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Review: `Devil May Care` has simple prose, but is enjoyable - The Guardian

29-May-2008 • Literary

"Devil May Care" review by The Guardian.

Since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 his estate has authorised 32 novels about James Bond by other authors. Most of these, though, have made so little lasting impact that several leading media outlets have confidently declared Devil May Care - the continuation by Sebastian Faulks, published yesterday - to be the first non-Fleming Bond.

Previous novelists on the Bondwagon, though, have lacked the distinction of a release on the day of the 007 creator's centenary or - with the exception of Kingsley Amis, who used the pseudonym Robert Markham for his Colonel Sun - of being a bestselling author in their own right. Faulks, pictured below, has also benefited from a sales campaign aggressive even by modern standards: the Royal Navy shipped down the Thames locked-up copies of a book kept from critics until yesterday. It was easier for Auric Goldfinger to get into Fort Knox than for critics to review this book.

The unconventional author credit - "Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming" - suggests the contemporary novelist is somehow channelling his dead predecessor. But this hint of spiritualism proves to be appropriate to the plot, which persistently picks up whispers from the books Fleming left behind.

Faulks, established as a dazzling pasticheur on the Radio 4 quiz The Write Stuff, proves characteristically alert to the main elements of his model's style: food, cruelty, clothes, super-weapons, villains' secret lairs. Some phrases - for example, the secret agent's liking for showers that prick his head like needles, alternately hot and cold - read as if they were directly borrowed from Fleming.

Most other elements reflect an effort not to write the Bond novel that might be written now, but another that could have been written then. For example, even in these foul-mouthed times, Faulks follows convention in noting only that: "Bond swore softly." And, literally continuing the series, Devil May Care finds Bond in 1967, following the events of The Man With the Golden Gun, the last of the Fleming novels.

Developments often follow the famous template. Faulks's Bond encounters an enemy who uses a scientific honorific and wears a glove at all times: not Dr No, but Dr Julius Gorner, a chemist. A tense tennis game against Gorner is a deliberate twin to golf with Auric Goldfinger; there is even a sinister Asian manservant - Chagrin, nodding across literary time to Oddjob - who helps his boss to cheat.

The thug's name, which leads to Bond getting an elegant lesson in the two French meanings of the word "chagrin", is an example of Faulks keeping this book close to the comfort zone of his own work, which includes several novels set in France. The key locations in Devil May Care are Paris and French Indochina.

Apart from this Francophilia, another element that feels personal to Faulks, a founding journalist on the Independent, is an unexpected attack on Rupert Murdoch, in which the crazed Gorner mentions his plans to buy the Times and start a television station in Britain. An additional frisson is given by the fact the Times bought serial rights to the novel.

Among British writers of his generation, Faulks is unusual in favouring female protagonists and has become a hero of readers' groups for his empathy for women. In Fleming's books the non-male characters are erotic scenery, so it was also interesting to see how Faulks would deal with this aspect of his inheritance. Perhaps pointedly, he has Bond rejecting an early offer of sex. While the female leads feel very Fleming - beautiful twins, one with a birthmark in an intimate place - Bond's gentlemanly tenderness towards them is very Faulks.

The novel's weakness is a surprising one. Although much of the publicity has been encouraged by the idea of a superior novelist taking on a populist genre, Faulks's prose is actually simpler than that of Fleming, who favoured baroque metaphors, and is notably warmer. Devil May Care misses the chilling indifference of tone which Bond's creator brought to both kissing and killing.

The book, though, is a smart and enjoyable act of literary resurrection. Among the now 33 post-Fleming Bonds, this must surely compete only with Kingsley Amis's for the title of the best.

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