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Review: `Devil May Care` misses the mark on 007

06-Jul-2008 • Literary

"Devil May Care" review by Paul Davis in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

As part of the Ian Fleming centenary celebration this year - the author of the James Bond novels was born on May 28, 1908 - the Fleming estate commissioned Sebastian Faulks to write a novel continuing the adventures of the world's most famous fictional secret agent.

The Fleming family thought it was quite a coup to get Faulks, the award-winning author of Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and Engleby, to write the new Bond thriller. But Faulks, a literary gun-for-hire who does not write thrillers, or even read them, was a poor choice.

Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton, two superb British writers in the genre, would have been the better successor.

The thriller is an art form, and the best of them are like jazz to literary fiction's classical music. The true thriller is rich in atmosphere and suspense, and offers the reader compelling characters, fast pacing and action. Fleming's contemporaries Raymond Chandler, Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman all believed From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Fleming's other Bond stories were classic thrillers.

Chandler, perhaps the best crime writer ever, took note of Fleming's acute sense of pace, and wrote that "Fleming is probably the most forceful and driving writer of what I suppose still must be called thrillers in England."

Betjeman favorably compared Fleming's Bond to Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes, and Amis wrote of "the Fleming Effect" - the fusion of a vivid imagination with an air of authority that swiftly carries the reader along on fantastic stories that Fleming himself described as "improbable but not impossible."

Unfortunately, Faulks' Devil May Care lacks the Fleming Effect. Faulks said he wrote the novel in the "lighthearted and cavalier" Fleming style, but although Fleming wrote unabashedly for entertainment, he was a serious craftsman and his thrillers were dark and complex. Faulks has confused Fleming's novels with the films.

Fleming originally envisioned Bond as simply a blunt instrument, used by the government to fight Soviet agents, international criminals and terrorists. But Fleming went on to add his own "quirks and characteristics" to the character. He also gave Bond a physical description that neatly fit Fleming himself when he was a young naval commander, working with Allied intelligence during World War II and learning espionage techniques that he would later feature in his Bond thrillers.

But having said all that, Faulks' book is entertaining taken on its own, and the plot and characters are on a par with the later Bond films. His Bond novel is set in 1967, immediately following the action in Fleming's last Bond novel, published after Fleming's death in 1964.

Bond has been severely beaten down over the last three novels. He saw his wife murdered by the arch-criminal Ernst Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), lost his memory in a fall after killing Blofeld (You Only Live Twice), and was brainwashed by the Soviets into attempting to kill his revered boss, M, the head of the British Secret Service (The Man With the Golden Gun).

Faulks picks up Bond there, and describes him as "tired, played out, finished." M instructs the recovering Bond, coming off an ordered three-month sabbatical, to target Dr. Julius Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate and megalomaniac that the Brits suspect is involved in illegal drug trafficking. Gorner wears a single glove on his left hand, a la Michael Jackson, to hide a rare congenital deformity, main de singe, which is a monkey's paw, complete with simianlike hair extending above the wrist.

Gorner, aided by his psychopathic henchman Chagrin, a former Viet Cong murderer who wears a French Foreign Legion cap, plans to wreck British society by flooding the country with heroin - vengeance for the taunts he received at British schools over his monkey's paw. He also has a faster-acting backup plan, which is to provoke a war between Britain and the Soviet Union.

Bond is aided here by Fleming's stock characters Felix Leiter, a CIA officer, and Rene Mathis of the French Secret Service. Bond is also assisted by Darius Alizadeh, an Iranian agent (who too closely resembles Fleming's great character Darko Kerim), and a beautiful Parisian named Scarlett Papava.

Bond is introduced to Gorner in Paris and matches skill and wit against him in a heated tennis match, much like the golf game with Goldfinger and the bridge game with Sir Hugo Drax. And like those criminal madmen, Gorner cheats.

Faulks' workmanlike effort will entertain the casual Bond fan and the first-time Bond reader, but Fleming aficionados won't like the book. Devil May Care lacks Fleming's pacing and punch, and Faulks lacks Fleming's ability to spark the reader's interest and imagination in new and exotic places, people and things.

Let's hope that, like many Bond film viewers, the readers of Devil May Care will move on to Fleming's original classic thrillers.

Thanks to `Paul` for the alert.

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