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On His Majesty's Secret Service

4th May 2023

Ajay Chowdhury reviews the new James Bond novel by Charlie Higson

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The action of this entirely new 007 adventure brings Bond into the present day. It is the 4th of May, two days before the coronation of King Charles III, and the world's favourite spy has his work cut out for him. Bond is sent at the last minute to thwart an attempt to disrupt the Coronation by the wealthy, eccentric, and self-styled Æthelstan of Wessex, who is on a deadly mission of his own to teach the United Kingdom a lesson. Can Bond dismantle his shady plans and defeat his privately hired team of mercenaries?

13th April 1953 was the publication date of the first Bond book, Casino Royale. Released on the eve of the coronation of the young, unexpected new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, the title capitalised on royal fever. 13th April 2023: 70 years and 100 million copies later, with the coronation of a new monarch imminent, there is karmic symmetry to the fact that Ian Fleming Publication Limited’s newly commissioned Bond novel, 'On His Majesty’s Secret Service', by Young Bond creator, Charlie Higson, will commemorate the crowning of King Charles III. If the late Queen could seemingly jump from a helicopter to open the Olympics, Charles can appear in a Bond novel!  

Published on Thursday 4th May ahead of the Coronation on Saturday 6th May – and 60 years after the publication of Ian Fleming’s tenth novel, 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', in 1963. All royalties from the sale of the book will go to support the work of the UK charity, the National Literacy Trust.

Charlie Higson comes with impeccable literary Bond provenance. His superb Young Bond series, set in the Thirties, were revelatory in their ingenuity and fealty to Fleming. His new, contemporary adult Bond book had high standards to live up to. It delivers.

The plot concerning a very English coup is surprisingly topical involving the rise of populism, data terrorism, media manipulation, financial malfeasance, and political unrest. It starts off being preposterous but OHisMSS is unsettling because Higson posits a villain’s plan which might be plausible. At 161 pages long, one tears through the book at pace but the narrative is thematically thought-provoking.

It is also bloody exciting. Action set pieces include a brutal roadside fight in Croatia, a tense tracking sequence around the streets of Budapest (one can almost hear John Barry’s cimbaloms), an assault on a castle fortress in the Zemplén mountains – where the villain is symbolically ensconced in Viktor Orban’s Hungary - a rugged chase on nearby mountain roads and a thrilling climax at the Palace!

The story is replete with some great new characters. Æthelstan Wells is a huge, Saxon of a man whose braggadocio hides a much more chilling self. Married to society salonier, Marina Buehler, he is aided by a steroid-driven South African mercenary, Canner Lyle, and a chillingly attractive Icelandic nymph, RagnheiðUr Ragnarsdóttir. To come up with original, non-cliched yet Bondian people to populate your book is very tough. Higson makes them read easy. And well.

M is based in the tall grey building in Regent’s Park, still assisted by Moneypenny – a major plot motivator. Bond is equipped with an ingenious mobile phone and a Glock. Higson places MI6 within the wider world of espionage lore and his tradecraft insight convinces.

From John Gardner to Raymond Benson to Jeffrey Deaver, taking a character conceived in the 1950s to the current age is a challenge. Kim Sherwood’s latest World Of 007 work, 'Double Of Nothing', and the recent comic books and graphic novels have shown how the possibilities of literary Bond can be expanded.  

Rather like the movie 'Skyfall', 'On His Majesty’s Secret Service' is actually about the state of the nation. Where the United Kingdom is in 2023. Bond ruminates on his own role of honour and of service. Higson contemporises the venerable spy with deft sleight of hand. It is deceptively difficult to capture the high insider’s tone and weary  Weltanschauung which is the hallmark of good Bond writing, especially in a novel set in the modern era. 'On His Majesty’s Secret Service' is classic Bond yet a much richer read than a work commissioned and written so quickly has any right to be. It is almost as if Higson had it inside him for the longest time. One wonders where else he might take Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 next. If given the chance. 

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