Sunday, 31 August 2008

No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die!

Part two in my series where I shamelessly read my way through C's birthday books. This time it's the new James Bond novel Devil May Care, by noted literary novelist Sebastian Faulks ("writing as Ian Fleming").

In a rundown part of Paris, an immigrant drug-dealer is murdered in a brutal, but seemingly trademark fashion. Meanwhile, Bond is on medical leave in southern Europe, where he runs into, but turns down, the attractive wife of a banker (a declined opportunity that even Bond can't believe). Returning to London, he is quickly brought up to speed on a suspected drug-lord called Dr. Gorner, a British-educated Lithuanian, who switched sides during the Second World War and who has a curiously deformed left hand, a "monkey's paw". Sent to Paris to meet Gorner, Bond again meets the banker's wife, Scarlett, who reveals herself as someone seeking his services against Gorner, who runs her sister, Poppy, as a drug mule. Bond stages a meeting with Gorner at a tennis club, where they play a game together, a game which Gorner's henchman, Chagrin, attempts unsuccessfully to swing for Gorner. Bond is then sent to Persia to follow the drug connection, where he meets up with Darius, the UK's local contact. A tip-off from Poppy sends Bond to a Caspian Sea port where he discovers an amphibious plane, advanced Soviet technology but with British markings. Visiting the plane for a second time, this time with Scarlett who was also tipped-off by Poppy, Bond is not so lucky and is captured by Gorner. Flown to a secret airbase in the Persian desert, Gorner reveals his plan to bring down Britain by flooding it with drugs and by provoking an international incident with the Soviet Union. For an extra dash of credibility, Gorner forces Bond onto an aircraft destined to be shot down by the Soviets to spark this incident. However, the plan fails when Scarlett secretly infiltrates this plane, and Darius is able to warn London about the amphibious plane. Parachuting to safety from the doomed aircraft, Bond and Scarlett find themselves marooned within Russia, but make their way to Finland with the help of a anti-Soviet trawler captain, eliminating Chagrin along the way. Back in the west, Bond attempts to meet up with a French contact but is ambushed by Gorner. Taking advantage of Gorner's embarrassment at his deformed hand, Bond turns the tables on him, forcing him to dive into the Seine where he is killed by the paddle wheel of a steamer. With Britain saved, Scarlett reveals herself as a British agent, thus explaining her impeccable timing and sharpshooting ability. Bond finally gets to take up the offer of Scarlett's that he previously declined. The End.

Much like the films and, I presume, Fleming's original novels, Faulks' novel follows the standard narrative structure. The only things missing, and these might be an invention of the films, are the opening action set-piece and the closing "James Bond will return in ..." legend. It seems stupid to me now, but until a newspaper dissection pointed this out, I'd never thought through just how narrowly formulaic the Bond stories actually are. Perhaps I just enjoyed them too much.

Anyway, this novel doesn't disappoint Bond fans. All of the familiar details are in there, and the novel even finds time to squeeze Bond's old ex-CIA chum, Felix Leiter, into the action. Faulks is clearly is fan, and references a fair bit of Bond lore in passing, including nods to Goldfinger and Hugo Drax among others. And he does a very competent job of the Bond oeuvre, the high living, expensive tastes, exotic locales, faintly camp enemies, dastardly henchmen, hi-tech weaponry, and so on. From what I've heard about the novel in reviews, Faulks has excelled in capturing (or is that pastiching) Fleming's style, and I can believe it.

A couple of other details interested me. As already noted, Gorner is something of a camp villain, and there are a couple of places in the novel that hint of homophobic attitudes. I think that might just be Faulks allowing his style to ape that of Fleming, or Fleming's time, a little too closely. There's also a streak of amusing Francophobia there too, with a subplot in which Bond's French counterpart, Rene Mathis, wrapped up with his fine dining and mistress, makes precisely zero headway in a parallel investigation, while Bond manages to begin, engage with, and close his investigation in the same time-frame.

Another interesting aspect is that Faulks seems to have included a few subversive details along the way (subversive, that is, to the "Bond worldview"). Rather than being staunch allies, the CIA are presented as fairweather friends, keen to get Britain to join them in their Vietnam adventure, and not above allowing Britain to take a hit to nudge it in their direction. Similarly, the character Darius gives a potted history of Persia/Iran that is, rightly, unflattering for Britain. However, these hinted details aren't allowed to interfere with the narrative, but I think they do represent Faulks having a little bit of fun with the Bond legacy. One of the weaknesses of Bond, and something that has been successfully inverted by the Jason Bourne films, is its portrayal of an unambiguous black hat-white hat world, something very much at odds with the known history of intelligence organisations. Still, I'm guessing that one of the terms and conditions for Faulks writing this novel was that he didn't subvert Bond along these lines. I'm guessing that it would be too easy to do this for it to be fun for Faulks anyway.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see if Faulks picks this up again. Rather like successful actors slumming it in pot-boiler studio projects to subsidise scripts closer to their hearts, I'd imagine that there would be advantages for Faulks' literary work from cranking out another Bond novel. Although the apparent success of this novel may mean that he's already set-up for life. We'll see.

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