The new James Bond novel, by Jeffrey Deaver.
The last novel authorised by the Fleming Estate was in 2007 , when Sebastian Faulks chose to write as Ian Fleming and deliver a classic cold war Bond tale in Devil May Care. It was set in the 1960’s, contemporary with Fleming’s original novels and tried to imitate both Fleming’s terse literary style and the original glamour and grittiness of the original character. It was a moderate success in its aims and suggested that the stories could be continued to be set in the cold war years, when the spy genre was at its peak in both novels and films. However, like the films by Eon Productions, which successfully updated Bond with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006), the Fleming Estate have decided that a new, modern re-boot of Ian Fleming’s classic cold war spy is needed to bring him to the attention of new fans and to keep him relevent in the new war on terror world. To achieve that aim they have hired American crime writer Jeffrey Deaver to take over authorship and provide a modern take on the well-worn spy story.
First the plus points. In bringing Bond into the modern world, Deaver, clearly a fan of the original novels, has managed to cram in all the essential characters and characterisations that will keep Bond fans happy. Indeed, it almost seems that Deaver, thinking he had to please everyone and that this may be his only shot at publishing a Bond novel, kept a list of everyone from the original stories that he simply had to include. So in an overcrowded spy world we are reintroduced to Felix Leiter, Rene Mathis, M, Moneypenny, Q branch, Mary Goodnight and Bond’s faithful Scottish housekeeper, May, still maintaining Bond’s flat in Chelsea. There is the familiar cars, an antique E-type Jaguar nodding to the original stories, with an updated Bentley substituted for the original. There is the customary globe-trotting form London to South Africa via Serbia, and a collection of villainous bad guys and alluring women mixed with an extravagant plot and action set pieces. So far, so familiar, however, despite Deaver’s obvious appreciation of the original material, unfortunately he fails to live up to the original novels both in form, style and plot.
The initial and costliest error by Deaver is to write the novel in his own style, rather than attempt to imitate Fleming, as Sebastian Faulks did. The problem with this is that Deaver is quite simply not a stylish enough writer to maintain the very style that makes Bond novels stand out from every other spy story out there. He is, after all, a writer of conventional pot-boiler crime novels, sold en mass at airports around the globe and thrown away as soon as they are finished. His technique is flawed and conventional. Throughout the book, we are presented with a third person narrative that is deeply flawed. Consistently we are led to believe that Bond has fallen into a trap, or made the wrong decision, only for Deaver to reveal in the next page or two that, hoorah!, Bond knew what he was doing all along and has out thought the bad guy. For example, in the book’s plot conclusion we are led to believe that Bond hasn’t been able to get warning out via a mobile phone to the authorities about a bomb blast set to go off in England. Lo and behold, the bomb goes off, but what’s this? A warning had been received, because unknown to anyone, including the third person narrator of the book, Bond had secretly planted another phone and had made the call with that moments earlier. This selective narration is clearly illogical – why Bond went through a desperate fight to obtain a mobile phone when he knew all along he had another waiting for him – and also cheap trickery, a convention that Fleming used sparingly, but Deaver deploys throughout, so that by the books conclusion, you already know not to trust the narration because Bond has it all figured out, he just isn’t telling us. So all suspense disappears. There are also some amazing aberrations in style and narrative convention. Take this section from chapter 58:
”…The video footage showed a half-destroyed building, smoke, glass and wreckage covering the ground, rescue workers running, dozens of police cars and fire engines pulling up. The crawler said, ‘Massive explosion at university of York.’
In this era we’ve become inured to terrible images on television. Scenes appalling to an eyewitness are somehow tame when observed in two dimensions on the medium that brings us Dr Who and advertisements for Ford Mondeos and M&S fashions.”
The narrative voice actually steps out of the story it is telling to address us as readers and give us an opinion about the state of the world. If Deaver wishes to make this point he can always put it in the mouths or thoughts of Bond or his chief villain, but he bizarrely compromises the narrative and narrative voice in order to chastise the society of today. Not only that, but quoting Dr Who, Mondeos and M&S is crass, both as an example of Deaver forcing himself to sound British and in name checking such things in a James Bond novel. Another annoying habit that I don’t recall Fleming resorting too quite so much is Deaver’s tendency to take us away from Bond and shift the narrative to the enemy, explaining events from others point of view. We don’t follow Bond, but wherever it is most convenient for the narrative to take us.
Deaver also suffers by his constant desire to spell everything out to the reader, not trusting the reader to realise for ourselves how clever he is being. So every acronyms has to be explained, every fighting style, every type of car, gun, drink has to be not only named but described in deadly dull exposition. Here is an example of Deaver halting us just as an exciting action fight is about to begin
Then Bond was on his feet, facing the man, who stood in a fighter’s stance, a knife in his hand, blade protruding downwards, sharp edge facing out. His left hand, open and palm down, floated distractingly, ready to grab Bond’s clothing and pull him in to be stabbed to death.
On the balls of his feet, Bond circled.
[so far, so exciting, baited breadth, what will happen next? But then this…]
Ever since his days at Fettes in Edinburgh, he had practised various types of close combat, but the ODG taught its agents a rare style of unarmed fighting, borrowed from a former (or not so former) enemy – the Russians. An ancient martial art of the Cossacks, systema had been updated by the Spetsnaz, the special forces branch of GRU military intelliegnce.
[Okay, so meanwhile back at the life and death fight….?]
Systema practitioners rarely use their fists. Open palms, elbows and knees are the main weapons. The goal, though is to strike as infrequently as possible. Rather, you tire out your adversary, then catch him in a come-on or take-down hold on the shoulder, wrist, arm or ankle. The best systema fighters never come into contact with their opponent at all…until the final moment, when the exhausted attacker is largely defenceless. Then the victor takes him to the ground and drops a knee into his chest or throat.
Instintictvely falling into systema choreography, Bond now dodged the man’s assault. -p314
[My God, James, just hit the guy already.]
Another unfavourable comparison with Fleming comes form the attempts by Deaver to describe both the glamour and realism of the modern spy world. Fleming of course, had served in the British Secret Service, was well-travelled and a member of British aristocracy, all of which came across as parts of himself that he transposed onto his fictional character of James Bond. So the cars, fashion, countries, food and drink that Fleming described seemed genuine. Deaver comes across as having written Bond with Wikipedia sitting open on his laptop in front of him. I have no idea of course if this is the case, but that is how it reads. Every item he uses he has to explain, almost as if trying to prove he knows as much as Fleming/Bond – see the example of systema fighting above. Facts and figures and cod-history are introduced with each country, building, town and car we meet.
The modernisation of Bond has both its good points and its pitfalls. Yes, Bond is more relevent to what is happening in the world today. Terrorism, Afghanistan and the middle East, Serbia are all name checked regularly, but it comes at a cost. Superficially, Bond is quite simply less cool in the modern world than he was in the 1960’s. It’s excruciating and thumpingly depressing to have Bond described as constantly using an ‘app’ (as Deaver insists on naming them) on his ‘iPhone’ to gather intelligence, being guided by ‘sat-nav’, or stopping mid chase in order to ‘send a text’. (One of the low points is Deaver’s attempt at Bond-style humour by having Bond’s adapted iPhone nicknamed the iQPhone after Q branches invention – one can see Deaver chuckling to himself at his misguided cleverness. Equally, I think we’ve moved beyond Bond having to say things like this is how real life spying is, not like in the movies – nudge nudge, wink wink.). This is decidedly not the description of a suave spy conjured up by the 007. Other misguided steps include: the creation of a new organisation for Bond to operate in called ODG (Overseas Development Group) – for some reason a section of MI6 is no longer covert enough; ‘Q’ being revealed as Sanu Hirani, Deaver feeling for some reason that political correctness necessitates having a man of Middle Eastern lineage on the goodies side; and a completely unneeded and even throw away attempt to rewrite Bond’s past as his parents dying in a climbing accident is rewritten to reveal that his mother was in fact a spy herself – what would Ian Fleming make of it?
Deaver also manages to miss on other factors intrinsic to the Bond novels. Quite simply, the plot is rubbish – literally. Severan Hydt, as the main villain, has an empire based on waste disposal and much of the novel is spent in the squalid poorer areas of South Africa. This of course lacks primarily the requisite glamour of a Bond location, but also as a front for criminal activity is conventional to say the least – mafia anyone? Not only is Deaver determined to give us an over simplified essay on the problems that beset Africa, but he bases his main dastardly plot on a plan to deliver food to mercenary soldiers, in order to stage a coup in Sudan. Yes, the main thrust of the villains plan is to provide food. I do not wish to underestimate the problem of waste, famine and food supply in Africa, but as the basis of a meglomaniacal plot, waste disposal and food supply are decidedly underwhelming.
So what we have in the end is a conventional crime spy thriller, not exceptional but not disastrous. It would be fine except that it has the name and reputation of James Bond, 007 attached to it, and as such falls way short of expectations. In fact, the greatest criticism of Deaver’s attempt is not his lack of style, poor plotting or use of conventions, it is that the central character may well have been called Joe Bloggs just as easily as James Bond, because there is nothing here that distinguishes the greatest spy character in literary history from any of the others to be found in airport book shops.
Deaver has remarked that:
“In reading Carte Blanche fans will be treated to a typical, relentless, fast paced, rollercoaster of a Jeffery Deaver novel centred around everyone’s favourite spy, James Bond 007, who, the poor fellow, never gets a moment’s rest throughout the entire book.” *
Here, Deaver unwittingly sums up the main problem – A Jeffrey Deaver novel is simply not good enough for everyone’s favourite spy. Should Bond fans or Deaver fans read this book? Yes, probably, but unfortunately, I suspect that both sets will come away disappointed.
page and chapter numbers from Carte Blanche, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011 hardback edition.