Review: Bond barely lives twice in `Devil May Care` - Wall Street Journal
"Devil May Care" review by The Wall Street Journal
Now that the James Bond movie franchise has been revitalized with a compelling new actor (Daniel Craig), it makes sense that Ian Fleming Productions would try to do the same thing with the 007 book business. The company hired an accomplished author of literary fiction, Sebastian Faulks, to get inside Fleming's skin and produce a secret-agent thriller true to the style of the man who defined the genre. The result, "Devil May Care," is a tale set in 1967 and finds Bond doing his thing in Rome, London, Paris, Iran and the Russian countryside. The book is well written, entertaining, passably authentic -- and ultimately unsatisfying. Why? I suspect that it has something to do with the tensions inherent in passable authenticity.
There are plenty of things that Mr. Faulks gets right. The villain of "Devil May Care," Dr. Julius Gorner, is at first blush a pretty solid Bond adversary. He is vaguely foreign, arrogant, mad with power and deranged by the casual exclusivity of posh Brits. He is determined to wreak havoc on Britain as punishment for its imperialist sins. He keeps a murderous oriental henchman to do his wet work for him and, oh yes, he is deformed.
As it happens, deformity looms large in the iconography of Bond's enemies. Sir Hugo Drax ("Moonraker") had an infelicitously reconstructed face; Auric Goldfinger was a stunted hobgoblin with a carrot-topped melon-head; Pincers protruded from Dr. No's sleeves (the popular prejudice runs in favor of two hands); Le Chiffre ("Casino Royale") wept blood. In keeping with this tradition, Gorner has a hairy simian paw where his left hand should be, a grotesquerie he keeps hidden beneath a starched white glove. We are led to understand that the long-ago taunt of some Oxford toff ridiculing Gorner's monkey-hand explains at least some of his rather anti-social and anti-British impulses.
And then there is the deformity of the man's character. Like the venerable villains of Fleming's novels, Gorner cheats at gentlemen's games. In "Moonraker," Drax might have succeeded in reducing London to radioactive rubble if he hadn't drawn the attention of M, Bond's boss at "Universal Export," by cheating at cards. Goldfinger, Fleming tells us, "had made himself rich by cheating or sharp practice"; he even cheats at golf.
In Mr. Faulks's novel the sport is tennis. Bond plays against Gorner for escalating stakes in a game that isn't exactly Hoyle. The pacing and the detailed description of the unfolding match are superb. The tension ratchets up and so, mysteriously, does the net on Bond's service. As a strategic battle of wills between the protagonists, the scene is a worthy rival to Fleming's card-table contests between Bond and Drax and Bond and Le Chiffre.
And yet the tennis match comes off as clunky and tacked on, revealing a bit of what is unsatisfying in the novel as a whole. Unlike the Drax and Le Chiffre contests, the tennis match serves no narrative purpose. Gorner has already been identified as a villain before the contest on the clay court, so we don't learn anything about him from his game, as we do about Goldfinger or Drax from theirs. Nor does the match decide anything of importance, unlike the climactic baccarat game in "Casino Royale," by which Bond bankrupts a terrorist financier. The villain's cheating in "Devil May Care," then, seems to be little more than a way for Mr. Faulks to put down a marker documenting his thorough study of Flemingisms.
And there are other ways in which Gorner falls short of the Platonic form of Bond Villain. Once he has Bond in his clutches, he delivers the obligatory dissertation on the aesthetics of power. But unlike Dr. No -- who explains Clausewitz to Bond while serving a meal that begins with Caviar Double de Beluga and ends with Sorbet Ã la Champagne -- Gorner fails to give his adversary a handsome dinner first.
Now, one might take such parsimony to be a more realistic approach to villainy. But without a leisurely meal, Gorner never has the chance to grow expansive. He blurts out his megalomaniacal agenda in a forced and perfunctory manner that is implausible even by the apsychological standards of Fleming's originals.
Worse, Gorner lacks focus -- he can't quite decide what kind of villainy he wants to get up to. Does he want to sap Britain slowly by turning it into a nation of heroin addicts, as the Russkies tried to do in the Fleming short story "Risico," or does he want to obliterate London with nukes Ã la Drax in "Moonraker"?
And if the latter, why doesn't Gorner just use the nuclear weapons conveniently in his possession? Instead, we get a Rube Goldberg scheme, with such laughable implausibilities as the notion that America thinks it can entice Britain to send a few troops to Vietnam if only the Soviets can be provoked into obliterating London.
Which brings us to what would have irked Fleming most about "Devil May Care" -- Mr. Faulks's portrayal of Americans. Fleming loved to have 007 out-do and out-class the Yanks. In the Bond novels, Americans could be counted on to try to do with cash what they couldn't manage with cleverness. Felix Leiter -- the CIA man who is the closest thing Bond has to a sidekick -- isn't a good enough card player to take Le Chiffre at the baccarat table. But he is able to keep Bond in the game through the timely delivery of dollars.
But for all their naÃ¯vetÃ©, the Americans in Fleming's novels are loyal and trustworthy allies. By contrast, Mr. Faulks indulges in the fashionable and facile trope that posits no global conspiracy worth its salt is free from the hidden hand of the U.S. government -- especially when the conspiracy is designed to trick poor little Britain into entering an unjust war. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it would seem, had nothing on Dick Cheney.
There are also small slips of Bondage that also bring their share of grief. Those who pay attention to liquor, for instance, will feel obliged to point out that Mr. Faulks has 007 drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label at home, whereas Fleming's secret agent was a Haig and Haig pinchbottle man. Mr. Faulks also has Bond, sitting outdoors at a Parisian cafÃ©, ordering "an Americano -- Campari, Cinzano, lemon peel and Perrier -- not because he particularly liked it but because a French cafÃ© was not a place in his view for a serious drink."
Strictly speaking, this passage is correct, but only because it is a clumsy copy of a lively Bond musing in "From a View to a Kill." In that novel, Bond is said to believe that "one cannot drink seriously in French cafes. Out of doors on a pavement in the sun is no place for vodka or whisky or gin." At length, Fleming mulls the virtues of brandy and water, indifferent house champagne, Mimosas and Pernod before settling on Bond's choice: that "musical comedy drink," the Americano. Mr. Faulks chops all this delightful froth down to joyless paraphrase.
Watching such a capable author struggle gives one newfound admiration for Ian Fleming's talent. And though it is flattering in a way that Ian Fleming's novels have inspired a string of writers to keep James Bond alive, there is also a certain disparagement embedded in the conceit that a writer can be impersonated. Even if there were heirs who wanted to keep Nick Carraway's post-"Gatsby" adventures going, could they find anyone who would dare to claim he was "Writing as F. Scott Fitzgerald"?
"Writing as Ian Fleming" -- the phrase appears on the cover of the book, after Mr. Faulks's name -- proves difficult. And is it really necessary? Better to find one of the original novels you may not have read, such as the book Mr. Faulks is most at pains to emulate, "Moonraker." After all, why order Freixenet when you can drink Bollinger?
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