It would be fun to write about this new James Bond novel with the entire Fleming canon close by: Dr. No, Live and Let Die, Goldfinger and the rest that brought us all such pleasure back in the day. Unfortunately, the young took them off to their lairs and never brought them back.
Still, these 1950s-'60s spy thrillers live in memory, diffused only slightly by the Connery, Moore and other performances (George Lazenby!) in movies built on Fleming's novels. Terse and laden with chases and torture, encounters with master villains and arch henchpeople like Oddjob and Rosa Klebb interspersed with glamorous, nonthreatening sex scenes, they crackled with tension and zipped the reader along. Perfect reading for the Cold War years.
A Bond fan and an accomplished parodist as well as a literary novelist, Sebastian Faulks has taken up the chase. If Devil May Care hasn't already been optioned by the makers of the Daniel Craig Casino Royale or the descendents of Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli, who made quite a few Bond pictures, it should be.
His new novel starts in Paris, moves on to Persia (in '00s terms, Iran) and includes a monster aircraft that skims the water just below the radar and carries a deadly payload. Oh yes, and, improbably, there's a scene on a Mississippi river boat on . . . the Thames.
Faulks pits a battered, just-rehabilitated James Bond against a villain whose main attributes seem to be a need to cheat at tennis and an oversized, apelike left hand that is a huge source of embarrassment to him.
Evil Dr. Julius Gorner has a grudge against the world.
Many things in this new version are different, but some remain comfortingly the same. Bond still likes to drink; his wardrobe is elegant and his reflexes quick; his weakness, we are told, is still "women," although he's running too fast to have a free minute for sex. Returning to MI5 after three months' R and R on a tropical island, he will, of course, be greeted by Moneypenny. His old CIA buddy Felix Leiter will also figure.
Devil May Care begins sensationally enough in the Cold War years, with the bloodily inventive murder of an agent delivering drugs in a sting operation that flops. Bond is sent in search of Gorner on what starts as an investigative mission. It escalates with the appearance of glamorous Scarlett Papava, who begs him to liberate Poppy, her twin sister, from Gorner's clutches. Our villain keeps her captive in his Persian stronghold, where he batches pharmaceuticals above the table and distills heroin in his secret factory.
A good enough villain, perhaps, although this reader would have liked to see a little more hand-to-hand combat. Naturally there's a henchman, Chagrin, a Vietnamese thug whose emotions have been removed. Unlike Oddjob and his ilk, he doesn't quite have the chops.
Once Faulks gets past scene-setting (heavy travelogue) and character building, the pace picks up, although when Bond boards that Mississippi riverboat, the decision seems arbitrary at best. And the inevitable combat with Gorner seems equally happenstantial. It's hard to say what somebody who doesn't know the Fleming books will think of Devil May Care, but this reader wanted more.
Kit Reed's new novel, Enclave, will be out in February.