A Tale of Two Bonds

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  • Monday, December 31, 2012
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • I got to see an old friend last week.  Twice actually.  You probably know my friend.  You almost certainly know of him… Bond, James Bond?

    I call Bond an old friend because he’s been an influence on me as a storyteller/dreamer going back to some of my earliest memories.  I first met him in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun, at least I’m pretty sure that was our first encounter. I might have glimpsed him once or twice before that because I already knew all about the gadgets and chases and fights…and yes, even at the tender age of seven, the girls.  Over the years that followed, I never missed a chance to visit with my old friend—whether it was a new movie in theatres or a re-broadcast of one of the older films—but it wasn’t until 1982 that I woke up to the fact that Bond wasn’t just a celluloid hero.  See, it turns out that before there were James Bond movies, there were James Bond books.
    Okay, laugh all you want.  I was just a kid, and it was a lot harder to find older, out of print books back then.  Of course I knew about the Ian Fleming novels before that, and I think I might even have stumbled across one of the collections of short stories (it failed to make an impression). 
    What makes 1982 memorable in my long friendship with Bond, James Bond, is that it was when I discovered that British author John Gardner had picked up where Ian Fleming (or technically, Kingsley Amis) had left off, embarking on a new series of 007 novels that retconned Bond forward into the superbly modern high-tech 1980s.
    I remember being a little disappointed by the Gardner books, but maybe not for the reason you’re thinking.  It wasn’t because they somehow failed to meet my expectations as an avid Bond-movie fan; honestly, by that time, I’d become less enthusiastic about the film franchise as well. As a voracious reader of action novels, I found the plots and characterizations of both the Gardner novels and the new Bond films wanting.   I read the first four Gardner Bond novels, but didn’t make an effort to keep up with them after that.  I watched all the movies, but the experience was often perfunctory and sometimes uncomfortable—visiting an old friend can be that way sometimes.  It wasn’t until 1998 that I really got to meet James Bond for the first time.  That was when a co-worker convinced me to read Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, published in 1953.
    Now, it’s just my personal opinion, but Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, just like the movies they inspired, are kind of hit-or-miss.  Nevertheless, after reading just a few of the Fleming novels, I was hooked.  From that moment on, I stopped thinking of Bond primarily as a movie character.
    Since discovering the Fleming Bond, I have mostly steered clear of Bond novels written by other authors.  I’m not a Bond purist by any means, but there are a lot of books to be read and only so many hours in the day.  I’ve kept up on the movies, but usually catching them on DVD.  Some of them have been good, some not so much…which is which remains a matter of personal taste.
    Last week however, I decided it was time to buck both trends and pay my old friend a visit.  I went to see the latest 007 movie, Skyfall, in a theater, and then I tucked into the most recent (though now almost 2 years old) post-Fleming Bond novel, Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver.
    First, Skyfall.
    Like many other Bond fans (from all across the spectrum of enthusiasm) I was pretty disappointed with the previous film, Quantum of Solace, and met Skyfall with equal parts dread and enthusiasm.   Most of the buzz on social media was very positive, but before I made it out the door to catch a weekend showing, one of my favorite authors Eric Lustbader—creator of the Nicholas Linnear series, but most noteworthy perhaps for taking over the reins of another novel series featuring a secret agent with the initials J.B.—commented on Facebook that he was surprised Skyfall was doing so well at the box office, since it wasn’t very good.
    It was fortuitous that I read that before I went to see the movie.  With so much praise coming from the fan-verse, anticipation had been slowly winning out over dread, so I needed a caveat to lower my expectations a bit.
    Looking back, I’m still not sure how I feel about Skyfall. 
    The movie features some stunning visuals, and a killer performance from Javier Bardem, but as I watched it, I couldn’t help but notice its flaws.  There are plot holes big enough to drive a lorry through.  Yet, it ended well…in fact, the ending was a much needed reset for the series which, ever since the Pierce Brosnan years, has been fumbling around in search of an identity. 
    I liked Brosnan as Bond, but during his tenure the movies tried to pull off a retcon without really retconning.  We got a new M (Dame Judi Dench) but Major Boothroyd was still in charge of Q section (until the passing of actor Desmond Llewelyn in 1999).  Miss Moneypenny (like Bond) got a new face but was still the same old character.  I’m nitpicking here; those details never mattered that much to me.  When Daniel Craig stepped into the role, the equation was further confused—suddenly, after forty years of saving the world, Bond was a junior agent in the 00 section… don’t ask, just go with it.
