WILLIAM BOYD Solo: A James Bond Novel. Reviewed by Peter Corris
Moneypenny, M, danger, sex and cigarettes; the self-indulgent, worldly tone: William Boyd’s James Bond gets it right.
I imagine that writing a Sherlock Holmes or James Bond pastiche is something like ghost writing or co-authoring an ‘autobiography’. I’ve had a bit of experience at that. The first requirement would be to get the tone of the author right, the voice.
The way to do this would be to immerse yourself in the original books. Not so hard with Conan Doyle or Ian Fleming because their bodies of work on Holmes and Bond were not large. Then it would be a matter of lining up the characters – in the case of Bond, M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, May, Felix Lieter, Blofeld or another appropriate villain, and so on. Then sprinkle with product placement – Moreland cigarettes, Bollinger (or Veuve Cliquot), the Beretta, the Aston Martin. Throw in the crucial phrases: ‘Bond, James Bond’; ‘Smoke if you wish, 007′; ‘Shaken not stirred’, and come up with a plot.
I think I could almost have done it myself. I read all the Bond books with enjoyment, a few more than once, and owned them in paperback. I’ve read a biography of Fleming and I set the questions on Bond and Fleming for the television program Mastermind. No one asked me.
But ask others the Fleming estate did and the first non-Fleming Bond to appear was Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun (1968). Amis had impeccable credentials for the job. He’d written a short, entertaining book on the phenomenon, The James Bond Dossier (1965), which showed he knew how Fleming had achieved his effects. Colonel Sun ticked the boxes.
Experienced thriller writer John Gardner produced a number of Bond books, all competent, some better than others. Sebastian Faulks’s 2008 effort, Devil May Care, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Fleming’s birth, was to my mind a failure, though a commercial success. There was too much product placement and the character never convinced me.
William Boyd is the latest entrant in the lists. With books such as the fictional biography Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928–1960 (1998) and Any Human Heart (2002), Boyd has form as a writer who can fake reality and inhabit a persona.
Inevitably, when reviewing a new ‘Bond’, the first thing to judge is how well the literary impersonation is carried out. Boyd does well. The self-indulgent, worldly tone is captured:
In the dining room, Bond ordered four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side. He drank a long draught of strong black coffee and lit his first cigarette of the day …
This is in the high-priced Dorchester Hotel. ‘Back bacon’ you notice, whatever that is, and the cigarette is the first of many. He’d smoked 30 the night before, we learn, while losing almost £100 at chemin-de-fer at a private casino.
Sensibly, the story is set in 1969, with Bond aged 45 – not at his freshest perhaps, but with a wealth of violent experience (particularly as a World War II commando) behind him and plenty of spy savvy. Also sensibly, Boyd has situated the action in West Africa, a territory he is familiar with, having lived there and written about it. Product placement is handled well, not overdone. The essential building blocks are in place: M and Miss Moneypenny and minor characters come through convincingly.
As with the Fleming books, the story’s credibility hardly matters. The thing is to place Bond in an exotic setting where the danger to him is balanced by opportunities to indulge in drink, fine food and sex. Bond is sexually active in this book but not predatory, with only two conquests. This was about his average per assignment and, as Amis pointed out, not excessive for a fit, presentable man abroad with a handsome expense account.
The villain, a Rhodesian mercenary named Jacobus Breed, is not as emblematic as, say, Dr No or Goldfinger, but he has some nasty traits and in their confrontation Bond exhibits his own sadistic compulsions:
Bond sprayed Breed’s unclosable open eye with a thick spray of oleoresin capsicum and heard his scream rip up from deep in his lungs. … Breed wailed like a baby and Bond happily enveloped his head in another mist spray of Savage Heat.
Then Bond attempts to sever Breed’s spinal cord with a flick knife.
Boyd, like the other commissioned writers, has toned down Fleming’s racism and sexism and modified Bond in other ways. Bond’s flat boasts a well-stocked bookshelf whereas, as Amis pointed out, the only books Fleming credited Bond as owning were a few volumes mostly to do with sports and gambling. In Solo, Bond reads Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter for background and he drinks more whisky than martinis and even a few beers.
For a receptive reader, Solo rattles along satisfactorily from London to Africa and Washington DC and back to Africa. Boyd has executed his commission in smart Bond-like fashion. He has also kept his writer’s integrity alive in various ways – employing a wider vocabulary than Fleming ever commanded and, in a delicious footnote, detailing Bond’s recipe for salad dressing. With this, Boyd is signalling that his tongue is in his cheek and that Solo is an entertainment.
William Boyd Solo: A James Bond Novel Jonathan Cape 2013 PB 336pp $32.95
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