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Review: Nice try, Mr Faulks - The Guardian

31-May-2008 • Literary

"Devil May Care" review by The Guardian.

Just as every small boy once wanted to be Bond, every fortysomething novelist must, surely, want to have been asked to create him. So in book-writing circles, there must have been little angry hisses when literary lion Sebastian Faulks was given the dream job of resurrecting James Bond, after so many hack writers have failed abysmally down the years.

Full backing of the Bond estate, to celebrate the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth, and the biggest marketing push since the last Harry Potter; yet Faulks says he wrote it in six weeks. Had to be persuaded to do it, had to be begged. Over long lunches. And now can't wait to get back to 'real' writing. Goodness, how some jealous souls must have wanted him to fail with a clatter.

He doesn't. Not even close. Daggers should be withdrawn. It's good. Which is to say it's better than it could have been. It is not, however, that good. Faulks has done in some ways an absolutely sterling job. He has resisted pastiche. (And surely no pastiche could ever match the simple opening brilliance of Alan Coren's parody about elderly spies: 'Bond tensed in the darkness and reached for his teeth.')

This is a faithful, canny recreation of 1967, with Bond rather bemused by the King's Road hippies: there is no arch, knowing hindsight, hard though it must have been to resist. Faulks knows his time and his Cold War and the perfumed hypocrisies of the Near East.

The pages turn over increasingly quickly. He evokes scenes with deft skill: recreates a time and a world with great brio, and manages it with the block script of Fleming's journalistic nature rather than his own more cursive style. The suits, the planes, the coffee, the cigarettes: a worsted world is right back with us, and there is sensory delight. There's Paris, Tehran, Regent's Park, the Caspian Sea ...

I won't be spoiling the plot, because there isn't one (or, rather, it's no more ludicrous than in some of Fleming's own books, which is to say it's ludicrous). But you can probably guess whether the villain does manage, in the end, to get Russia to launch a nuclear strike on London: in the late showdown, when one man ends up bloodied in the paddles of a Seine tourist steamer and the other goes off to bed a flopsy, if you were to shout: 'Please sir, please sir, is it the one with the nasty monkey's paw for a hand who cheats at tennis that ends up in the drink, is it, is it?', I wouldn't be sending you wrong.

But there are problems. To do a thriller, you have to really love thrillers. Getting continuity and timeline right, on every page: that pleases us pedants. Faulks has a trick that a bizarrely high number of talented writers use when 'slumming it', of making the waiter serve the next course simply to break up, physically, the dialogue of his guests' plot-recap. By my reckoning, Bond had 11 seconds on page 81 to demolish an entire sole meuniere during one short sentence from his companion before he was fighting the arriving cheeses.

But the problem isn't Faulks, it's Bond. With Fleming's untimely death, the link was broken. As Ben Macintyre has recently explored in a fascinating book, the ties were terribly close: Fleming was Bond and Bond's dark snobberies and casual misanthropy (never mind misogyny) were all Fleming's, and both were very much of their time. Fleming's Bond spoke, in print, to a nation which had lost an empire and needed a stoic hero: then, almost entirely unrelated, the tremendous film franchise spoke for decades to a world seeking absolute escapism.

But in those years, much of Bond has remained a cipher. Connery put flesh on some of the bones, certainly. But Bond was played once by Woody Allen, for God's sake. From the Seventies on, Bond, in the books at least, was an empty dinner-suit.

Because of this, try though he might, Faulks can pull out little more of Bond than Fleming put in. Bizarrely, almost every character seems drawn more roundly than the hero. When you read in passing of the working lunch of his Sécurité pal René Mathis (steak tartare with frites, Côtes du Rhône, double cafe express, Gauloises filtre, worries about his mistress), you're there, on a quiet morning in Sixties Paris, pregnant with smells and possibilities.

You feel real fear for Bond's old CIA friend Felix Leiter, vulnerable after that famous shark attack, trying to shoot from a car with the wrong hand. But Bond? Faulks makes him gentler towards women. He gives him a couple of half-decent jokes, which is precisely twice as many as Fleming gave him in 14 books. But otherwise, all he seems to have done is eat scrambled eggs, buy black knitted ties, swim a bit and get phone calls telling him things.

Also, we first read these books when we were 13! Today, our rounded thriller heroes reek of backstory, standing tall or crumpled in absolutely believable clothes. Adults. Dave Robicheaux, Jack Reacher, John Rebus, Aurelio Zen. In comparison, Bond's tux now flaps in the wind and despite Faulks having made such a well-finessed fist of this, it is, I suspect, a last hurrah for 007, destined to die on the page, if not the screen.

Nice try, Mr Bond. A brave effort. But I sink you have come to, how you say, end of zee line. But what do I know, sitting here stroking my white cat.

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