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Guardian publishes second, more favourable 'Carte Blanche' review

29-May-2011 • Literary

Following Steven Poole's somewhat cynical review, the Guardian's book reporters have reassessed 007's latest literary adventure, noting, fans will approve of Jeffery Deaver's James Bond, who is both the daring spy of old and a product of the 21st century.

To write a new James Bond novel: dream job or poisoned chalice? The prospect of those millions of fans looking over your shoulder, nit-picking at every potential failure of tone or detail, must daunt even the most ardent admirer of Ian Fleming's urbane hero. Sebastian Faulks, the last contemporary writer to receive the imprimatur of the Fleming estate for an adult Bond novel, took a lot of flak on fan sites for his 2008 addition to the canon, Devil May Care. There was a suspicion that the highly regarded literary novelist viewed this excursion into genre as slumming it, and that the resulting book was little more than an exercise in pastiche.

The Fleming estate has perhaps decided to avoid any such criticism this time around by commissioning veteran thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, who unwittingly revealed his credentials when he spoke warmly of his admiration for Bond's creator after winning the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in 2004. After 28 suspense novels, there is no doubt that Deaver knows his way around a thriller plot, and Bond fans should be satisfied with the rollicking pace of 007's new adventure, which barely gives our hero time to sit down for a martini or glance at his Rolex Oyster Perpetual before the plot twists and lurches off on another page-turning race against the clock.

Unlike Faulks's novel, which was set in 1967 as a direct continuation of Fleming's original series, Deaver has chosen to transport the character firmly into the present. There's an initial jarring when you read, a few pages in, that Bond is "in his thirties", but suspension of disbelief is a requirement for any Bond novel, regardless of decade. So it's just taken for granted that Bond has, like the Doctor, somehow regenerated. Deaver's challenge is to achieve a balance between redrawing Bond as a plausible 21st-century hero and retaining the familiar characteristics that make him uniquely Bond – something which the films have long grappled with.

The most obvious innovation is that Bond now belongs to a new and highly secret division of British intelligence known as the Overseas Development Group, an outfit modelled on the Special Operations Executive in the second world war, but tailored to counter post-9/11 threats. Its agents are charged with defending the realm "by any means necessary" – carte blanche, in other words, to step outside the law when the situation demands. M, Moneypenny and Mary Goodnight are all present and recognisable (none of this reinventing M as a woman), though Q has become a cricket-loving techno wizard of Indian heritage named Sanu Hirani, and Bond's most trusted gadget is an advanced version of the iPhone (nicknamed, naturally, the iQphone) with all manner of apps for surveillance.

After a hair-raising opening sequence in Serbia featuring car chase, shoot-out and the near-derailment of a train carrying lethal chemicals, Bond's main mission is to prevent a massive terrorist atrocity. The only clue is an intercept promising thousands of deaths on the night of Friday 20th, with British interests adversely affected. Bond has only five days to determine the nature of the threat, identify its main players and stop them, while dodging unknown assailants who want him dead and the usual buffoonery of chinless incompetents within the British security services, sticklers for procedure who oblige him to interpret carte blanche in his own way.

Bond finds himself pitted against the murky Severan Hydt, magnate of a global empire of refuse collection and recycling – a nicely topical metaphor. Hydt is a particularly Deaveresque villain, a man whose macabre fascination with death and decay verges on pornographic. With the help of his old friends Felix Leiter and René Mathis, Bond follows Hydt's trail from the Balkans to Dubai to South Africa.

Deaver is a master of the twist in the tale and he deploys it here with cinematic verve, keeping the reader biting their nails until the last minute (perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel feels coloured by a consciousness of Bond's screen legacy – one character is even described as resembling Kate Winslet, for the benefit of future casting directors). But the author's affection for Bond and for all the tropes that surround him is abundantly clear, so that Carte Blanche reads like a lovingly crafted homage rather than deliberate pastiche. Deaver's Bond is quite recognisably Bond, but a new, streamlined incarnation for a new generation of global fears.

Thanks to `commandbond007` for the alert.

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