First, an appalling admission: I have never read any of Ian Fleming’s Bond books. Nor have I read any of anybody else’s, the number of which seems to grow with each passing year. For a civilised man of a certain age this is a shameful oversight, given that I have seen all but three of the 23 films in the cinema, many of them at the Odeon, Leicester Square within days of their opening; that I can’t put on a dinner jacket without wondering whether Sean Connery would look better in it; and that I still own a copy, on 7” vinyl, of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon, the theme tune to The Spy Who Loved Me. (And the soundtrack it came from, just in case the single went missing.)
But if you are going to start somewhere, why not start here, with William Boyd’s entry in the series? As it happens, I have read quite a lot of Boyd, who can be a bit of a lifesaver for those of us who read literary fiction but cannot altogether repress an atavistic yearning for plot. A civilised man of an even more certain age, Boyd turns out to be a Fleming fanboy of the first water. On some level, you suspect, he has been sitting there for 30 years waiting for someone to ring up and ask him to write a James Bond novel. His historical spy novel Restless could almost be his audition tape.
Boyd’s Bond, then, is set in 1969, in and around something vaguely resembling the Biafran War. Bond has just celebrated his 45th birthday by staying overnight at the Dorchester and drinking and smoking too much. An attractive woman flirts with him in the lift. The first of many dishes of scrambled eggs is eaten. M calls him into the office and gives him a job: go and stop the Biafran War. It’s a tiny bit vague, but Bond assumes that M knows what he is doing, so pops down to Q branch to be tooled up. No guns for this assignment; instead he gets a washbag containing poisonous talcum powder. ‘I’m James Bond, icon of manliness,’ you expect him to say. ‘I could have no conceivable use for talcum powder.’ But he says nothing. Maybe that birthday has affected him more than we know.
These early chapters are almost wilfully downbeat and low on action. I have been reading rather too much Le Carré recently and so look for betrayals and double-crosses in every sentence, but Bond is rather more languid in his habits, finding time before he flies off to upbraid the decorators who are making a bodge-job of his flat. Once he is in Africa, though, everything kicks off rather splendidly. Beautiful women succumb to his charms, good people die unpleasant deaths, and much whisky is drunk to fend off mosquitoes. One review has already listed the amount of alcohol Bond drinks in the course of this book: it’s terrifying, and it gives you a dreadful thirst. After hours of dogged resistance I finally cracked and opened a bottle of wine. It certainly enhanced the reading experience.
How all this compares to Fleming’s work is for others to say (and many have said it). There’s less to Solo than there is to most of Boyd’s work, but you can see that he writes with love and respect and more than a dash of wish-fulfilment. If you are writing new stories about Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, you are dealing with strictly defined characters. You can either get it right or get it wrong: there is no other option. But James Bond is an emptier vessel. Fleming’s Bond had cold eyes and a cruel mouth. Roger Moore’s wore safari suits and raised an eyebrow. William Boyd’s is quite a good egg, all in all, who has his own recipe for vinaigrette, reads Graham Greene on planes and flattens fat Fleet Street hacks who make racist comments about beautiful black women. I know we are all supposed to want to be Bond, but are we supposed to like him as well?
Above all, though, Boyd’s Bond is not Daniel Craig’s modern, tortured, gym-bunny Bond. A handful of (intentional) anachronisms aside, Solo could have been written in 1969 as well as being set there. In the end, how much you like it may depend on how closely Boyd’s Bond resembles your own internal Bond. Because each of us has one. Mine is better than anyone’s, obviously, but Boyd’s isn’t bad at all.
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