June 3, 2011 10:06 pm

Relicensed to kill

An illustration of the opening billboard of a James Bond movie

Carte Blanche, by Jeffery Deaver, Hodder & Staughton, RRP£19.99, 432 pages

 

There is a ritual towards the end of most James Bond adventures when the villain gloats over 007’s impending death. “Well, Mr Bond,” says his canasta-playing foe Auric Goldfinger in the novel Goldfinger, after having drugged Bond, trussed him up and whisked him away on a hijacked aircraft bound for the Soviet bloc. “So Fate wished us to play the game out. But this time, Mr Bond, there cannot possibly be a card up your sleeve. Ha!”

Goldfinger, of course, is wrong. Bond always has a card up his sleeve. He never dies. His creator, Ian Fleming, tired of what he called “Bonds and blondes and bombs”, tried to kill him off in the fifth Bond novel, From Russia with Love, published in 1957, which concludes with Smersh agent Rosa Klebb kicking Bond in the right calf with her deadly poisoned-stiletto boot. “Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor” are the final words.

It was to prove a brief exit, however. Spurred by Hollywood interest in adapting 007 for the screen, Fleming revived him in Dr No the following year. In 1962 the novel was adapted into the first Bond movie starring Sean Connery. The spy was transformed into an international film action hero, a cold war fantasy of suavely lethal British power who gripped popular imagination at precisely the moment Britain lost the last significant remnants of its empire. Similarly, Bond’s new lease of life in cinemas in the 1960s came at a time when Fleming was nearing the end of his.

Fleming died of a heart attack in 1964, aged 56. Almost 50 years later Bond is still going strong, not just in multiplexes – the 23rd Bond film, as yet unnamed, is being made with Daniel Craig reprising the role of 007, directed by Sam Mendes – but also as a literary character. There have been 23 official Bond novels written since Fleming’s death, produced by five different authors. The latest is Carte Blanche, by the American suspense writer Jeffery Deaver. It comes after Sebastian Faulks’s Devil May Care, whose publication in 2008 coincided with the centenary of Fleming’s birth.

Faulks’s addition to the Bond oeuvre is set in the 1960s and follows in the footsteps of You Only Live Twice, the last novel Fleming published before his death. Written by an author known for literary rather than genre fiction, it was an impeccably observed and often very funny pastiche of Fleming’s style, from a gourmandising interest in fine food and wine to the bizarrely grotesque baddie that Bond is sent to hunt down. “‘His left hand,’ said M, sitting down again, and staring Bond squarely in the eye. ‘It’s a monkey’s paw.’ ‘What?’ ‘An extremely rare congenital deformity.’” Even the six weeks Faulks took to dash off Devil May Care had the authentic tang of Fleming, who each year would repair for two months to his Jamaican villa to compose a new book.

Rather than write a period piece like Faulks, Deaver has updated Bond to a present day of satellite surveillance and the war on terror. 007’s favourite gadget is a mobile phone that “resembled an iPhone” and comes packed with snazzy Q-designed apps for spycraft. He is described as roughly 30 years old, which gives him a birth date of around 1980. It is disconcerting to realise that, according to Carte Blanche’s chronology, this new Bond must have been a contemporary of Prince William’s at Eton.

Deaver’s novel signals a new phase in Bond’s post-Fleming life. Commissioned by Fleming’s estate – the UK-based Ian Fleming Publications – the Illinois-born 61-year-old is a successful thriller writer with a mass market readership of his own. He specialises in serial killer mysteries, often featuring detective Lincoln Rhyme, a brilliant New York City Police Department (NYPD) criminologist who was left quadriplegic after an accident but still solves crimes through his genius for forensics. The first Rhyme book, The Bone Collector, was turned into a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.

Bond is not the only literary character to enjoy an active life after his creator’s death. 007’s mini-me Jason Bourne has thrived since Robert Ludlum died in 2001, appearing in a series of novels written by veteran thriller writer Eric Van Lustbader. (The latest, The Bourne Dominion, has been provocatively published at the same time as Carte Blanche.) Later this year Sherlock Holmes, who has appeared in countless tributes and adaptations since Arthur Conan Doyle’s death in 1930, is due to make his first authorised modern appearance in a new novel, The House of Silk, written by the British children’s novelist Anthony Horowitz.

Literary estates that license so-called “continuation” novels are invariably motivated by money. In Bond’s case, the success of the 007 films has added an extra impetus to keeping him going in books. In doing so the Fleming estate has also shown much the same economic instincts towards Bond as those of his creator.

Fleming’s family background lay in banking and, although he proved a disastrous stockbroker during a brief stint in the City – the escapist trade of journalism was a better match – he showed reflex commercial skill in exploiting Bond for all the character was worth. In 1958 a daily comic strip serialising the novels began appearing in the Daily Express, then in its Lord Beaverbrook-owned pomp. Fleming also strove unsuccessfully to adapt 007 for television and assiduously courted film studios.

After his death his wife, Anne, who detested Bond, wanted the character to join Fleming in the grave. She was overruled by his family and the Fleming estate recruited the novelist Kingsley Amis, an ardent Bond fan, to write the first post-Fleming novel under the pseudonym Robert Markham. Published as Colonel Sun in 1968, it was written in the same style of witty pastiche as Faulks’s effort 40 years later: “James Bond sat in the bar of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens and waited for something to happen.”

The next iteration of Bond came with a series of authorised adventures written by the British author John Gardner between 1981 and 1996. All 14 are being republished, from this month onwards, by Silverfish, a new Orion imprint. Anticipating Deaver, Gardner chose to bring Bond up-to-date – which in the early 1980s meant making him cut back on alcohol and cigarettes, downgrade the Bentley for a Saab due to fuel costs and have his licence-to-kill status revoked by “fools of politicians”. Raymond Benson, an American like Deaver, picked up where Gardner left off, writing six original novels between 1997 and 2002. But Bond’s literary star was waning: Benson’s worldwide sales of 600,000 were dwarfed by sales of 100m for the Fleming originals.

