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’.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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