of course, Bond can identify the strain that they’re smoking with his brilliant nose. And he is himself a big drinker and smoker, as well as guzzling Benzedrine and sleeping tablets. But you feel a little as he drives perplexed through hippy London that he's being left behind.

Just as with the period setting in the most recent Indiana Jones, there’s fun to be had in making references that resonate with now. A sizeable chunk of the book has Bond agenting in Iran – or Persia, as it was under the British-positioned Shah. There are mentions of Afghanistan and Iraq and some hand-wringing about Western intervention in these countries. There’s a great gag, too, when Felix Leiter has never heard of Tehran.

But this isn’t an especially profound book with things to say about Britain’s role in the world – then or now. The villainous Gorner gleefully quotes the horrors done by the British under the imperial banner – the opium trade in China, the Mau Maus and the Irish potato famine. But these things seem more there to show he’s a maniac obsessive than to adeptly critique anything Bond himself stands for.

(The films have done better there: Sean Bean has a justifiable grudge against the Brits in Goldeneye, and there’s a brilliant moment in Casino Royale when Le Chiffre, in the midst of torturing Bond, knows the British will still offer him clemency.)

Gorner is a pantomime villain with a deformity, very much in keeping with the grotesque sadists Bond has fought before. Faulks obviously has a brilliant get-out clause that anything clunky, cliched or absurdly contrived in this is just him being authentically Fleming.

How convenient that Bond just happens to spot the villain several chapters before he’s even briefed on him. How convenient that Bond so uncharacteristically turns down the advances of Scarlett when he first meets her, so that he can spend the rest of the book anticipating getting into her pants. You wonder how differently things would have gone if he’d shagged her on that first night – without the thrill of the chase, would he have been half so bothered?

There’s an outrageous attempt to cover the mad coincidence by having people ask Bond if he believes in destiny. (The same trick is tried in John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, where Richard Hannay also just happens to stumble into all the people who’ll be vital to the story. And, like here, you can only gape at the bare-faced cheek of trying that excuse.)

But Faulks also writes a gripping tale, full of Fleming’s abrupt and sadistic surprises. He improves on Fleming’s woeful ear for dialogue while still doling out pages of exposition.

There are some great set pieces: a tennis match where Bond insists on playing fairly against a foe who won’t; a fight on a train which ends like Vivyan in The Young Ones; an incongruous machine described early in the book that ends up doing for the villain at the end. The final twist is also neatly done, and just about manages to explain away some very odd behaviour by one person.

One small blooper: Bond says he's not been to Russia before, but that's where he got brainwashed in the period between You Only Live Twice and The Man With The Golden Gun. Okay, so maybe he doesn't remember being there, but he'd know that he had been.

What makes the book so enjoyable is how much it feels like Fleming. But that also means it doesn’t push the format too far. Fleming himself tried to keep things varied, setting Moonraker all in the UK, for example, or telling The Spy Who Loved Me in the first person. Faulks brilliantly captures the crude thrill and hackneyed inelegance of the books’ Bond, and it’s a considerable achievement to produce what feels so like perfectly generic Fleming.

It’s a seamless addition to the James Bond canon and a rollicking, punchy old shocker. But I think Faulks’ regular readers, or those who don’t know their Fleming, or only know Bond from the films, may well be scratching their heads. If Devil May Care pricks your interest, make sure to have read Casino Royale first.

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