007: Review: Licence Expired – The Unauthorized James Bond

Licence ExpiredEdited by Madeline Ashby & David Nickle

ChiZine Press, out now in Canada

Further adventures of Ian Fleming’s agent… allegedly.

When I heard that a respected independent Canadian publisher was taking a chance on an interpretation of their country’s copyright laws and was going to publish new tales featuring a character whose copyright owners are, to put it mildly, highly careful with their property, I was intrigued. Everything involved would apparently stem purely from Ian Fleming’s writing, featuring his version of James Bond in stories that – rather like Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis – would aim to slot seamlessly into established continuity, with writing that reflected Fleming’s. There wouldn’t be any references to the movie version of Bond, or anything that might risk other trouble. Through various nefarious sources (OK, asking a family member who lives in Canada to buy it from Amazon Canada and mail it across) I obtained a copy.

I’ve not been so disappointed in a collection of stories in many years.

There are a few tales which follow the remit set out above (and one that starts there then takes a logical left turn that allows it to both be unusual yet still Fleming). Most don’t. And when you get to the end of the book and read one of the editors’ Afterword, you understand why: this book was created with an agenda, and it isn’t the one set out above. The remit isn’t so much smashed as just ignored completely in many of the stories, and what we end up with is a few bright gems amongst a great deal of dross.

Since the book is so difficult to obtain outside Canada – and costly! – I’m going to review it in more detail than normal, using the book’s own back cover copy which claims that “collected herein are new stories about Secret Agent 007, as the late Ian Fleming imagined and described him” as the bar.

The editors have decided to tell the stories chronologically in Bond’s life – starting prior to Casino Royale, and continuing right up to the end of his time on Earth – so we open with One is Sorrow, a tale of Bond’s childhood, or at least his time at Eton. This has of course been covered by Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series (and Tim Heald’s John Steed biography) in greater, and better detail: unsurprisingly, the trouble Bond is in with the maid (referred to in You Only Live Twice) is of a romantic nature, but we’re supposed to believe this proto-Bond has committed murder… Not a strong start, with weak characterisation and prose style. 1/5

But the second story, The Gales of the World, is where things start to go cuckoo. Having recently edited a collection of tales of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, I’m perhaps more aware of the pitfalls of trying to mix his mythos with… well, pretty much with anything. Maybe the idea of putting together ideas from two creators who are now reviled by some for their misogynistic, racist ways was at the heart of this, but it doesn’t work as a story in either universe. And the ending… well, that’s not Fleming’s Bond. 1/5

There’s some hope in the third story, Red Indians, set shortly after Casino Royale. Bond has found himself wanting during his battle with Le Chiffre and the SMERSH agents, and determines to do something about it. This is a short tale, and works well. 4/5

The Gladiator Lie is the first of the alternate-world Bonds (as opposed to The Gates of the World which tries to layer a backstory onto Fleming’s agent). This posits that the SMERSH plot in From Russia, with Love actually plays out, and Bond is captured by Rosa Klebb. There’s the kernel of a good idea here, but it’s told against a background of poorly thought through science, and an obsession with Klebb’s lesbianism… 2/5

Half the Sky starts off really well, its travelogue elements evoking Fleming’s writing – and if it had been the sequel to Fleming’s novel Doctor No, rather than the EON movie Dr No, it would be one of the highpoints of the book. But it isn’t – for all the protestations that all movie references have been removed, this is the Connery film (the clue is in the mention of SPECTRE!) 3/5

In Havana is one of the stories that works well – the tale of Bond in action in Cuba and being forced to take a mind-altering drug. It rather peters out, which is a shame, as this could have done with the final section expanding. 3/5

Mastering the Art of French Killing tries to be too clever, basing itself around Bond (or rather Fleming’s) gourmet tastes, but it also uses the film Bond at its heart for the dialogue, with adolescent double entendres – and that’s before Q turns up! Its villain’s plot is also the sort of thing that the Austin Powers series would try… 2/5

From there we get three strong stories on the trot. A Dirty Business feels like Fleming, from its prose style to its depiction of Bond and M, and Bond’s attitude to women. It’s a good piece of James Bond. As with In Havana, I’d have liked to read more of this. 4/5

Sorrow’s Spy is very different in tone, and, like A Dirty Business, feels as if it could have come from a missing collection of Fleming stories in the mould of For Your Eyes Only. This would be the Quantum of Solace/Hildebrand Rarity contribution – a Somerset Maugham-esque tale. 4/5

Mosaic completes the trio, with Bond in action in Australia during the nuclear bomb testing days. There’s some nice Fleming-esque attempts to be “up to date” with science (which of course from the vantage point of 2015 we know to be false!), and well-drawn characters for Bond to interact with. This is one of the longest stories in the book, and one of the best. 4/5

Some editorial judgement should have been exercised with the placing of the next two stories, both of which feature the return of former lovers for Bond – The Spy Who Remembered Me is, as the title suggests, something of a sequel to Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me (that’s the one narrated by Vivienne Michel in which Bond plays a small but important role in the third act). Its suggested life path for Miss Michel simply strains credulity too far (and that’s in a book, remember, where we’ve been told Bond is an agent for the Old Ones!). 2/5

Daedalus sees Pussy Galore return – but she doesn’t come across as Fleming wrote her. Perhaps it’s having read her written by someone else recently that makes it show up so much, but this one doesn’t hang together and seems there to set up the final sting in the tail (which is neatly done). 2/5

Through Your Eyes Only doesn’t really work on any level, unfortunately. There’s a clever conceit regarding Miss Moneypenny at its heart, but it seems to be written to take Bond apart. 2/5

Two Graves is the story I referred to above, which begins in a highly Fleming-esque way, with Bond arriving at a far outpost. Only as the story goes on do you realise that nothing is quite what it seems – had Fleming ventured into post-apocalyptic territory with the character, I can see this being the result. Another of the really good ones. 4/5

From thereon, things fall apart. Charles Stross is probably the biggest name attracted to the collection, but his No, Mr Bond! is neither as funny or as clever as it tries to be. 2/5

The Man with the Beholden Gun and Cyclorama are both clever ideas but feel completely out of place in this collection of stories about James Bond. They’re far more about Fleming than Bond and I suspect both could be published without any problem elsewhere. 2/5 each (for their relevance here – 3/5 each for the stories themselves).

You Never Love Once takes us to the end of Bond’s life and a possible retirement for him – again, with a few more details blurred, you could publish this easily. (Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels got away with something very similar.) 3/5

Not an Honourable Disease is simply an unpleasant tale to complete the collection. It isn’t a Fleming-esque story, its characterisation of Bond is skewed… 1/5

Verdict: If you’re a Bond completist, you’ll spend the money on a copy of this – but then to keep it pristine, you probably won’t read it! Five and a half good James Bond stories featuring Fleming’s agent out of 19 is a poor return on investment; such a waste of a terrific opportunity. 5/10

Paul Simpson

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