    Skyfall mostly fixes all that, and the next Bond might very well be the movie that I was hoping for.
    If Bond the movie hero has been struggling to find his footing, then Bond the literary franchise has been tumbling down the hill ass over teakettle.  I’m not talking about the quality of the stories—that’s a subjective judgment—but rather the continuity of the series.  In brief, it’s a mess. 
    Gardner’s fourteen original novels employed a floating timeline to keep Bond current with a contemporary setting, a trend which Raymond Benson continued for his six original novels.   Bond stays a perpetual 38 years old, no matter how much the world changes around him.  Which would be fine, except that in 2006, the Fleming estate decided to remind us all that Bond should be a very old man now, by commissioning historical novelist Sebastian Faulks to write a new James Bond novel “as Ian Fleming.”  The novel, Devil May Care, returns Bond to 1967.  Charlie Higson’s authorized young adult Young Bond series which hit bookstores in 2005, likewise emphasizes that Bond should be getting a little long in tooth, by chronicling his youthful exploits c. 1930.
    But perhaps the most confounding development in the Bond saga was the announcement in 2011 that American author Jeffery Deaver had been chosen to write a new Bond novel, one that would reboot the character into the 21st century.
    I’ll confess, I wasn’t thrilled when I heard that news.  After going to such lengths to get Bond back to his Fleming-esque roots, a reboot seemed like a misguided and cynical attempt to squeeze a little more money out of the series.  The choice of a best-selling American author to take the helm likewise smacked of opportunism.   I recall thinking that Jeffery Deaver seemed an odd choice for the job.  Why ask a mystery/crime novelist to tell the story, when there are so many authors of espionage and action thrillers who would probably jump at the chance?
    My reservations notwithstanding, last week I finally decided to give Deaver’s Bond novel, Carte Blanche, a fair chance, and I’m glad I did. 
    Carte Blanche picks up the entire Bond legend and shifts it forward about 60 years.  Almost everyone from the Fleming novels  is here… M, Miss Moneypenny, Bill Tanner, Felix Leiter, Rene Mathis, (a notable absence is Major Boothroyd aka Q) along with a whole cast of new characters that could easily have sprung from Fleming’s imagination.
    The novel chronicles Bond’s investigation of Incident 20, a terror plot about which very little is known.  While the rest of the intelligence community goes chasing after red herrings in Afghanistan, Bond follows a trail that leads him to Severan Hydt—a waste-management magnate with some very creepy predilections.
    As I’ve said, I’m no purist, but Deaver’s Bond really feels like Fleming’s Bond, right down to the character’s penchant for creating new cocktails.  The pacing and the mystery are, for my money at least, equal to Fleming at his best.  Carte Blanche failed to exceed my expectation in only one respect; while there are twists aplenty, the story (unlike Skyfall) ends with a whimper.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but speaking very broadly, Incident 20, while diabolical enough in real world terms, didn’t seem like an endeavor worthy of a Bond villain. That said, I would still recommend Carte Blanche without hesitation.  It’s a good book, whether you’re familiar with Fleming’s novels or not.
    Having overcome my reservations about Deaver, I was a bit disappointed to learn that he won’t be penning Bond’s next literary outing—William Boyd has that distinction, and has indicated that the new novel will be set in 1969. 
    So much for the reboot.
    Deaver has expressed some interest in revisiting the character, but that seems unlikely.  I would really love to see more of Deaver’s Bond.  The reboot was exactly what I was looking for: a chance to become friends with Bond all over again.  Truth be told, I don’t think I want to go back to the 1960’s Bond.  I’d much rather see what the 21st century has in store for him. I suppose for that, I’ll have to keep going to the movies.
    Visit Jeffery Deaver on the web: Jeffery Deaver's Official Web Site


    Edward G. Talbot said...

    Great review! I really liked Skyfall because it was Fleming's Bond married with more action than Casino Royale had but not the ridiculousness of Quantum of Solace (a barely watchable film IMO). A lot of people have commented on the plot holes, but Bond and the villain were so good as characters that those didn't even phase me.

    I will probably give Deaver's book a read, though it is VERY disappointing to hear that it is a one-time deal. Deaver's books have a little sense of sameness these days, but he remains pretty much the best plot twister of any current thriller writer, and I'm interested to see how he applies that to Bond.

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