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Review: Sebastian Faulks` James Bond is a man out of place in `Devil May Care`

28-May-2008 • Literary

Sebastian Faulks' James Bond is a man out of place in Devil May Care - review by Sam Leith for The Telegraph.

It's often said that thrillers, as a genre, are more or less writing-proof. That's not to say that they don't benefit from good writing.

And good writing is - as Hazlitt, Dr Johnson, Michael Moorcock and Ian Fleming all show us - not necessarily slow writing.

In this deftly done new novel (or perhaps, per Graham Greene, "entertainment") Sebastian Faulks demonstrates this by taking on not only Ian Fleming's whack-thwap style but his whack-thwap working method.

He cracked out Devil May Care in a flat six weeks, and it's all the livelier for it. If you're doing Bond, mind, you have a lot to take on board.

Fleming's Bond has long since escaped Fleming, and its conventions are well established. Bond needs to be camp - but it cannot be pure spoof.

To be durable as a franchise it needs to avoid falling into the Austin Powers/Casino Royale register - but to be Bond it needs to flirt with it.

Faulks takes sixty-odd pages to get this right. Early on, there are a couple of places where he's having too much fun.

The first time we catch sight of the villains, in their German car, for instance, there is a moment of pure slapstick: "A small dog ran out from one of the cafes, barking at a seagull on the dock. It was caught by the front wheel of the car, and flattened."

Then there's the chief baddie's obligatory deformity, the po-faced conversation about which caused red wine to shoot out of my nose and disfigure pages 32 and 33 of my hardback copy.

"His left hand," said M, sitting down again, and staring Bond squarely in the eye. "It's a monkey's paw."

"What?" "An extremely rare congenital deformity. There's a condition known as main de singe, or monkey's hand..."

Yet after allowing himself this pantomime wave at the cheap seats, Faulks throttles down a bit and lets Bond schtick do its own work.

A car moves off with "the inevitable squeal", and so does Devil May Care.

With a fabulously well-done set-piece tennis match - another vital part of the formula: the bit where Bond and the villain first meet in an ostensibly social, but bitterly competitive, situation - Faulks hits cruising speed.

He unrolls everything you want from Bond, thereafter, more or less by the numbers: a violent pre-credit sequence; a visit to M and a flirtatious exchange with Moneypenny; capture while snooping in the hangar holding the secret weapon; transportation to the Secret Base, where there is a monorail; having the villain confess his plans; then thwarting said plans.

The love interest is, as per the formula, a resourceful and enigmatic woman (one of two sexy twins distinguishable by an intimate birthmark) who is in due course stripped naked, threatened with gang rape, and ends up with "breasts smeared with blood" before she is rescued by, and can submit to, our hero.

When he needs to congratulate her, he tells her: "Good girl."

So, there's the sexism and the sadism.

Other -isms follow. Physical deformity is generally a sign of moral degeneracy, and racial characteristics are carefully noted.

Old monkey-paw's south-east-Asian sidekick, for example, has "yellowish skin, narrow eyes with the epicanthic lids of the Orient, and flat, inert features".

A friendly Persian local has a "large white smile". Bond - in a Holmesian moment - divines that his love interest is "part Jewish on her father's side".

His contact in Teheran, meanwhile, has a firm handshake that "spoke of frankness and friendship - not the half-hearted, slippery recoil that Bond had encountered in Beirut and Cairo".

We meet an American homosexual, by contrast, whose character is telegraphed by ginger hair, a horrible wet handshake, and a fondness for pistachio ice-cream (possibly an in-joke; Faulks's last book of pastiche was called Pistache), which he eats in an untrustworthy manner.

All of this is, of course, incredibly repugnant. But it is being played, by a delicate pasticheur, for laughs.

Faulks clatters Bond enjoyably through the mechanical absurdities of the plot, and - in the best tradition of trying to have your cake and eat it - makes fun of him too.

Faulks's Bond is a man out of place. Austin Powers marooned a 1967 Bond in the 1990s; Faulks takes Fleming's postwar Bond and maroons him in 1967.

At the beginning of the book, he looks around him at Cannes, sees it turning into Blackpool and wonders if there's a place for him in this world.

"You're tired," he tells himself in the mirror. "You're played out. Finished."

Surrounded by flower-children smoking "marijuana", and subjected to an earnest briefing on this menacing new drug called "heroin", he seems weirdly and deliberately unworldly.

So though Faulks's Bond may "swear succinctly" (twice, in fact), he is taken aback when a woman utters "a single pungent word that Bond had never heard a woman use before".

He may be a lothario, but he is also a prig.

He has decided opinions - "a French café was not a place in his view for a serious drink" - and his fantasy of relaxation is to sit on an aeroplane and "read a few pages of Ben Hogan on The Modern Fundamentals of Golf".

What he likes above all, though, is eating eggs. I think Faulks had a bet with himself about the egg-count.

His Bond eats eggs constantly. Omelettes, scrambled eggs and poached eggs in particular. Fish eggs occasionally.

When he isn't eating eggs, on account of being tied up or on the run, he keeps his spirits up by fantasising about eating eggs: "We're nearly there, we're nearly there, my darling. Breakfast in Leningrad... We'll have eggs with smoked salmon and coffee..."

What do all those eggs do to the Bond digestive system?

Nothing, I can only suppose, that 60 Turkish cigarettes a day won't cancel out.

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