Alice Dryden (huskyteer) wrote,
Alice Dryden

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Dr Maybe

Although I had been looking forward to the release of Sebastian Faulks' James Bond novel, Devil May Care, for months, once safely in my possession it was a long time before I actually got round to reading it.

Devil May Care is set soon after The Man With The Golden Gun. In this, Ian Fleming's last Bond novel, our hero returns brainwashed from Russia with instructions to kill M and, once foiled, bounces straight back on the trail of eccentric yet sinister villains.

Faulks gives Bond a little time out to recover from his amnesia and subsequent Soviet indoctrination, not to mention the death of his new bride way back in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the start of the novel finds him bored and restless in France as the end of his enforced convalescence approaches.

A beautiful woman with the unlikely name of Scarlett Papava appears on the scene and begs Bond to liberate her twin sister Poppy from the shadowy Dr. Julius Gorner (who shares his first name and qualification with that other doctor, No - homage or slip?). Handily, he is then summoned by M to investigate Gorner's part in the international narcotics trade.

The mission takes him to Persia and follows the time-honoured path of snooping around, capture, torture, villain's plan revealed and explosive climax, with a few dinners and changes of clothes along the way. He meets old friends Mathis, head of the Deuxième Bureau, and ex-CIA pal Felix Leiter, as well as new characters like the charismatic Darius Alizadeh (our man in Persia) and the comic yet trusty taxi driver with his 'bootbrush moustache'.

One Fleming set piece is the contest between Bond and the villain in which the latter's nasty nature is revealed, as exemplified by the golf game with Auric Goldfinger; in Devil May Care it's tennis, and thrillingly handled. The clothing and equipment necessary for the match is also described in all the loving, elitist detail you would expect. The villain himself is a worthy successor to Drax, Blofeld and the rest: nursing a deformity and a grudge against Britain, and accompanied by a sadistic henchman.

The choice of subject matter is also a tribute to Fleming, who came up with the storyline for trippy anti-drug film Poppies Are Also Flowers.

One of the big reveals was spoiled for me by no fault of the author's: I happened by coincidence to be reading about ekranoplans on Wikipedia a few months ago, so I recognised the Caspian Sea Monster for what it was instantly. It's the perfect device for a Bond novel, though: futuristic and implausible, a genuine artifact stranger than fiction.

As for the other reveal - it was obvious from M's careful avoidance of personal pronouns that the new 004 would be a woman, and I would have laid bets on its being Scarlett all along too. I will be interested to see what Faulks does with their 'office romance' if he is invited to write a sequel.

From his 21st-century vantage point, Faulks extends Bond's world, yoinking him firmly out of postwar austerity and into the Swinging '60s. He is of course practised in writing historical fiction and does it well, although some of the detail he picks out might not have been selected by an author writing at the time.

He has obviously pored over the Bond canon, but he reveals a little too much of his research, referring too often and too specifically to past missions. Take a tip from J. K. Rowling: know your characters' backgrounds and histories but don't wave them in your readers' faces. And why, being otherwise faithful and accurate, does he write 'SMERSH' when it's an abbreviation, not an acronym?

Sometimes Faulks's prose reads like pure Fleming; at others it jumps out of the groove. I loved the line about Bond's Paris hotel being 'a typical Moneypenny booking', but moments later he's casually mentioning Moneypenny's name to a total stranger.

Part of the problem, I think, is the impossibility of ignoring the film Bond and his slightly different habits. Scenes between 007, M and Moneypenny in particular seem written for the screen more than the page; permissive '60s notwithstanding, I can't see Fleming's Bond getting away with threatening to spank his boss's secretary.

Then there are moments when Faulks simply tries too hard to write like Fleming, and the writing is so excessively perfect as to be off-putting and unlikeable - like Goldfinger's golfing tweeds or the Windsor knot in Red Grant's tie.

Sebastian Faulks does not pull off his predecessor's style half as well as Kingsley Amis does in Colonel Sun (under the pseudonym of 'Robert Markham). But the task he faced was far harder: moving Bond forward in time while setting his work in the past; undoing four decades of Bond's screen evolution without completely losing sight of the changes made; explaining the Cold War and Vietnam to a new generation without being too expository, and making us care about these wars long over and this leftover spy.

It's just occurred to me that I still have no idea why the book is titled Devil May Care.
Tags: books, james bond

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