Anyway, it has to be better than the latest Bond novel...
The first Bond novel, "Casino Royale, was published in 1953. And yet, dated and hackneyed as some of the novels can seem, they have life in them yet. Just as he does in the movies, Bond refuses to die. And since he is back in cinemas, courtesy of Daniel Craig's muscular interpretation of Britain's foremost killer; it's only fair that he return to book stores too.
To mark the centenary of Fleming's birth, his estate commissioned Sebastian Faulks to write a new bond novel. The best-selling travesty that is "Devil May Care" is with us now, offering a reminder that sometimes the original really is best.
Still Faulks must have seemed a sensible choice, not too literary to be threatening, yet sufficiently well-respected as the author of popular middlebrow novels such as "Birdsong" (which has sold an astonishing three million copies) as to give the exercise some credibility.
Perhaps it also helped that Faulks had written a volume of literary parodies which included a send-up of Fleming himself. But this should have been understood as a warning, not a declaration of promise. After all, other writers have tried to pick up the series where Fleming left off. Kingsley Amis, writing as Robert Markham, was the first, publishing "Colonel Sun" four years after Fleming's death in 1965. It was not a great success.
In this respect it is set a standard for the competently-executed but largely-forgettable volumes churned out by John Gardner and Raymond Benson in the 1980s and 90s. ow Faulks takes on Fleming's mantle. This was a riskier move than you might imagine, almost as bold, in fact, as attempting to write a fresh Sherlock Holmes adventure. Like Holmes, Bond is treated by his fans as though he was a real-life character, rather than the expression of Fleming's wish-fulfillment.
These are deceptively tranquil waters in which to swim. The very attributes that make it seem so simple to produce a fresh Bond adventure - the girls, the villain, the gasdgets, the cars, the Sea Island cotton shirts, dry martinis and cigarettes from Morland's - all, the established cliches of the genre - are traps for a writer. They restrict his freedom, forcing him into a cul de sac of cliche from which there is, alas, no escape. You might think the very flatness of Fleming's style would be easy to replicate, but it turns out that's it's riper for parody than emulation.
All of which is to say that the extra publicity afforded Faulks - to say nothing of his more elevated place on the literary food-chain, makes his failure with "Devil May Care" more, not less, galling.
Then again, perhaps it is not really Faulks' fault. Rather, Bond's ubiquity and the success of a (partially) revitalized movie franchise limits Faulks' room to experiment: many fans would cry foul if Fleming's successors tinkered with, let alone abandoned, any part of the formula. Yet saving Bond requires that parts of the tried-and-tested formula be abandoned.
The failure to take such risks - whether on the page or on the screen - ensures that any time originality bumps up against pastiche and the well-worn cliches of the Bondian genre, the cliches prevail. Perhaps understandably neither the Fleming Estate nor the makers of the Bond movies can quite bring themselves to make such a radical leap. But "Devil may Care" reads like pastiche; enjoyable froth for half an hour or thirty pages but ultimately as forgettable as the previous 22 non-Fleming Bond novels.
It is infelicitously written too. For instance, M instructs warns Bond that his adversary, Dr Julius Gorner, is a formidable foe. Intelligent too: "At Oxford, he took a first-class degree in modern greats - that's politics, philosophy and economics to you and me, Bond". There are two things wrong here: first, it's a convention that M only refers to Bond as "James" or "007", secondly, it is inconceivable that Bond, who studied at Cambridge, would need to have "modern greats" explained to him and equally inconceivable that M would have felt similarly. In other words, Faulks (or his editor) is writing for the audience at the expense of his characters' credibility. It is a small, but revealing slip.
This lack of subtlety is corrupting. Aficionados could smile when Bond checks in as "David Somerset" and enjoy the reference to the pseudonym 007 employs on the Orient Express in From Russia With Love; this insider knowledge is ruined, however, when Faulks reminds the reader that Bond has used this cover before. Stylistically this impedes the flow of the narrative while offering nothing to those readers who have form over course and distance and little to those who have never read Fleming's work.
