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Wall Street Journal gives mixed review of 'Carte Blanche'

13-Jun-2011 • Literary

Carte Blanche review by the Wall Street Journal.

In 1953, former naval-intelligence officer Ian Fleming introduced readers to the British secret agent James Bond with two wonderfully evocative sentences: "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it." Fleming died in 1964, just when his Cold War creation was undergoing transformation into a hugely popular film franchise. He had completed a dozen Bond novels.

The runaway success of 007 demanded that Fleming's saturnalia of sex, genocidal villains and Cold War spycraft be continued by a capable literary ventriloquist. It's a straightforward style, not overly or unnecessarily florid, but not one easily mimicked—Hollywood screenwriters are largely responsible for the tanks of irritable, flesh-hungry sharks and villains with eyes patched, deformed or heterochromatic. The first writer tasked with reanimating Bond was novelist Kingsley Amis, who commented that a writer "should be able to strike a respectable though second-rate copy of another artist," though critics questioned his facility as literary impressionist. The London Times dismissed "Colonel Sun" (1968), Amis's contribution to the Bond canon, as a "pale copy" of the original. When the celebrated British novelist Sebastian Faulks tried his hand at 007 in 2008 (writing, according to the book's cover, "as Ian Fleming"), the critical reaction was predictably contemptuous.

One must pity best-selling American thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, the latest officially sanctioned Fleming impersonator, who confidently declared that it would be "relatively easy" to inhabit the role of Bond—after all, he had previously "written about young African-American characters in America . . . about elderly characters . . . [and] from the points of view of women."

In Mr. Deaver's "Carte Blanche," the 23rd post-Fleming Bond novel, 007 is vaulted into the present and pitted against a death-obsessed industrialist (one who vacations at the sites of Nazi death camps and Khmer Rouge torture chambers) suspected of planning a mysterious attack on a mysterious target. From Serbia to South Africa, Bond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, attempts to unravel both the sinister plot against humanity and the plot of "Carte Blanche."

This is a thoroughly modern 007, yet Mr. Deaver borrows heavily from the original novels, not from the Hollywood Bond. The agent's tipple is whiskey, not a shaken martini; he drives a Bentley, not an Aston Martin; while flirtatious with every reasonably attractive female character, he pursues—and beds—just one. Like Ian Fleming's Bond, not Sean Connery's, he is reasonably sober, relatively humorless and sexually contained.

Freed from the ideological battles of the Cold War, Bond now exists in a world of "extraordinary rendition," a "black site in Poland," "sexed-up dossiers" and "illegal targeted killings." Considering the possible public-relations implications of an extralegal killing, the 21st-century Bond determines that it isn't worth the risk, for if found out it might "play rather badly among bloggers." Q Branch has transitioned from engineering deadly ballpoint pens to the quotidian world of software development; Bond possesses a specially equipped iPhone, loaded with a number of marginally impressive "apps."

Mr. Deaver follows the Fleming formula well—exotic locations brimming with mustache-twisting villains and a rapid-fire series of unexpected plot twists—but he's no match for Fleming the stylist. Stretched to a very un-Fleming 400 pages, "Carte Blanche" tells us repeatedly (five times, by my count) that a villain has "long, yellowing fingernails"; a comely humanitarian worker (who has rather boringly replaced the comely Russian agent) is described multiple times as having "feline" qualities. And while Fleming's Bond never acknowledged the absurd suggestiveness of names in the female supporting cast—Honey Rider, Pussy Galore—Mr. Deaver fears that the unsubtle will be lost on the unsophisticated. When introduced to sexpot Felicity Willing, the reader is told that Bond is "amused by her name." This is the literary version of a laugh track.

Mr. Deaver's obsession with authenticity ensures that the text is clogged with Britishisms, some misplaced, others unnecessary, and most clumsily shoehorned into the dialogue. Fleming made no such effort with his American characters. When "Carte Blanche" resurrects Texan CIA agent Felix Leiter, portrayed by Fleming as Bond's clever American counterpart, one who writes jazz reviews for the Amsterdam News, Mr. Deaver lazily reaches for the cliché of the loud, uncultured Southerner asking if "you have malls in England, James?" It's an American writer imitating an English writer imitating an American.

Plenty of critics have charted the supposed slide of the cinema incarnation of James Bond into the politically correct (Judy Dench's M, his boss, calls Bond a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" in the 1995 film "Goldeneye"), and they will doubtless note that in "Carte Blanche" Bond worries that an attractive female South African police office might construe a glance as sexist and is horrified to hear a fellow British agent using the word "coloured" to describe mixed-race South Africans. But the real problem with Mr. Deaver's Bond is that he's so devoid of personality, unmotivated by a consuming ideological passion (like Fleming's anticommunism, so frequently contrasted with John le Carré's supposedly more sophisticated Cold War moral equivalence) and unburdened by emotional complexity. One gets the feeling that, because most readers will be familiar with the broad strokes of Bond as imagined by Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Mr. Deaver slacks on developing his hero.

As George Orwell remarked about the novels of Jack London, certain books "are not well written, but are well told." Jeffery Deaver is a Fleming manqué, producing a serviceable Bond film script but not a particularly good Bond novel. To carry the torch of Ian Fleming, one must be capable of doing both.

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