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Review: `Devil May Care` the spy who wouldn`t love me

28-Jun-2008 • Literary

"Devil May Care" review by Alex Berenson for the NY Times.

Before Jason Bourne, before Jack Ryan, there was Bond, James Bond, the original two-dimensional, world-saving secret agent.

Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, died in 1964. But Bond is far too cagey a spy, and too lucrative a franchise, to suffer the same fate. In the decades since his creator’s death, three authors — not to mention some 20 movies — have kept him alive. Now, just in time for the centenary of Fleming’s birth, his estate has commissioned a new Bond novel, “Devil May Care,” by Sebastian Faulks, a British author whose best-known previous book, “Birdsong,” is a historical drama set during World War I.

Taking over another author’s creation four decades after his death is tricky under any circumstances. And Bond is not just any character. He is suave and witty, a master seducer, drinker and gambler who always wins — and has a license to kill. When he first appeared in “Casino Royale” in 1953, Bond was a one-man tonic for an England reeling from its post-World War II loss of power and influence. Since then, his fame has spread worldwide, and in 1997 he won the ultimate pop culture trophy, a full-on screen parody, the sophomoric and sometimes hilarious “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” which imagined a British secret agent thrust from the louche 1960s into the politically correct 1990s.

So Faulks faces the difficult task of staying true to Bond’s history while giving readers a fresh adventure. He has simplified his job by setting “Devil May Care” in the 1960s. Not much has changed since “The Man With the Golden Gun,” Fleming’s final novel, published after his death. Everyone smokes, the Soviet Union is the ultimate enemy, and not even Q has discovered cellphones. Faulks’s style, too, is a reasonable facsimile of Fleming’s: simple, direct and clean.“

Devil May Care” centers on Bond’s effort to capture Julius Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate and drug smuggler who wants to draw Britain and the Soviet Union into war. Bond moves from Rome to London to Tehran to the Iranian desert, drinking more than his share of Scotch and ice-cold martinis but otherwise behaving like a perfect gentleman, with a conspicuous lack of libido. He even turns down an early chance to bed the luscious Scarlett Papava. (“He heard himself utter three words that in all his adult life had never, in such a situation, left his mouth before. ‘No, thank you.’”) Awkward sentence structure aside, Bond’s response is a travesty.

No, thank you? No, Bond, no! What’s next? “It’s not you, it’s me”?

Bond does get another chance — several, actually — at Scarlett, who follows him across continents like a star-struck groupie, for reasons that are not fully revealed until the novel’s final scene. Faulks has told interviewers that he held back on the romps and one-liners to avoid veering into Austin Powers-style parody. But Bond’s unflappability and his insatiable sexual hunger make up much of his charm, and trying to humanize him seems silly when much of the rest of “Devil May Care” is patently, almost proudly, absurd.

The villains are a B-movie writer’s dream. The first baddie to appear is Chagrin, a Vietnamese gangster with a penchant for tearing out his victims’ tongues with pliers. Gorner, Chagrin’s boss, runs a heroin manufacturing plant staffed by addicts who work themselves literally to death but who are allowed to feast on prostitutes whom Gorner has kidnapped for their pleasure. Gorner does everything but laugh “Bwah-hah-hah!” as he explains to Bond his plan to destroy England. Worst of all, he cheats at tennis.

Yet the scenery-chewing bad guys are among the highlights of “Devil May Care,” harking back to the equally over-the-top villains who’ve appeared in the Bond movies over the decades. In comparison, Bond sometimes barely registers on the page.

The ending is another disappointment. A well-plotted pulp thriller should ratchet the tension page by page as hero and villain close in on each other. But “Devil May Care” climaxes with Bond and Scarlett parachuting out of a crippled plane over the Soviet Union — almost three chapters before the end of the novel. They spend much of the next two chapters on a road trip across western Russia, apparently untroubled by the fact that their archenemy is still alive. Gorner does reappear in the final chapter to make one last run at Bond (bwah-hah-hah!), but the greatest tension in “Devil May Care” comes from the question of when Bond will sleep with Scarlett and what wine they will drink to celebrate the occasion.

“Devil May Care” is not without its pleasures. Early in the book, on his way to the airport, Bond dispatches a couple of would-be motorcycle assassins with his Bentley — and doesn’t miss his flight. A set piece in the Iranian desert that culminates with Bond fighting for his life in an underground aquifer is neatly plotted and tense. And Bond does finally have his way with Scarlett, in true 007 style: “roughly, quickly, with the pent-up urgency of their long and chaste association.

”Yes, thank you. Better late than never.

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