Jeff is the editor of The Rap Sheet, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the author of five books about regional U.S. history and travel.
Until recently, I hadn’t read a James Bond novel in a very long while. I think the last one was Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger (1959), which I re-read probably a decade ago. Prior to that, I’d picked up two or three of John Gardner’s Bond pastiches from the 1980s and ’90s (though not The Man from Barbarossa, which the author apparently thought was his best). However, I never quite got around to purchasing Raymond Benson’s 007 adventures, Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care (which was set in 1967), or Jeffery Deaver’s hotly promoted Carte Blanche. There were just so many other promising books demanding my attention. Having enjoyed most of Fleming’s spy thrillers in my youth, I figured I had pretty much “done” Bond.
But then Ian Fleming Publications--which holds the Bond books copyright--commissioned UK novelist William Boyd to produce a new “official” 007 work. I was very fond of Boyd’s 2006 historical thriller, Restless, and while his other books have been hit-and-miss with me (I was especially disappointed in 2009’s Ordinary Thunderstorms), he can usually be counted on for deftly configured characters and some artistry in his use of the English language. I couldn’t very well ignore the possibilities of what he might be able to do with Fleming’s resourceful, randy master spy.
Solo is certainly not a disappointment. It doesn’t seek to imitate Fleming’s voice or to play it too safe with his protagonist. Neither, though, does it ignore the tropes and traditions of the famous espionage series. We find 007 in these pages reveling in the pleasures to be had from expertly engineered automobiles, finely tailored clothes, bracing cocktails, and lissome ladies. It’s not giving anything away to say that he doesn’t die at the end ... and he lives every page in between to the fullest. That he must also endure deceptions and hostilities is only to be expected. This is, after all, a Bond yarn.
The year is 1969. The half-Scottish, half-Swiss Commander Bond is residing in a spacious Chelsea flat that’s undergoing some remodeling, and ruminating over both his past and present. After celebrating his 45th birthday--alone, save for the posh libations in close attendance--and then becoming enamored of a woman named Bryce Fitzjohn, who’s not much younger than he, 007 is dispatched to the fictional west African nation of Zanzarim, where a civil war has resulted in considerable bloodshed, much to the regret of Her Majesty’s Government. It’s Bond’s job, posing as a journalist with a familiar French news agency, to locate the “tactical genius” who’s leading this rebellion and, presumably, take him out--although his assignment is unusually short of specifics.
Helping to acquaint him with conditions in Zanzarim and the freedom-seeking state of Dahum, is a comely young black woman named Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, the British Secret Service’s local head of station. She accompanies him, as his translator, into Dahum, where they find a remorseless mercenary named Kobus Breed, whose quirk of weeping copiously from one eye--the result of a terrible facial injury--does nothing to curb his penchant for violence. (He’s most fond, it seems, of stringing his adversaries up from fish hooks.) Bond manages to win Breed over a bit by employing his military experience from World War II at a crucial moment. But theirs is a temporary alliance; 007 soon finds a way to undermine the Dahumian force’s faith in its invulnerability, and in the process not only makes an enemy of Breed, but winds up at the ugly end of an automatic pistol.
To give much more of the plot away would be a disservice to Boyd’s literary endeavors. I will add, though, that James Bond soon winds up in a Scottish hospital, where he decides to exact revenge on Breed & Co. In order to do so, 007 must “go solo,” despite all the Secret Service regulations prohibiting such activities. He jets off for Washington, D.C. (making this the first novel since Benson’s The Facts of Death to send Bond to the States), where he searches for answers to questions that were left unresolved at the end of his Dahum interlude--notably, why it is that an African charity seems to have grown exponentially in the wake of the Zanzarim civil war.
Although there’s ample gun play in these pages (and knife play, as well), readers expecting to find the sorts of whiz-bang gadgetry and cinematic fireworks in Solo that have become familiar from the Bond films might be disappointed. As in Fleming’s original books, this new story is lower on technology than human treachery, and author Boyd--while he succumbs in some ways to the demands of a formulaic thriller--demonstrates a preference for realism that inhibits his ability to cut loose with fantastical but too-convenient plot twists. This is spy fiction for adults who don’t demand a video-game pace in their storytelling. Solo is not perfect: there’s a secondary character here, for instance, who suffers from a lisp, but somehow fails to maintain that impediment throughout his dialogue; and Bond’s inability to recognize that he is putting people in danger by associating with them can be downright maddening. (Really, James, must you be so obtuse?)
Nonetheless, Solo is a consuming work, and William Boyd has made Bond his own. I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if Ian Fleming Publications begged him for a sequel.
This review first appeared at www.therapsheet.com – reprinted with acknowledgement to Jeff Kingston Pierce.
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