He was glamorous, dangerous and debonair. He drank martinis, wore expensive name-brand clothing, and had assignations with women called Sparkle Plenty and Pussy Galore. And, of course, he grappled with twisted masterminds who plotted world domination. When I first encountered James Bond, I was a ’50s teenager and thought he was the last word in sophistication. I read all the books --- 12 novels, two volumes of short stories --- inhaling not only the baroque and ingenious plot twists but also the risqué, self-mocking tone. When the first Bond film came out in the early ’60s (Doctor No), I had already formed a clear idea of what 007 should look like, and Sean Connery wasn’t it --- too much chest hair (later, he grew on me).
By now pretty much everybody has seen a Bond movie, but I’m not sure how many people have also read the books, or how well the series has weathered some 50 years (I haven’t re-read the originals lately). The Bond oeuvre is fact-based in the sense that the author, Ian Fleming, was director of British Naval Intelligence during World War II. Because Fleming was known for his playboy image and lavish habits, it is also a sort of larger-than-life self-portrait. Since his premature death, at 56, legions of writers have attempted to build on the Bond legacy. But DEVIL MAY CARE is unique in having been commissioned by Fleming’s two nieces (and heirs) to mark the centenary of his birth.
Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming, hand-picked to execute this commemorative hommage, is both an unlikely and a likely choice. Unlikely because his books, notably the marvelous BIRDSONG, although widely read, are also seriously literary. Likely because he has already written a couple of quasi-spy novels: CHARLOTTE GRAY evokes World War II derring-do; ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (which I reviewed for Bookreporter.com in 2003) is a Cold War romance set in Washington, D.C. Both of these, however, are part of a later espionage-fiction tradition epitomized by John le Carré’s 1963 THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD --- more realistic, cynical, ambiguous. Spies à la Bond are quite a different proposition.
DEVIL MAY CARE picks up where ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, Fleming’s last two novels, leave off: Bond, still mourning his brief, ill-fated marriage, is sent by M, head of the secret service, on an enforced sabbatical. He wanders around aimlessly, questioning his nerve, his fitness, his (ulp) potency. It’s a mid-life crisis, Bond-style --- which means he is having it in the best hotels and restaurants of several scenic European capitals. All the trademark details are there: a hair stuck in the doorway of the hotel bathroom to detect intruders; sea-island cotton shirts; custom-built Bentley; fetishistic tastes in cigarettes and cocktails (satirized here when Bond asks for pepper “cracked, not ground” rather than a martini “shaken, not stirred”).
Instead of updating Bond, Faulks decided to take the novel back some 40 years, which requires diligent scene-setting. We know it’s Paris sometime in the ’60s because Charles DeGaulle is President; the Algerian War and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu are recent memories; there’s an “awful Piaf racket” on the radio; and across the Channel, the Rolling Stones have been arrested for drugs. Bond, of course, is soon summoned into action. In an amusing departure from the high-tech prep of the Bond movies, M --- a recent convert to yoga, according to Miss Moneypenny --- insists that 007 have a session with an expert in “breathing and relaxation techniques” before embarking on a new death-defying venture.
The enemy this time, Julius Gorner, is so consummately wicked that he fought for the Nazis and the Russians in World War II; these days he traffics in heroin from a desert base somewhere in Iran. He was hoping to turn England into a nation of addicts, but that was too slow, so he’s resorting to plan B: a nuclear “accident” in the USSR for which Britain will be blamed. This is not le Carré’s murky world, where the difference between the good guys and the bad is blurred and elusive; this is the realm of the mythical, ethical spy-as-hero (who kills only when absolutely necessary) and his battle with the embodiment of evil (who condones the removal of tongues with pliers and, almost as bad in British eyes, the running over of dogs). DEVIL MAY CARE also has a cameo by Bond’s ex-CIA pal, Felix Leiter, and it’s equipped with a “Bond girl,” the brainy and seductive Scarlett Papava. (Her wardrobe is sufficient that she is never forced to convert velvet drapes into a dress.)
Although Faulks could have done more with Scarlett’s name --- he could have done more with the whole assignment --- I think he is so determined to avoid parody and kitsch that he errs on the side of caution. And because the whole point of DEVIL MAY CARE is to replicate the Fleming legend, not to pioneer a new one, it’s silly to criticize it for not taking chances. The fun is understated. The prose is clean and not too purple. There are plenty of juicy details about food and clothes and futuristic (for the time) technology. It’s skillful and tasteful, but not entirely thrilling.
Perhaps that’s inevitable, given the different context. Fleming, for all his sly wit, had genuine enthusiasm for this swinging-bachelor, espionage-as-gamesmanship stuff. He believed in it, and lived it. Faulks, who read the Bond books as a schoolboy but undoubtedly put them away with other childish things as he grew up, can’t possibly feel the same way. There’s a certain juice that’s lacking.
One scene in DEVIL MAY CARE works perfectly, though, and that is a high-stakes tennis match between Bond and Gorner. It has sweat, tension, pace and a behind-the-scenes twist you find out about only after they leave the court. Maybe Faulks is a tennis buff, and that’s why the episode has so much more vitality than the rest of the book. This suggests to me that bringing a bit more of himself into these pages could have been a risk worth taking. Maybe next time?
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on February 21, 2013