Charles Cumming

Good at bad guys

Thriller writers, like wolves and old Etonians, hunt in packs.

Good at bad guys
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The Burning Wire

Jeffery Deaver

Hodder, pp. 423, £

Thriller writers, like wolves and old Etonians, hunt in packs. In the summer months, roaming from city to city, we can be found at assorted festivals and crime fiction conventions, gathered on panels to discuss the pressing literary issues of the day: ‘Ballistics in the Fiction of Andy McNab’, for example, or ‘The Future of the Spy Novel in the Age of Osama bin Laden’.

The high tide of these get-togethers is the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which takes place every July, over four days, in Harrogate. This year, the guest of honour was Jeffery Deaver, recognised across the pond as one of America’s pre-eminent thriller writers.

To much fanfare, Deaver was recently invited by Ian Fleming Publications to pen a James Bond novel, for publication next summer. Provisionally entitled Project X, the book will follow on the heels of Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks’s colossally successful homage to Bond which, to date, has sold around half a million copies worldwide.

British to his brogues, Faulks was a natural fit for Bond. The son of a QC, he was educated at Wellington and studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Like Fleming, Faulks is urbane and charming: in a different era, you could imagine the two men calmly discussing the Suez Crisis over a plate of kidneys at White’s.

Deaver, on the other hand, is as far removed from the Fleming template as it is possible to imagine. Come across Faulks on a dark night and you’d probably end up inviting him to Glyndebourne; run into Jeffery Deaver and you’d call for a priest. He has the cold-eyed, spectral demeanour of a serial killer from central casting and, indeed, has made his reputation writing about any number of diabolical fiends on the American criminal landscape.

On closer inspection, however, it turns out that Deaver, like all cultured and civilised men, has been a lifelong fan of 007. A few years ago, he was asked to write the introduction to a new edition of Casino Royale. It makes instructive reading:

[Bond] is a classic adventure-story hero. He confronts evil. Simple as that. He may wrestle from time to time with the question of which causes are good, which are bad and how to tell them apart. But he’s utterly human … He doubts, he questions, he makes mistakes.

All this is encouraging for Bond aficionados. Deaver clearly understands the distinction between Fleming’s Bond and, say, Roger Moore’s broad interpretation of the character. (Deaver is also an accomplished scuba diver and downhill skier, which can’t hurt.)

So what can we expect from Project X? The Burning Wire is Deaver’s 26th novel and the ninth instalment in his bestselling Lincoln Rhyme series. It’s a meticulously researched, page-turning thriller. Rhyme — a quadriplegic forensics expert who is confined to a wheelchair — finds himself on the trail of a crazed killer who is using New York’s electrical grid to terrorise the city. It is a set-up worthy of Fleming: many a Bond villain dreams of toppling Western civilisation by similarly dastardly means. In the background lurks Rhyme’s long-term foe, the Watchmaker, a nemesis in the great tradition of Professor Moriarty and the pitiless Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Deaver has already begun work on Project X which, unlike Devil May Care, will be a contemporary Bond story. Reports suggest that he will not attempt to ape Fleming’s style nor turn the book, as Faulks did, into a period pastiche. This is probably a good thing. On the evidence of The Burning Wire, Deaver would be no match for Faulks as a stylist.

What he can do is tell a story. You don’t shift 20 million books worldwide without knowing how to do that. Ian Fleming Publications will be hoping that some of Deaver’s bestselling magic continues to rub off on 007.