As the latest continuation novel of secret agent 007 is released in book stores, many papers have got their hands on it and have published their thoughts...
So it's good to report that Boyd has immersed himself in the character, the author and his oeuvre and come up with an Afro-American adventure that's triumphantly the equal of the great Bond adventures, Casino Royale and From Russia, with Love. In Boyd's novel, Bond is dispatched to a fictional west African state to track down its warlord, the Scorpion, nearly dies, and then pursues a score-settling mission to the US where he reconnects with his old chum and CIA man, Felix Leiter. It's not the real thing - how could it be? - but, dare one say, a brilliant imitation that's occasionally superior to the prototype. For the moment, the predators in the shark/alligator pool can stop circling. Dr No, Goldfinger et al. have met their match. Boyd IS Bond.
The poised, lyrical writing is a pleasure to read, the prose sprinkled with apt similes ('He was incredibly thin, his arms and legs like vanilla pods'). But it's also where the book gets bogged down in an increasingly convoluted plot. Boyd's Bond works on the streets of Chelsea but in Africa he abandons his journalist cover and morphs into a pseudo-mercenary, at one point orchestrating the military recapture of an entire village. Quite what the Fleming estate made of the endless battle scenes is anyone's guess. We do know that it had misgivings about the final part of the book, set in America, when a vengeful Bond goes rogue - or, solo. Plotwise, it's fine, but the psychological justification for it is overstated, with too much telling of motive, and not enough showing. 'There was only one objective now,' Boyd writes. 'James Bond would kill Kobus Breed.' Really? It reads more like a note to self.
Boyd has plenty of fun with the obligatory Bondian fetishes of brand and knack (007's trademark salad dressing demands a "vinegar overload"). He sprinkles literary allusions (Eliot, Greene, Dickens) deftly around and plays the set-pieces well (despite the occasional sign of hasty writing and sloppy editing). Yet he could have done so much more with Dahum and its doomed revolt. Like Bond, he has accomplished his mission with slightly soulless panache; and, just as with the homecoming spy, a vague sense of regret and unease hangs in the sunlit Chelsea air.
...It takes Bond to Boyd's old stamping ground, West Africa, to a fictional state called Zanzarim, a former British colony, now torn apart by civil war between the southern and northern tribes, the Fakassa and the Lowele, following the discovery of vast oil reserves. Bond's mission is to stop the war somehow, a task that ends up in Washington, a spot of bother with the CIA, and a pretty confusing resolution... The original Bond books emerged straight from the twisted psyche of Ian Fleming and all the attempts to manufacture more of them after his death are phoney. Any writing that can be successfully copied by somebody else is by definition not original, as all such attempts by authors' estates to keep the production line going post-mortem have proved. They may be legal but they are not legitimate. We should honour the limits of an oeuvre, not try to cheat them.
In a world of shopping mall massacres, suicide bombers and chemical weapon attacks, authors have to work harder to win their audiences, even when they plot their novels in the late Sixties. Solo is a valiant attempt to resuscitate a production line that ground to a shuddering halt a long time ago. The executors of the Fleming estate do James Bond's creator no favours by continuing to flog his original concept till all that remains is the shredded remnants. If you want to read modern espionage or thrillers there are shelves of them in all reputable bookshops.
Boyd is forging the Bond of Fleming rather than the sanitised version of film. This is a secret agent who kills for a living yet is disgusted by death and is careless of life. The destruction of Bond is focused on his and his country's enemies, whether they be a German conscript or a willing recruit to SMERSH or, in Solo, a South African mercenary. It is the self-destruction that is the more intriguing aspect of Solo.In the post-millennium world of addiction issues and self-help groups, Bond carries all the hallmarks of the functioning alcoholic, not least his inability to perceive his drinking as a problem. Bond is moved and affected by death. He vomits on seeing a soldier killed, he shakes when meeting a malnourished, hopeless child and is driven to a murderous despair when discovering a victim of the vicious Kobus Breed, a soldier of war who hangs his victims on steel hooks. Boyd also throws in the mandatory sex scenes, the fascination with cars (in this case Jensens) and the gimmicks and gadgets of the modern secret agent.
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