Faulk's villain, Julius Gorner, is, like Dr No or Blofeld, marked by physical deformity (a monkey's paw, complete with non-opposable thumb. Yes, really) and, like Hugo Drax, has a bizarre, barely-explicable hatred for Great Britain (barely explicable in rational terms, I mean, but perfectly logical within the limitations of the genre). Like Kristatos in the short story "Risico" (from "For Your Eyes Only") he intends to destroy Britain by flooding the country with heroin. That's not enough, however, as, in the second half of the novel he launches a plot to bomb the Soviet Union, provoking a massive nuclear retaliation that will obliterate London. As if this were not enough, a CIA double agent, abets this conspiracy so as to force Britain to commit troops to the American's war in Vietnam.
In other words, by and large, we've been here before. Even one of the better-written scenes finds Bond playing tennis against Gorner, an unnecessary but not, in this instance, unwelcome homage to the famous golf match in "Goldfinger". But on and on it goes: Bond's contact in Tehran Darius Alizadeh, is obviously inspired by From Russia With Love's Darko Kerim, but whereas that novel gave a vivid, if doubtless false, impression of Cold War Istanbul, Faulk's depiction of pre-revolutionary Tehran (the novel is set in 1967) is lifeless.
At no point does the reader suspect that Faulks [ital] means [end ital] what he writes. And if the novelist is incapable of suspending his disbelief, how is the reader supposed to do so? Fleming once argued that Bond was the kind of fellow every man secretly wanted to be, and the sort of man every woman wanted to sleep with. Yet Faulks's Bond is merely capable. There's no [ital] frisson [end ital] to "Devil May Care", no sense that Bond is ever going to fail. But since we know that Bond will prevail in the end, atmosphere and the internal dynamics of the plot become more, not less, important. Even by Bondian standards, Faulks has constructed a plot shot-through with absurdity; crucially he also fails to build tension. The best of Fleming's novels - Casino Royale, Moonraker, From Russia With Love - still [ital] grip [end ital].
In the end the "Devil May Care" but, alas, you probably won't. Did it have to be this way? Not necessarily: the way to save Bond from the limitations of being Bond is to take him up-market, wiseing-up rather than dumbing-down. Faulks sets his novel in 1967, but there's no hint of menace or Cold War chill in his script. Nor does he take the opportunity to wonder - or permit Bond to wonder - what he's actually doing.
By 1967 Bond must be in his mid-forties and ripe for existential crisis. The Britain he served in the war and through the 1950s is disappearing as the Swinging Sixties arrive. This new Britain is not Bond's Britain and yet he's still expected to protect it, with his life if necessary. Equally, the retreat from Empire leaves Britain a shadow of the power it once had been and provoked something of a crisis of confidence at the heart of the British state. What, in Dean Acheson's famous phrase, is Britain's role now it's lost an Empire?
Though the Bond series allowed Britons to indulge the fantasy that London could, as Harold Macmillan complacently put it, play Athens to Washington's Rome, the truth was that it had required American muscle all along. It is CIA money, remember, that permits Bond to stay in the game against Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale".
By the 1960s, after the retreat from all points east of Aden and the humiliation of Suez, even secret agents might question the point of it all. Was it really worth the risk, just for the reward of a supporting role in the great American Cold War epic? (A question that, in the Hindu Kush and Mesopotamia, remains relevent today) And, in any case, isn't Bond getting too old for this sort of caper anyway? Let some other blighter bear the burden of spying for Queen and country...
In other words, the way to save Bond is to kill off some of the sillyness that has infected the series, stripping it back to its essentials and beginning again, this time in darker, murkier tones that offer the possibility of originality while still satisfying the escapist demands of the secret agent genre. That might make for a Bond book worth caring about. Much more probably, alas, we will continue to be treated to referential homages that slip into pastiche, becoming a travesty of the very works they're intended to honour.