At this point Ian Fleming Publications cleverly refreshed the brand. The original Fleming books, treated harshly by highbrow critics in the 1950s and 1960s, were given the prestigious Penguin Modern Classics treatment in 2002. Charlie Higson, co-creator of the British television comedy sketch show The Fast Show, was commissioned to author the Young Bond series of children’s books, which proved a commercial hit on their launch in 2005. The Moneypenny Diaries, a chick-lit spin-off series by Samantha Weinberg, writing under the pseudonym Kate Westbrook, also began in 2005, though it was less successful.

To find out what it is like to step into Fleming’s bespoke John Lobb shoes, the Financial Times tracked Deaver down while he was in London for the launch of Carte Blanche. This was a glitzy affair that took place at a champagne bar in St Pancras railway station – Deaver arrived in a Bentley and Royal Marines abseiled down the walls with copies of the novel. The hoopla underlined the weight of expectation on the book: its predecessor, Devil May Care, was publisher Penguin’s fastest-ever selling hardback fiction title, selling more than 44,000 copies in its first week. Only the Harry Potter books sold quicker.

“In approaching this project I had two responsibilities,” Deaver said. “One was to make sure my fans – there are frankly several million of them, three or four million around the world – got the specific kind of book they wanted from me. The other was to the Bond folks, who have very specific ideas about the character, this beloved spy of theirs. I wanted to make sure I satisfied both of those needs.”

He has been a Bond reader since he was eight, gorging on copies belonging to his advertising executive father. British hackles might nonetheless rise at the prospect of an American – not even a Texan, Bond’s favourite variety of American – taking operational control of Her Majesty’s most celebrated secret agent. “Bond’s Britishness was part of the research,” he said.

Carte Blanche borrows numerous details from the original novels. Bond’s favourite meal is scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast, as related in From Russia with Love; he invents his own cocktail, like he did in Casino Royale; he still packs a Walther pistol and drives a Continental Bentley. But Deaver does not try to capture the texture of Fleming’s writing. Bond’s hair falls in “a comma of loose strands” over one eye; Fleming’s more precise version describes a lock of black hair that “slowly subsided to form a thick comma above his right eyebrow”.

“Sebastian [Faulks] did such a superb job writing in Ian’s voice,” Deaver explained. “I didn’t feel I had the talent to do that. I’m very comfortable writing a book that falls into my formula. That means it’s very fast-paced, the plot has lots of reversals in it, it takes place over a compressed time frame and it has lots of surprises at the end.”

The plot globe-trots between Serbia, England, Dubai and South Africa as Bond endeavours to prevent a mysterious atrocity taking place. The villain is a recycling magnate with a gothic attraction to dead bodies; the recycling theme is possibly intended as an in-joke, though Deaver’s unironic style ensures it is a buried one.

Bond fans will enjoy spotting the likenesses between old and new Bond. They will also notice considerable differences. Bond, a 70-a-day smoker in Fleming’s books, has given up cigarettes. He still drinks, though not to the dipsomaniac extent of old. (In Casino Royale he prepares for a crucial game of baccarat that ends at 2.30am with a carafe of chilled vodka and a bottle of champagne, shared with a female companion.)

Some of those 007-ish politically incorrect attitudes have disappeared however. The man who complains “What the hell do they want to send me a woman for? Do they think this is a bloody picnic?” when a female agent is sent to work with him in Casino Royale is replaced by a 21st-century Bond who chivalrously refuses to sleep with a woman because she has recently split up with her fiancé, and who sententiously avers that the “intimacy of bodies comes prepacked with an intimacy of mind and spirit, and you ought not seek the first if you’re unwilling to take delivery of the second”.

Equally, the racism that simmers away gamily in Fleming’s books – Koreans are “the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world,” we learn in Goldfinger – has also been erased. Deaver’s Bond reacts badly to a character talking about “coloureds” in South Africa (“‘Coloureds?’ Bond said sourly”).

Faulks’s Devil May Care rebooted the original Bond back into the best-seller charts. Can Carte Blanche keep him there? Deaver delivers more twists than a 1960s prom dance and the plot pounds along at a breathless pace. Yet the novel depicts an unconvincing Bond. The problem partly lies in Deaver’s writing style, which has its bizarrely clunky moments, like the description of a baddie “who stood still as a Japanese fighting fish”. But the project also faces two deeper difficulties.

One is the diminished stature of modern-day espionage following MI6 and the CIA’s disastrous attempts to convince the world of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, Carte Blanche avoids mentioning Iraq (Bond’s back story has him fighting in Afghanistan instead) and it shifts his spy career from MI6 to a shadowy security service called the Overseas Development Group. Fleming’s cold war setting is a distant glamorous memory.

The other problem is finding a way to modernise Bond while staying true to the characteristics that animated him so vividly in Fleming’s books. The original Bond has a “brutal and ironical” face; he is a sensualist through whom Fleming expressed a decadent, even kinky worldview, ripe with sadomasochism and sexualised violence, as indebted to the Marquis de Sade as John Buchan. Sanitise this side of 007 and you’re left with Deaver’s Bond, “a man of serious face and hunter’s demeanour”, a killing machine who talks of “target vectors” and “shooting scenarios”.

Perhaps this Bond is truer to today’s culture of managerial efficiency, but he has also lost much in the translation. 007 fans might have to face an unpalatable truth: their man is a shadow of himself in the 21st century. Or does Bond have another card up his sleeve?

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

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