The name is Faulks, not Fleming

2008-06-18 00:00

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is back. Not that he’s been away. The films have been a feature of popular culture since the 1960s and the books kept coming even after Fleming’s death in 1964. But now he’s seriously back.

It all started when Daniel Craig debuted as Bond in the film Casino Royale: a thriller worth taking seriously, not just a technofest of gadgets and explosions. And now, published on the centenary of Fleming’s birthday, comes a new Bond novel, Devil May Care, from literary writer Sebastian Faulks.

New Bond novels are nothing new. Not even ones by literary novelists. Kingsley Amis did the first post-Fleming, under the name Robert Markham. Thereafter, thriller writer John Gardner wrote 14, Raymond Benson six and Charlie Higson mined Bond’s boyhood for four titles. Not forgetting The Moneypenny Diaries, a trilogy from the secretary to M, Bond’s boss, penned by Kate Westbrook, a pseudonym for Samantha Weinberg, formerly of this newspaper.

Only diehard fans will have even heard of these, let alone read them, so why all the fuss over Faulks? The biggest marketing campaign since the last Harry Potter aside, it is because he scored big with his World War 1 saga, Birdsong, and his name on a Bond book is going to attract readers well beyond the fan base.

It’s also an attempt to confer literary respectability on the books, at least those authored by Fleming, a respectability akin to that conferred on Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has become timeless. Will Bond? Can Bond? Indeed, would we be reading Bond if it wasn’t for the movies? Faulks hadn’t read the books since his teenage years and only reread them in preparation for writing his entry to the canon.

Before opening Devil May Care I reread one Bond and glanced through a couple of others. So, dear reader, I can report Faulks gets a lot right. There’s the Fleming mix of sex, sadism and snobbery and Faulks cleverly picks up where Fleming left off, placing Bond back in 1967. It’s the time of the Cold War but using the Middle East as a backdrop cleverly gives Devil May Care a certain topicality.

À la Fleming, Faulks provides a promising villain, Julius Gorner (complete with the required physical deformity, one hand is a hairy monkey paw), a femme fatale in Scarlet Papava, and a mindless tough guy, Chagrin. Gorner has plans to flood Britain with heroin plus drawing everyone into a nuclear war. The plot and the characters all echo the earlier books; Faulks lives up to his credit “writing as Ian Fleming”. But having raised expectations, Faulks lets it all get away from him. It’s as if he suddenly loses his nerve; none of the characters live up to their potential and neither does the plot. The second half of the book descends into a welter of unconvincing action scenes and hairbreadth escapes.

Devil May Care is pastiche dressed as homage. Faulks is not new to the genre. One of his earlier titles was a volume of literary parodies (which included Fleming) called Pistache, a literary way of saying “piss-take”— a reasonable verdict on Devil May Care, and one strengthened by the thoroughly perfunctory title.

Stephen Coan

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