UK: Jonathan Cape, out now; US: Harper, out October 8
1969: Bond is sent on a mission to deal with a problematic head of state in Africa.
By chance, two books which I have been looking forward to for some time have both been released this week: Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep; and Solo, William Boyd’s continuation of the 007 mythos. It’s been two years since the last new 007 novel (Jeffrey Deaver’s updating, Carte Blanche, which received a mixed reception), so it’s been five years since there’s been a new mission for the character as created by Ian Fleming. I read Doctor Sleep at the start of August, and can still clearly remember the plot beats and characters; I finished Solo last night and am hard pressed to recall details of either element this morning.
Solo starts well, with its depiction of Bond on his forty-fifth birthday (Boyd chooses to follow the later birthdate for 007, given in You Only Live Twice, rather than tying in with the date which can be inferred from Moonraker – a nitpick probably only of interest to Bond aficionados, but one which means Solo contradicts Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novels). It’s 1969, a point which is hammered home repeatedly, with references to the moon landing, specific movies in the cinema, and the cars which are about to go on sale. And according to Fleming, it’s when Bond should be facing mandatory retirement from the 00 section, something which doesn’t appear to even cross Boyd’s Bond’s mind. There’s a reason why later writers didn’t say too much about Bond’s age!
This is just the first of a number of times where the surface parts of Fleming’s writing are followed, rather than the character he created. Fleming’s Bond could be prone to boredom and reflection; Boyd’s Bond is too busy eying up the local female population. Or having a drink. Or two. Or considerably more. The Evening Standard review lists all the alcohol which 007 consumes during the course of the book, and it’s enough to have most people heading for their local liver unit. Fleming told us a lot about the food Bond ate, but not in the fetishistic detail Boyd provides about every meal – even going so far as to provide a recipe for Bond’s salad dressing!
Once Bond is sent to Africa, after the obligatory flirting with Moneypenny and briefing from M (and for some reason a session with Q Branch and yet another addition to Major Boothroyd’s team – the sort of scene which Skyfall skewered so effectively), Boyd’s love and knowledge of the continent come to the fore, and there are some very strong descriptive passages – Bond’s trek after being separated from his head of station in an ambush is vividly recounted, as is his discovery of starving children. The political dynamics of the continent at that time are brought to life well, reminding me of some of Wilbur Smith’s early books (The Dark Side of the Sun, for example).
The bad guy, Jacobus Breed (whose name kept reminding me of Jacoba Brink, one of the antagonists from the 1981 007 film For Your Eyes Only), has the obligatory disfigurements, although these seem to combine Le Chiffre’s eye problem from the Casino Royale movie with Silva’s facial difficulties as revealed in Skyfall. The physical attributes do little to impress him on the memory, although they do lead to a particularly nasty passage in the final battle between him and 007, once the British agent has decided that he is going to get revenge against Breed and those involved with him. (And it’s very unfortunate that Breed’s method of killing people was apparently used by the terrorists in the Kenyan shopping mall attack, according to today’s newspaper reports.)
The second half of the story was heralded as being something new for 007: going off book, and out for revenge. One has to assume that Licence to Kill (novelised by John Gardner as part of the book line) and Quantum of Solace are just to be ignored? There’s even an argument that Bond has already gone solo in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice when he realises that Dr Shatterhand is really Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the book and the film share the Japanese setting, a couple of characters and little else). Bond travels to the States, where we meet another relative of his old friend Felix Leiter (who seems to have an incredible knowledge of CIA operations for someone who’s been out of the agency for so long), and 007 discovers that – surprise – things aren’t quite as he believed.
The reasoning behind what’s been going on all becomes quite convoluted, as if Boyd wants to let the real world impinge on Fleming’s fantasy world of 007. He seems to have forgotten that Fleming wasn’t writing about the real secret service: he created an agent who was pursued for the first few books by a Russian intelligence service which in reality ceased operating six years before the first book was published, and then was chasing after a megalomaniac who dreamed of world conquest through his super-secret organisation. That Bond doesn’t fit as a chess piece in a dirty world: yes, we know the CIA were… well, let’s just say distinctly not whiter than white during this period, but that sort of realpolitik isn’t Bond’s world. (There are also some distinct resonances in this section with Quantum of Solace, and its use of the CIA, but that film sits uncomfortably with the rest of the canon.)
The plot of Solo works quite well as a period spy thriller; it’s not such a good fit for a Bond story. If Boyd had kept Bond in Africa for the whole tale, I suspect Solo could have been a stronger addition to the 007 tales; as it is, I would rather that we’d had a novel based on the Skyfall script.
Verdict: An underwhelming 007 story. 5/10