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The Spectator offers a critical 'Carte Blanche' review

31-May-2011 • Literary

James Bond is the great chameleon. From the velvety burr of Connery through to the tango tan of Moore and the aluminium pecs of Craig. And then, of course, there is the Bond of the books. Between covers (of the literary sort, at least), Bond transforms again: refrigerated in the black-and-white of print, he becomes clinical and orderly, disdaining the stagey theatrics of modern day spycraft -- reports The Spectator.

It is to this Bond that Jeffery Deaver returns in the latest addition to the 007 canon, Carte Blanche. Indeed, Deaver himself is given carte blanche. Rather than merely update Bond, as did Sebastian Faulks in his 2008 effort Devil May Care, Deaver recasts him completely. Carte Blanche takes us into the present day, cue a full complement of references to Afghanistan, Lehman Brothers, the Icelandic volcano and – one to keep Clarkson and co. purring for many a year – Top Gear.

The character of Bond, however, remains remote. He clocks up his air-miles while leaving precious little trace. We learn that he doesn’t have much of an appetite for modern theatre, is ‘not an aftershave sort of man’ and (fitting for the porridge of contemporary correctness) likes his women ‘slim and elegant’ though is continually kept in check courtesy of the by-the-book love-interest, Bheka Jordaan. But that is about it in terms of psycho-biography, save a revelation about his mother parachuted into the final pages.

The plot, meanwhile, is unremarkable. Bond is part of a new covert organization, euphemistically named the Overseas Development Group, charged with decoding an enigmatic message promising thousands of deaths. Thus he finds himself pitched against a suitably shivery disposal tycoon, Severan Hydt, before the rug is pulled and the ambrosial aid worker (and Bond’s fellow nocturnal gymnast), Felicity Willing, is shown to be more than just a pair of 'flawless thighs'.

As with the plot, so with the prose. Deaver’s style is smooth and competent, but occasionally, his propensity for elaborate simile – one character’s obsession is ‘as explosive as a VS-50 land mine’ – seems hobbled rather than Homeric. He also stalls the action in favour of needless historical cushions; for instance, most readers don’t need to be told that the KGB was ‘the infamous Soviet security and spy apparatus’.

More tellingly, Deaver colours the narrative with film references. One car chase is compared to ‘an old American police movie’, while the headquarters of MI6 is likened to a ‘futuristic enclave from a Ridley Scott film’. All of which reminds readers of the cinema screen's capacity to show every screech and tyre-spin of the getaway car.

One of the problems the novel faces is how to trumpet the alternative merits of the novelized Bond as opposed to his ritzier onscreen namesake. While it offers a Bond less brassy than the preposterously conspicuous agents of the films, the autopilot prose and matchstick-thin plot often don’t seem enough to convince a jury more accustomed to the full-blooded, surround-sound experience. Deaver doesn’t use the roomier medium of print to get his writerly trowel out and start digging.

But perhaps this is to misread Bond. He has no time to worry about clausal ornament, genre theory or narrative show-jumping. Bond’s oft-repeated mantra of purpose and response might be taken as the rubric of Deaver’s mission here. And, old pro that he is, the purpose of delivering a credible update is more than fulfilled in the four-hundred page response currently evacuating bookshop shelves. As 007 might say, job done.

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