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Review: Forbes gives Mr Bond a thumbs-up on his return in `Devil May Care`

28-May-2008 • Literary

Welcome Back, Mr. Bond - "Devil May Care" review by Forbes.com

Happy 100th birthday, Ian Fleming. If James Bond's creator and the author of 14 Bond books were alive to read Devil May Care, he might well believe that he had written it. Sebastian Faulks, a celebrated author of literary fiction, went undercover "writing as Ian Fleming" and achieved a performance as remarkable as the one pulled off by his Bond girl, Scarlett Paplava, in the book.

Faulks sets his Bond story in 1967, after the events of The Man With the Golden Gun. It opens with Bond on an extended recuperative holiday. The gentleman spy is off liquor, women and violence, and has taken up tennis. He's trying to decide whether he'll return to the field or take a desk job with British intelligence.

The emergence of a new global super-villain forces Bond back into action. Pharmaceutical executive Julius Gorner turns poppies into morphine for use by hospitals throughout the world. He also manufactures heroin that he sends into the streets of London in the hopes that he can turn Britain into a cesspool of drug addiction.

Over decades, he believes, he can reduce Britain to Third World status, just punishment for the Crown's many sins during its age of empire. Gorner is quite obsessed with British history. When he has Bond in his clutches, he deliberately starves the spy because, he notes, that's what Britain did to Ireland during the potato famine.

Faulks gives Gorner a fantastic villain's defect: He was born with a monkey's paw. He's also impatient. Not content to beat Britain with cheap heroin, he has a plan to provoke a nuclear exchange between Britain and the Soviet Union, and Bond is Gorner's pawn in his game of atomic chess. Gorner also has a giant jet-powered hovercraft. Hovercrafts are cool.

Parisian investment banker Scarlett Paplava and her twin sister, Poppy, are Faulks' Bond girls. Poppy is Gorner's captive, and Paplava wants Bond to rescue her. She follows Bond to Iran in search of the kidnapper/drug kingpin. Bond quickly becomes infatuated with her, and fortunately for him, she's constantly losing some or most of her clothing. Faulks makes a running gag out of constant coitus interruptus between the two.

Bond is also aided by fellow spies from the Service and by American Felix Leiter, retired from the CIA and working as a Pinkerton's man in Hollywood. Leiter is missing a hand and leg that he lost while helping Bond fight off a hammerhead shark, but he doesn't let that slow him down.

On his side, Gorner has a man named Chagrin, a sadist from Viet Nam who had his brain altered by Soviet surgeons so he can feel neither compassion nor pain. His specialty is removing people's teeth with pliers, but he also jabs chopsticks into a victim's ear and then boxes them upside the head, rupturing their eardrums.

Once the adventure gets going, it's as if Faulks, a fan of the Bond novels in his youth, got hold of his inner child, along with a bunch of action figures. Bond gets thrown from a jeep, nearly drowns in a well, finds himself in a gunfight on a nuclear-armed war plane set to obliterate Volgograd (Stalingrad) and then crash with all hands on board.

Not only can Bond survive all this but he does it while smoking an insane amount of cigarettes after starting many of his days with bourbon and eggs for breakfast. Most mortals wouldn't be able to drag themselves into the office after a week of the James Bond diet, much less perform Olympian feats. But Bond's no mortal, and that's the fun of Devil May Care.

Unfortunately, the normally thoughtful Faulks gets a little careless with one character and plot point. J.D. Silver, an American spy in Tehran, Iran, turns out to be a double agent. Nothing wrong with that. Except for his motivation: He's being blackmailed because he's had some homosexual affairs. While people are blackmailed over sex all the time, it's unlikely, and maybe a bit irresponsible, to imply that some one would risk an all-out nuclear war just to keep his sexual identity closeted. The story is set 40 years ago, but to a reader in 2008 it seems a pretty thin rationale that's unintentionally offensive.

Everything else in Devil May Care is a delight. The over-the-top villain, the massive weapons, the grandiose plans and schemes, Bond's ability to bounce back from the most savage beatings, and the collisions and explosions are all on display. There's even some good combat advice: "Rather than cut the man's throat, Bond used the carotid takedown. Only eleven pounds of pressure to the carotid arteriesis necessary to stop bloodflow to the brain and, once the flow has stopped, the average person loses consciousness within ten seconds." Have to keep that one in mind.

Well done, Mr. Faulks. It is indeed good to see Bond back.

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