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Review: Scotsman - Bond loses licence to thrill in `Devil May Care`

29-May-2008 • Literary

Devil may care, but few others will as Bond formula loses licence to thrill - review by The Scotsman.

It is 1967, and Britain is going to pot. The Stones have been arrested for using it, and as James Bond drives down the King's Road from his Chelsea flat, he notices it is "packed with long-haired young people" and smells "the bonfire whiff of marijuana he'd previously associated only with souks in the grubbier Moroccan towns".

There is a war on drugs, but it's not going on here – yet. Whether we will need one is down to whether 007 can shut down the operation of Dr Julius Gorner, who is about to flood the West with harder drugs, like heroin.

Naturally, the two will soon meet, and once Gorner has Bond in his clutches he will, of course, spell out his evil plans. ("One day, Bond, I will make as many heroin addicts in Britain as Britain made in China.") In case we haven't gathered the full extent of his villainy, Faulks gives Gorner the requisite disability – in this case, a hairy ape-like hand with a non-opposable thumb.

And so it goes. The Bond books franchise – which, unlike the films, had been in severe danger of stalling (the last one, The Man With the Red Tattoo, written by Raymond Benson, sold only 5,000 copies) – is up and running again. The publicity machine has given Devil May Care the kind of hoopla we've previously seen only with Harry Potter – but is it worth the fuss?

I think not. If you forget the hype, there's not the slightest thing special about this book.

Here, after all, is a world where simplicity and superlatives reign. Bond, we are repeatedly told, is "unique"; similarly, Gorner is "the most dangerous man the Service has yet encountered". Everything is signposted. If that apelike hand isn't a giveaway, how about the tennis match Gorner has with Bond in which he is revealed as a cheat?

That chapter's title is "Not Cricket". Not life, either.

As for motivation, there's always the love of high-class tottie – in this relatively chaste Bond book, one Scarlett Papava. But there's also a deeper chivalry involved. Scarlett urges Bond to rescue her twin sister, Poppy, who is Garner's drug slave.

She may not be much more than a cipher, but Poppy Papava (Papaver somniferum is the Latin for the opium poppy) does, at least, have a witty name to live up to.

By now we're in the Shah's Iran. The drugs plot has spiralled into a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The world (or at least Britain, soon to be targeted by retaliatory missiles) has only one man to save it, and…

Well, you can guess the rest, right up to the closing lines, which are sure to hint at a goodly amount of heroic sex. Because that's the template Faulks is working to, for all its preposterousness. As anyone who has heard him on Radio 4's The Write Stuff will know, he is an accomplished parodist, but here he sticks assiduously to his brief.

He hasn't messed with the formula, that old Bond brew of macho play, cruel villains (with pliers to remove tongues and chopsticks to bang out eardrums) and cosmopolitan sophistication (stuffed quails with rose petals washed down with a nice Château Batailley '45, anyone?) is all present and correct.

But 36 novels into the Bond story, the formula is stale. Perhaps it's time to retire Bond. If he doesn't go willingly, try the carotid takedown: "Only 11lb of pressure to the carotid artery stops bloodflow to the brain, and once the flow has stopped, consciousness is lost in ten seconds."

Well, it always works when 007 does it anyway…

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