Better the Devil You Know

I did something last week that I seldom do. I walked into the Canterbury branch of Waterstone’sDavid Mitchell used to work there, so it can’t be all bad.. I wanted to pick up a copy of the new James Bond book, Devil May Care. As you may or may not care, this book was commissioned by the estate of Ian Fleming to continue the Bond novel franchise. Sebastian Faulks was asked to continue where the great man left off.

Sebastian Faulks is a literary novelist. Bond is not a literary creation. Much has been made of this descent to the grubby, seedy and very slightly itchy pit of sex, sadism and snobbery that is Bon’s worldThis alliterative phrase was used by MacLean to describe not only the work of Ian Fleming and but the reasons for not wishing to imitate it.

For my part, I think that Faulks is an unusually talented writer. Charlotte Gray, Faulks’s story of a Scottish woman sent to spy in Vichy France during the Second World War, contained some exquisite passages. However, I remember thinking that, where other writers have a tin ear for dialogue, Faulks seems to go Metal Mickey in violent scenes: kinetics are not well handled; visualisation is difficult; the prose is as rushed as the characters.

So.

Bond – of the books – is back. This Bond is on sabbatical following a year that can only be described as an ‘annus horribilis’. His bride is dead. Felix Leiter has almost been nibbled to death. He has tried to kill his boss, M.

The start of Devil May Care book finds Bond in bored, teetotal mode. M soon rings him up with a job that, while not a full-blown assignment, might lead to one if Bond behaves impeccably. Fortunately, despite trying to kill the old boy, Bond has not yet accrued enough penalty points to get into trouble when he actually shoots someone.

The stage is – so to speak – very much set.

“Bastard. Smug bastard.”.

Faulks handles the globe-trotting narrative with some aplomb, for the first two thirds of the book at least. We begin with an execution on the outskirts of Paris and wind up in the deserts of Iran (which, unfortunately for Bond, are rather wetter than they should be).

We’ve got the sex: Scarlett Papava. We’ve got the snobbery: Bond. We’ve got the sadism: the arch villain, Dr Julius Gorner, and his side-kick Chagrin.

I wish I could write, ‘The Devil may care – I don’t’, but the book is generally good fun. The first two thirds of the book rattle along nicely and re-create many of the classic Bond tropes: the obsession with the clothing, menus and perfumes; the sense that Bond has a death-wish; and the echoes of a recently-imploded empire.

Too often, though, Faulks makes schoolboy errors that undermine the thriller element. He’s experienced enough to cover over most of them, but, still, the ridiculous coincidences remain ridiculous despite having one character turn to another and say, with a wink, ‘It must be destiny.’ No, it’s artifice. Presumably, these twists occurred to Faulks during the first draft and he wasn’t successful enough in retro-fitting them later on.

Faulks works well when Bond is on a journey of discovery in enemy territory. Once the discovery is made, however, the book is somewhat dead in the water. By this point, the reader has invested in 60% of the story, so why not crack on? But the impression remains that Faulks has simply crashed through the plot holes rather than stitch them together. Later, there is simply no reason for the villain to explain the entirety of his plan to Bond, and just hammering out the scene and moving on is not good enough; the verisimilitude that Faulks (and the reader) has spent time building up breaks open like an uncooked egg.

Another oddity, which may speak more to the limit realm of possibility with Bond, is that the story is almost entirely constructed of situations that have been presented, with rather greater verve, by Fleming. The villain: crazed. The sidekick: doesn’t speak overmuch; wears funny hat; is psychotic. The girl: is vulnerable; loves Bond; has secrets. Each scenario facing Bond has faced him before: Bond and villain play a game; villain cheats; Bond is chased by motorbikes; Bond flirts with Moneypenny. It’s a wonder he doesn’t turn to the reader, wink, and say, ‘Musht be deshtiny’.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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