The world of James Bond fandom is divided into two groups: those who’ve read the books by Ian Fleming and those who haven’t. While the latter are probably in the majority, the former comprise a significant and vocal minority. And, so far at least, opinion seems to have been generally positive following the announcement that the next James Bond novel – Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis – will be published later this year.
Horowitz has excellent credentials and his selection as the latest Bond “continuation” author was generally welcomed by Fleming aficionados. He has an impressive CV in a wide range of popular genre fiction, including the acclaimed Alex Rider teenage secret agent series and an excellent Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk. He has also been a lead TV writer for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. The latter, especially, was notable for its meticulous research and understanding of the historical period.
Of course, the idea of commissioning further adventures of favourite popular literary heroes is nothing new, and Bond has been subject to many.
Kingsley Amis, who had written an affectionate critique of Fleming’s fiction, The James Bond Dossier, was the first author commissioned by Ian Fleming’s trustees to write a continuation Bond novel, Colonel Sun, in 1968. This is probably still the best of the non-Fleming Bonds: Amis managed to write in an accurate pastiche of Fleming’s distinctive style and it was close enough to the originals to be considered within the same cultural and ideological contexts (Fleming had died in 1964).
Perhaps surprisingly, Christopher Wood managed this too. Best known as author of the Confessions series, he was commissioned to write the film tie-in novelisations of his Bond scripts for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) – published as James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me and James Bond and Moonraker in order to differentiate them from the Fleming books (to which the films now bore no relation beyond the title and a few character names).
But the real limitations of the continuation novel are demonstrated by the series of Bond novels written by John Gardner in the 1980s and 90s and Raymond Benson between 1997 and 2008. Gardner, an established British thriller writer, and Benson, a Bond aficionado who had written the encyclopaedic The James Bond Bedside Companion, are both fine writers, as anyone who has read the former’s Boysie Oakes and the latter’s Black Stiletto series will know. Yet their Bond novels strike an uneasy compromise between the established Fleming formula and the more excessive world of the James Bond films.
Apparently it was at the insistence of the Fleming estate, which commissions the books, that Gardner and Benson placed Bond in the present day rather than during Fleming’s heyday of the 1950s. And this, in my view, is problematic for several reasons.
Of its time
Fleming’s Bond was a product of the cultural and ideological contexts of the time. He was a cold warrior: Bond’s enemies in all bar one of the novels written in the 50s are either Soviet or Soviet-backed (the exception is Diamonds are Forever, the fourth novel and generally regarded as one of the weaker books, in which Bond is up against American gangsters).
The films, beginning with Dr No in 1962, adopted the “SPECTRE formula”, taking the international criminal syndicate introduced by Fleming in Thunderball (the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) and applying it to non-SPECTRE stories. We can expect much more of this come November.
Another problem for the continuation authors is that Fleming’s style was replete with expensive brand-name goods. Bond wears not any ordinary wristwatch but a Rolex Oyster Perpetual, he has his cigarettes made especially for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street, and he washes his hair with Pinaud Elixir (“that prince among shampoos”). There was more to this than the mere snob-value that some critics have ascribed to Fleming.
At a time when Britain was emerging from the post-war years of austerity and shifting to a culture of affluence (some rationing was still in force in 1953, the year that the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published) the brand-name goods were an indication of this historical process. Bond was set apart from most of his readers through his expensive clothes, drinks and accessories. Today the same cultural cachet is no longer there, and the effect falls flat when continuation authors recite Bond’s favourite things.
Back to basics
More recently the Fleming estate has adopted the strategy of commissioning stand-alone new Bond novels by “name” writers. These have been a mixed bag. Sebastian Faulks is a fine writer but his Devil May Care seemed to have been written in a hurry – presumably to meet a deadline so that it could be published on the centenary of Fleming’s birth. I enjoyed Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche as a modern thriller but its reinvention of Bond, who was now cast as an SAS veteran with service in Afghanistan, detached it too far from Fleming’s character for my taste. Perhaps the best to date has been William Boyd’s Solo, though, like Devil May Care, the decision to set it in the late 1960s – after Colonel Sun – was less than wholly successful. To place the essentially conservative clubman hero Bond against the background of the swinging sixties seems anachronistic.
Read today, Fleming’s books are period pieces, imbued with the political values and social mores of their time. But they were written as contemporary stories. And to this extent I welcome the news that Horowitz is to return Bond to his formative decade: the 1950s.
Trigger Mortis is to be set after the events of Goldfinger and will apparently feature the return of that book’s heroine, Pussy Galore: (“she wore nothing but a grey fisherman’s jersey that was decent by half an inch”). In The House of Silk, Horowitz demonstrated that he was able to write a Sherlock Holmes adventure that read as if it had been written in Victorian times (he does not constantly remind his readers of period details such as hansom cabs and gaslight). And so I have high hopes that he will do the same for James Bond.