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Junk Bonds

The folly of attempting to imitate Ian Fleming

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

Writing a James Bond novel? What could possibly be simpler? Surely all one needs is an arch, semi-meaningless title — something like ‘Never Kiss Death Goodbye’ — then a villain with a camply sinister name, a heroine with an even camper double-entendre for a name, a seasoning of sadism and you are away.

But it’s not that easy at all. If it is, then why have the writers who picked up Ian Fleming’s mantle got it so wrong? Even the class acts who have come closest to nailing the authentic 007 style — Kingsley Amis, John Pearson and Sebastian Faulks — have missed something small but crucial, as I shall explain.

It’s an odd thing, 007’s literary afterlife. No one would dream of taking P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster and writing new novels around them. Fleming’s original novels — from Casino Royale to The Man with the Golden Gun — with all their bizarre jeopardy, exotic heroines and unheimlich villains, are fantastically distinctive and, yes, classic works of imaginative popular fiction. So why, nearly 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death, is literary Bond constantly hauled out for further embossed-cover missions of ever-increasing naffness?

There have been more than 20 novels since Fleming died in 1964. The latest is Carte Blanche, by the American thriller veteran Jeffery Deaver, who is due to write more. He clearly means well, but really. Here we have a necrophiliac villain, a girl called Ophelia Maidenstone, some novelty 21st-century new-mannish sensitivity — involving Bond avoiding sex — and an unusually unpleasant weapon of mass destruction. But there are other distractions for the reader: mainly in the form of politely over-researched yet misplaced English tics that would have made Fleming yelp.

At one point, Bond assures M that he is ‘in the best position to suss out’ what the villain is up to — an expression last used by Tucker Jenkins in Grange Hill. 007 is found sitting ‘in an exclusive restaurant off Charing Cross Road’. Later on, a senior colleague invites him to ‘take a pew’. In another tense scene, M suddenly finds himself thinking about The Two Ronnies. It is dazzlingly off-putting.

Given Ian Fleming’s waspish snobbery and Old Etonian fastidiousness, you might think that he would not merely be revolving in his grave but hovering several feet above it. You would be wrong, though. The Fleming clan has always been canny about 007’s literary afterlife and the sales potential thereof.

Some years ago, I had lunch with Fleming’s brilliant literary agent and subsequent literary gatekeeper, Peter Janson-Smith. He explained that all sorts of people wanted to write Bond but very few could do it. One writer, he told me, had a scene in which Bond was in a bar, ‘waiting for the bus to take him to the airport’, and couldn’t understand why this wasn’t the Bond way.

Jeffery Deaver, and John Gardner and Raymond Benson before him, have avoided such overt solecisms. But between them, these authors also seem to have stripped away much of Bond’s quirky vividness — his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, his depression, plus that pervasive undercurrent of S&M — and made him more of a generic action hero who might just have rather more resonant appeal across the Atlantic.

When Fleming died in 1964, the worldwide success of the film Goldfinger meant that the sales of his novels were going into orbit. After an interval of four years, Fleming’s estate appointed the Bond superfan Kingsley Amis to give it a go. His Bond novel, which he wrote as ‘Robert Markham’, was called Colonel Sun. It was set in Greece, it featured a game girl called Ariadne, and towards the end, a lovingly detailed torture scene where the Chinese villain set to work on Bond’s eardrums and septum with meat skewers. But Amis was Bonded out after one go.

The 1970s brought an underrated effort from John Pearson — a ‘biography’ of Bond detailing his early life and adventures. Wryly kicking off with an encounter with a retired lounge-lizard Bond, this book captured the melancholia beneath the baroque adventures and had much authentic Fleming flavour. But the framework meant that it was an epilogue as opposed to a continuation.

In the 1980s, Fleming’s literary estate asked a respected British thriller writer, John Gardner, to bring Bond into a computerised age with a new series of novels. Gardner’s works featured such gambits as the introduction of Blofeld’s daughter Nina (Nina? Why not Dominatra, or some such?) and some naff titles such as No Deals, Mr Bond and Death Is Forever.

After 14 of these undistinctive novels, Gardner retired and in his place came an American, Raymond Benson. His contribution consisted of some naffer titles — High Time To Kill, DoubleShot — and equally forgettable words. None of these outings made it anywhere near being adapted for the 007 film series: the production company, Eon, continues to rely on its own scriptwriters, and the inspiration of Fleming’s work alone.

In 2008, to celebrate Fleming’s centenary, Sebastian Faulks — whose clogs are cleverer than most — gave us Devil May Care. Set in 1967, and therefore a direct continuation from Fleming’s work, this was an entertainingly spirited entry: a villain with a monkey’s paw for a right hand; a girl called Scarlett; atmospheric locations (Paris and Tehran); and searing, torturous ordeals. This came the closest. But again there was that one small, crucial thing missing: the perverse personality of Fleming himself.

John Pearson once described Bond as ‘an experiment in the autobiography of dreams’. Bond’s life was the one that Fleming, a former Naval Intelligence officer, had clearly yearned for. 007 fought all the battles that his author was not allowed to fight in the second world war (Fleming knew too much secret information to be allowed out into the field). Mixed with that was the influence of all his boyhood reading, from Bulldog Drummond to Fu Manchu. No other writer could fully inhabit that lurid landscape of imagination.

And Fleming himself seemed rather exhausted by Bond at the end. He clearly wanted to be a respectable, W. Somerset Maugham sort of novelist, not a writer of ‘cosh boy’s own thrillers’. The 007 short story ‘Quantum of Solace’ was not about smersh, but the break-up of a marriage; ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ was a novella Fleming wrote from the point of view of the heroine. He was constantly seeking to extend his own range.

So the way to prolong Bond’s literary life is not to slavishly imitate the structure of novels first published in the 1950s. In any case, we already have enough bumpy-covered thriller heroes. No, the best way for Bond is to continue what Fleming was trying — to take the character in wholly unexpected new directions. Next time, the Fleming estate should ask a woman to write a Bond novel. I would pay a great deal of money to read a 007 story rendered by Hilary Mantel.

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