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The crime scene - new looks at old James Bond

21-Jul-2008 • Literary

In the history of literature, no character has had as many pastiches, parodies, burlesques, and other derivative works written about him as Sherlock Holmes, with more than 2,000 such homages (homage: noun, the French word for plagiarism).

Recently, however, it seems that there has been a determined effort to challenge Holmes's position of influence by those jumping on the bandwagon of Bond — James Bond, reports the New York Sun.

The urge to use another author's creation was kept under fairly decent control in the first years after Ian Fleming died (1964), with only Kingsley Amis, under the pseudonym Robert Markham, writing anything worthwhile, most significantly "Colonel Sun" in 1968. Apart from some mostly sophomoronic (I know it's not a word, but shouldn't it be?) parodies, there was a hiatus until the Fleming estate licensed one of the greatest of all espionage writers, John Gardner, to continue the adventures of 007. Beginning with "License Renewed" in 1981, Gardner went on to write 14 Bond novels — more than Fleming himself had.

A Bond a year, approximating Fleming's own schedule, seems in retrospect to be a model of gentlemanly restraint. Now, the deluge.

The most hyped of the 2008 incursions into Bondiana is "Devil May Care" (Doubleday, 278 pages, $24.95) by Sebastian Faulks. After a lengthy search for the ideal author (it was frequently reported that John le Carré was the first to be asked) to produce a new Bond novel to commemorate the centennial of Fleming's birth (May 28, 1908), the estate settled on Mr. Faulks, who had proved himself a splendid writer with the masterful "Charlotte Gray" (1999), about a young Scottish woman who goes to occupied France to search for her lover, a missing-in-action RAF pilot, while carrying out a secret mission for a British special operations organization.

If you don't mind the anachronistic elements of "Devil May Care" (and if you do, why would you read James Bond novels in the first place?), there is much to reward you; if you can distinguish between parody and pastiche, you're a better reader than I. Mr. Faulks has replicated virtually every significant element devised by Fleming.

He provides a villain with a deformity (in this case, the insane Dr. Gorner has a monkey hand); a secret plan to destroy millions and do irreparable damage to the West (vaguely involving the Soviet Union); a secret lair with a monorail and an army of villains; Bond captured and threatened with a complicated killing method; a detailed explanation of the villain's plans; a beautiful girl saved from a fate worse than death, and many more set pieces that give the whole thing a paint-by-the-numbers feel. However, it moves so briskly, and Mr. Faulks seems to be having so much fun, that it all works well, as if the paint-by-the-numbers picture was painted by Monet.

More original than "Devil May Care," and almost as much fun, is "The Moneypenny Diaries" (St. Martin's, 272 pages, $23.95), "edited" by Kate Westbrook. As the title suggests, it is told in the form of journal entries that show that Miss Moneypenny, with whom Bond has engaged in sexually charged repartee for years, are not simply M's secretary, but a full-fledged agent who has lived a secret but excitement-filled life of her own.

Charming in its simplicity, with few adjectives or extraneous information — as one would expect of a diary intended for the writer's eyes only — it is nonetheless filled with tension and ambiguity, as when Moneypenny worries whether her longtime suitor (and other, shorter-term, suitors) are really interested in her as an attractive woman, or in the secrets she labors to conceal.

We have Bond for guys and Moneypenny for women, so of course a young Bond for boys is needed, and Charlie Higson has done an impeccable job with "Double or Die" (Hyperion, 371 pages, $16.99), the third volume about a teenaged Bond and his adventures. Although a young adult novel, it may be read with pleasure by grown-ups (giving the benefit of the doubt that those of us who love Bond are, in fact, grown up).

Although this novel involves little in the way of espionage, it presents first-rate ciphers and puzzles for Bond and his young colleagues to solve from a clue-filled letter they hope will enable them to rescue a professor who has been kidnapped at gunpoint. Bond finds that he, too, is at risk — and so is the world.

The enduring popularity of James Bond proves again that Ian Fleming was truly the man with the golden pen.

Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop and the series editor of the annual Best American Mystery Stories.

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