Bond back in some well-ex­e­cuted tosh

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven Peter Craven was found­ing ed­i­tor of Quar­terly Es­say.

Solo: A James Bond Novel By Wil­liam Boyd Jonathan Cape, 324pp, $32.95

WHAT is it about James Bond? Why is the world still in thrall to this wom­an­is­ing liquor­swill­ing toff of a se­cret agent who drives his As­ton Martin and likes his mar­ti­nis shaken, not stirred? Is it that the Cubby Broc­coli film fran­chise just hap­pened to co­in­cide with the la­tent charisma of the younger Sean Con­nery, the high comic charm of Roger Moore and the mid­dle way of Pierce Bros­nan, dark and Celtic like Con­nery but in­sou­ciant and light like Moore?

That trio hardly ex­plains how Bond en­dures as a film leg­end with the — to my eye — rather more or­di­nary Daniel Craig, or that big-name writ­ers such as Sebastian Faulks with Devil May Care (2008), Jef­fery Deaver with Carte Blanche (2011) and now Wil­liam Boyd with Solo con­tinue to write James Bond books as if he were Bat­man or Su­per­man or the rein­car­na­tion of Lancelot du Lac.

No one apart from Sher­lock Holmes has had such an af­ter­life. And that, of course, is one clue to the mys­tery. The old Basil Rath­bone films of Holmes, apart from ob­vi­ous clas­sics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, were free vari­a­tions on Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s theme of the om­ni­scient smart-arse de­tec­tive, just as Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch in Sher­lock and Jonny Lee Miller in Ele­men­tary are to­day.

Just as the Bond films — apart from the gor­geous­ness of fe­male nomen­cla­ture (Pussy Ga­lore) and the vil­lain with the cat — are sump­tu­ous elab­o­ra­tions of the idea of James Bond.

And so to Solo, in which Boyd does give us the old leather whiff, the dour mas­cu­line un­der­state­ment and the sense of mur­der­ous grace un­der mas­sively ex­ag­ger­ated fire that made James Bond ap­peal to John F. Kennedy and ev­ery other in­hab­i­tant of the dream of a man’s world.

At the out­set of the novel, set in 1969, Bond meets an Ir­ish ac­tress who holds up her cham­pagne glass to him with an erotic recog­ni­tion he re­turns as they sit in the din­ing room of the Dorch­ester. Be­fore we know where we are Bond is off to Africa where a small re­gion of a poor coun­try that has dis­cov­ered it has oil is fight­ing for in­de­pen­dence against the in­ter­ests of Bri­tain and per­haps fair play.

Here Bond falls into the arms of a beau­ti­ful African woman in a po­si­tion of power and hits up against a ghastly Rhode­sian mer­ce­nary with a dam­aged face that leaves half his jaw ex­posed and one eye per­ma­nently weep­ing.

Why are the rebels do­ing so well against the gov­ern­ment forces? Is it be­cause their gen­eral is a ge­nius, an African Napoleon? And what is his re­la­tion to his Rugby and Ox­ford-ed­u­cated brother in Lon­don who says he doesn’t want a bar of him?

Why does Bond — who is haunted at the book’s out­set by an in­ci­dent in the Nor­mandy invasion when he was a young com­mando — help the creepy Rhode­sian with the de­formed face in a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion, get­ting shot in the chest for his trou­ble?

In the lat­ter part of the book, Bond, af­ter re­cov­er­ing from his wounds, de­cides to wreak vengeance on those who tried to kill him and this leads him to Wash­ing­ton, and var­i­ous adventures in­volv­ing African enig­mas and var­i­ous deal­ings with the CIA as well as a meet­ing with an old Amer­i­can crony fa­mil­iar from the Flem­ing world.

The whole thing has a pul­sat­ing, nearly pur­pose­less en­ergy, and if Solo brings to mind the episodic na­ture of the orig­i­nal books (never ex­actly master­pieces of con­struc­tion) it also re­calls as­pects of Boyd’s fic­tion and its ca­pac­ity to re­peat the way the af­ter­taste of food can in an unlovely way.

Isn’t he one of those writ­ers who’s a bit bet­ter at set­ting things up than re­solv­ing them? Doesn’t he buzz with the en­chant­ments of a


big-time story only to dis­ap­point? Well, it would be hard not to, some­times, par­tic­u­larly in the vicin­ity of Flem­ing, who is in­ter­ested in his story only to the ex­tent that it al­lows peo­ple to drive and drink.

Much of Solo seems a bit less gleam­ing when phys­i­cal in­ci­dent is be­ing sum­marised, though Boyd is highly skilled at high­light­ing the am­bi­ence of peo­ple in­ter­act­ing and at­ti­tu­din­is­ing at each other.

Bond perv­ing un­seen at the Ir­ish ac­tress get­ting un­dressed, his prepa­ra­tion of filet mignon, his lan­guid sense, which is at the same time not quite in­signif­i­cant, that those who went through World War II con­sider the Cold War a kind of hol­i­day — th­ese are as­pects of Flem­ing Boyd does with a clair­voy­ant em­pa­thy that is a lit­tle bit uncanny and may make the book ir­re­sistible to diehard Bond fans.

James Bond presents us with a sen­si­bil­ity that is so­phis­ti­cated with­out be­ing civilised, ex­actly, or par­tic­u­larly hu­mane. It ra­di­ates, though, a deeply worldly sen­si­bil­ity, a play­boy’s sen­si­bil­ity, al­ways in spit­ting dis­tance of a high so­ci­ety we never quite see.

But this histri­onic world of nu­anced un­der­state­ment, fine tai­lor­ing and the kind of man­ners that are above ed­u­ca­tion and wit cor­re­sponds to deep in­stinct in the pop­u­lar breast and it’s one rea­son James Bond touches a nerve in all of us.

Is it the ideal of a mas­cu­line smoothie who makes women quiver and men gape with envy? That makes it sound like a glossy mag­a­zine ideal, and it is, but part of the cu­ri­ous power of Flem­ing is to refuse to ad­mit the re­al­ity of this world in any con­text ex­cept that of phys­i­cal courage and the cult of the war­rior.

In that re­spect he’s true to the stereo­types he in­her­ited. The fact Bond, un­like, say, John Buchan’s Richard Han­nay, is a ladies man gives his hero an erotic am­biva­lence as well as an ab­so­lutely enamelled panache. You don’t have to be an en­thu­si­ast for all this tosh to ad­mit Wil­liam Boyd does it rather well.

Solo Casino Royale

Wil­liam Boyd in Lon­don with his new James Bond novel

a day be­fore its re­lease; be­low, Daniel Craig as Bond in

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