Solo, by William Boyd, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99, 336 pages
It turns out that Ian Fleming wasn’t so much James Bond’s creator as the legendary spy’s first handler. After Fleming’s death in 1964 a series of writers has been contracted to take over 007 duties, starting with Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham) and culminating with the present incumbent, William Boyd, whose first Bond adventure is Solo.
Boyd’s recruitment by the Ian Fleming Estate isn’t quite the seamless succession portrayed by Solo’s slick PR operation. In contrast to the Bond films, which have lucratively bounced back from a 1990s slump, there has been confusion about how to position the character for today’s bestseller charts. Solo sends Bond on a mission to resolve a civil war in an oil-rich African country; the scenario mirrors the Fleming Estate’s conflicting approaches about how to exploit 007’s literary legacy.
Bond was reactivated in 2008 by Sebastian Faulks in Devil May Care, a pitch-perfect Fleming pastiche. In the UK it notched up the best first week sales of any novel after the Harry Potter titles. But the Fleming Estate appears to have wanted more from its revived super-spy.
The British novelist Faulks was succeeded by Jeffery Deaver, an American thriller writer who attempted to update Bond for a mass market readership, especially in the US where Devil May Care sold less well. But Deaver’s Bond novel, Carte Blanche (2011), sold fewer copies than Faulks in the UK and achieved only middling success in the US. So now the Ian Fleming Estate has returned to plan A.
Like Faulks, Boyd is a successful British novelist who straddles literary and popular fiction. His novels range widely over different countries and eras, including one (Restless) about Cold War spying, and another (Any Human Heart) in which Fleming plays a cameo role. A versatile and experienced writer, he nonetheless faces a daunting task with Solo – to stay true to the spirit of Fleming’s original while remoulding Bond for a readership 60 years distant from the first 007 novel, 1953’s Casino Royale.
It opens deftly. Bond is asleep, dreaming of his experiences with an intelligence-gathering unit in the second world war; the details are drawn from Fleming’s own wartime experiences. Then he wakes up with a hangover in London’s Dorchester hotel after a gourmandising blow-out in celebration of his 45th birthday.
Reversing Carte Blanche’s excursion into the 2000s, we’re back in the 1960s – 1969 to be exact. The headline of the newspaper Bond waves away at breakfast is about a Viet Cong offensive. He doesn’t read it because he’s preoccupied with thoughts of seducing a fellow guest, an “impossibly ripe” woman in a catsuit. “Bond smiled to himself as he imagined doing precisely that and drank more coffee – there was life in the old dog yet.”
There is indeed. Boyd skilfully reintroduces us to Bond by placing him in a particular historical context while making a show of not chaining him to it, symbolised by the way he rejects the newspaper. Thus his character shares certain traits with Fleming’s original – absurdly heavy drinking and smoking, a luxurious love of food despite a “lean” frame, erotic hunger – at the same time as eradicating others: chiefly the gamey tone of racism, sociopathy and sexual violence that runs through Fleming’s books.
Fleming’s Bond was a sadistic racial essentialist prone to rhapsodise about the “sweet tang of rape”. In contrast, Boyd’s Bond is a “careful” lover who is also careful about meting out violence: one assailant is coshed like a cow felled by a “humane killer”. His mission to the warring African state of Zanzarim doesn’t inspire dodgy racial observations. Instead Boyd – who was born in Ghana, to Scottish parents, and whose best-known book Brazzaville Beach is set in Africa – has created a Bond whose awareness of colour goes no further than appreciating the “perfect caramel skin” of a love interest, with whom of course he has sex “with all the expertise of familiar lovers”.
007 has been restyled to fit a very different world to Fleming’s. One side-effect is the loss of the swaggering brutishness that makes the original Bond such a guilty pleasure to read nowadays. His modern avatar may not be blessed with a completely vanilla personality (there’s an outbreak of old-school sadism when he thrashes some would-be muggers and a kinky episode when he spies on the “ripe” woman undressing in her bedroom), but he’s a bit of a dull dog at heart, rather too apt to speak in clichés. “All’s well that ends well” is a phrase he likes so much he uses it twice.
However, the diminution in tone is compensated by a perfectly judged narrative tempo. The action – Bond sent to assassinate the leader of a secessionist state threatening British oil interests in Zanzarim – is expertly plotted. The twists are genuinely surprising and the chief baddie (a disfigured Rhodesian mercenary who impales his victims on fish hooks) is suitably grotesque. Bond’s ravening desire for vengeance, which leads him to the unauthorised “solo” mission of the book’s title, is exactly true to the original character.
There are moments when Boyd slips self-consciously into literary-fiction mode, imagining Bond struck with “anomie” in a hotel room or marvelling at the immensity of Africa (“What was it about Africa that unmanned you so?”). But such ponderous slips are scarce. Solo’s true literary craft lies in the subtlety of its correspondences – the way Bond’s solitary celebration of his birthday at the beginning mirrors his solo mission at the end – and also the suspenseful quality that keeps us on our toes until the closing pages. Mission accomplished.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic