Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Book Review: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks (as by Ian Fleming)

Bond is Back! And he’s…different*.

To celebrate what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, the estate commissioned literary novelist Sebastian Faulks to write the “thirteenth” novel that Fleming he never wrote. (For those keeping score, there are fourteen Bond titles published under Fleming’s name. Two of them, For Your Eyes Only and Octopus-y were story collections. Thus, Fleming only wrote twelve novels, the last one being 1965’s posthumous book, The Man with the Golden Gun.) By choosing this course of action, Devil May Care eliminates some forty years worth of novels written about James Bond by other authors. You could think of it as the literary equivalent of a reboot, just as the movie version of “Casino Royale” was to the films.

Faulks, born in 1953, the same year the first Bond book, Casino Royale, was published (coincidence?) is better known as a literary writer. I haven’t read any of his books so I can’t comment on his own style. However, other reviewers have commented on Faulks-as-Fleming is pretty dead-on. I’ve read the first five Bond books (check out CommanderBond.net for the true novel order) and I can tell that Faulks did a good job at emulating the style of the late author.

*In the opening sentence, I said that this Bond is different. He is only different if you’ve never read any of the Fleming novels. The Bond of the books and the Bond of the movies are different creatures. Heck, the movie Bonds themselves are different creatures. Differences can be good. Let me put it this way: the movie "Casino Royale" knocked my socks off it was so good. This book is better than half the films—easily—but not as good as, say, the movie or novel From Russia With Love.

Like most Bond films, Devil May Care starts off with a “pre-credit” sequence. Here, an Algerian drug dealer in France gets his tongue ripped out with pliers. Cue Theme Song. Next, we see Bond at the end of a three-month sabbatical after his encounter with Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. (Again, judging by the movie version, my first question was “Really?” Perhaps the book is better. Couldn’t possibly be worse.) Bond stays on Barbados and learns tennis, travels in France, and ends up in Rome. One day at an outside café, he sees a man with a large left hand wearing a white glove. Odd, thinks Bond, I think that chap is up to no good. (That’s foreshadowing, by the way) With two weeks remaining on his sabbatical, he has a decision to make: return to the field or be benched behind a desk for the rest of his career. A lovely woman catches his eye and, after having dinner with the married woman, declines her invitation to go up to her room. Yes, I said declines. Yes, this is a James Bond book. It’s okay. Just keep reading.

For Bond, that refusal of a sexual encounter is proof that he’s lost the edge. Well, until he gets a cable from M ordering him to report back to London. Here is where Faulks demonstrates that he’s read all of Fleming’s material. And it’s part of the book’s charm. If you have never read the Fleming novels, you are missing a lot about the fictional Bond. When Bond returns to London, Faulks takes you to Bond’s house and you get to see his housemaid—and she ain’t one of the tall, slim, scantily clad ones either. In the novels, the second book, Moonraker, shows you Bond’s house and his habits for the first time. Faulks lovingly throws in snippets of details that the die-hards will already know and new readers—perhaps those who only know Bond from the films—will find appealing. Faulks has Bond remember past adversaries throughout the book and this plays like a greatest hits.

M dispatches Bond to investigate Julian Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate suspected of importing heroin into the West. And, lo and behold, if Gorner isn’t the man with the large left hand that Bond just happened to see in France one day. (I’ll be honest: I rolled my eyes on that one. Too coincidental and unnecessary.) Bond lands in France and is met by Scarlett Papava who just so happens to be the same lady Bond refused to sleep with back in Rome (roll eyes again). This time, she’s being her real self and wants Bond’s help to rescue her sister from the clutches of Gorner.

Every Bond story has to have the inevitable battle of wills between Bond and his adversary. Think golf with Goldfinger, shooting geese with Drax, or that horrid video game in "Never Say Never Again." This time, it’s tennis (eye roll again because that’s just exactly what Bond took up in Barbados during his sabbatical. Good thing, huh?) I think you can guess who wins. Which brings up a question: in almost all these films with the egomaniacal villain who think that they are so superior to Bond, why do they always feel the need to cheat?

I’ll admit that the eye rolling stopped here. Once Bond makes his way to Iran (a first for Bond), the scope of a typical Bond story rolls along very quickly. He meets up with Darius Alizadeh, MI6’s man in Tehran. He’s a great character and as staunch an ally as Darko Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love. And you get a real sense of what Bond likes to eat, something that is usually skipped over in the films. Soon, Bond discovers the Caspian Sea Monster (as told by a man not unlike Quarrel from "Dr. No" who thinks the tank in that film is a dragon) and Gorner’s plan to bring Britain to its knees (like in "Goldeneye" and "Die Another Day") in a manner not unlike Elliot Carver in "Tomorrow Never Dies." Got all that?

One thing that surprised me was the climax. It wasn’t at the end; it occurred about three-fourths of the way into the book. But, like "The Spy Who Loved Me," the #1 Henchman returns and, well, you could have guessed that. And if you’re wondering if Bond and Scarlett end up together…come on! It’s a James Bond story. What do you think?

You get past the opening, slower sections and the book picks up a head of steam that barrels it way to the end. I listened to the book and the reader, Tristan Layton, does a fine job. He even nails the stereotypical Texas accent of Felix Leiter (bet you didn’t know Felix was a Texan if you just watched the movies).

I certainly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading others as they are released. I’m up to Book 6 in the novels, Dr. No, and, after reading Devil May Care, I might tackle the rest of the Fleming books soon. I always hesitate to plow through novels by authors who are dead because there are a finite number of books to be read and I want to savor them. But if the Fleming estate continues to commission books as enjoyable as this one, we’ll all have our constant fix of James Bond for years to come.


David Cranmer said...

Scott, I'm glad you liked this one. I may give it a try. I read a few of the John Gardner novels in the 80's and though I liked them- obvious comment coming-were no match for Ian Fleming. I recently read Quantum of Solace and was reminded of what an original fun writer he was. I will say I like the cover art for Devil May Care.

eejut said...

I've always loved the Fleming books. I read most of the way through Gardner and Benson but finally had to admit i wasnt enjoying it.

I havent read DMC yet, because i really didnt like the UK hardback (yes i'm that sad) but the paperback looks like it may be better. The US cover was far better.

sexy said...