Ian Fleming's Agent of Little Change
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
DEVIL MAY CARE
The New James Bond Novel
By Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming
Doubleday. 278 pp. $24.95
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was born on May 28, 1908, 100 years ago today. In 1964, at the age of 56, having completed 12 Bond novels, he died of a heart attack, one apparently hastened by his fondness for the cocktails and cigarettes he wrote of with such affection. Despite Fleming's death, more than 20 additional Bond novels, authorized by his estate, have appeared, written by John Gardner, Raymond Benson and (once) Kingsley Amis. Now, to mark Fleming's centenary, we have yet another Bond adventure, this one by the English novelist Sebastian Faulks, best known for his 1993 bestseller "Birdsong."
I was never a great fan of the Bond books. I read a few of them (and saw a few of the early Bond movies) in the 1960s and thought them harmless fun, if a male fantasy of seducing gorgeous babes and defeating fiendish villains was what you wanted. As it happened, a vast audience wanted just that. Better spy novelists have come along -- John le Carré, Robert Littell, Charles McCarry and Alan Furst among them -- but none has approached the success of Fleming and his designated successors. Highlights of the Bond novels have entered popular culture: 007 and SMERSH, Miss Moneypenny and Pussy Galore, Goldfinger and Dr. No, "shaken, not stirred" and "Bond, James Bond." With more than 100 million books sold over 55 years, Bond is the most enduring fictional character since Sherlock Holmes.
Like all the Bond novels, "Devil May Care" features, along with its heroic secret agent, two other essential figures: The Villain and The Girl. The former is Dr. Julius Gorner, said by Bond's boss, M, to be "potentially the most dangerous man the Service has yet encountered." Gorner, a Lithuanian, has a rare deformity: His left hand is "completely that of an ape. With hair up to the wrist and beyond." When this unfortunate fellow attended Oxford after World War II, other students laughed at his monkey's paw, as they called it.
This led him to hate England so obsessively that by the mid-1960s, when the novel takes place, he had devised not one but two plans to destroy it. First, having become the world's foremost drug czar, he will flood England with heroin: "I think I can change most of your cities into drug slums by the end of the century." But impatient for his revenge, he hatches a more immediate scheme: to fake an English attack on a Soviet nuclear facility that will cause the Soviets to nuke London. "Tomorrow I shall launch an attack that will finally bring Britain to its knees," he pronounces.
Bond's job, of course, is to stop this Anglophobic monster. His efforts are complicated by the arrival of a mysterious beauty called Scarlett Papava, whose long, elegant legs and other physical charms are described breathlessly. Scarlett, claiming that her sister is in Gorner's clutches, joins Bond's search for the hairy-handed villain. Thanks to some highly improbable plotting, both are soon Gorner's prisoners. ("Looks like a trap," Bond declares, as he walks into one.)
Their captor takes them, bound and helpless, to his fortress in the Persian desert and shows them the huge drug factory where hundreds of heroin addicts toil as his slaves. ("They work twelve hours a day in return for water, rice and heroin.") The villain taunts Bond by forcing Scarlett to parade naked before the workers and announcing his intention to donate her to them. The scene manages to be both dumb and offensive. Of course, if you think Bond is going to let this good woman be raped by several hundred crazed heroin addicts, you're as dumb as the scene is.
The essence of the Bond novels is for the hero to blunder into hopeless situations and then miraculously escape them. He does that here, repeatedly, as the action moves among London, Rome, Tehran, Moscow and Paris. Bond is shot at by men on motorcycles, nearly drowns twice, is beaten like a gong by various thugs and becomes embroiled in a bloody gun battle on a plane headed for Russia that's loaded with nuclear weapons. Stirring stuff, but we know that Agent 007 will survive for another sequel, perhaps forever.
Between fights, chases and shootouts, and a slow-paced romance with long-legged Scarlett, Bond indulges in the brand-name snobbery that has awed us common folk for more than half a century. He smokes Chesterfields and cigarettes ordered from Turkey; he drinks Johnnie Walker Black and other expensive whiskeys, admires Chateau Batailley 1958 and finds all soft drinks "more or less repellent." He dislikes croissants and diplomats, loves good marmalade, carries a Walther PPK, drives a Bentley Continental with an Arnott supercharger and brings Miss Moneypenny boxes of Perugina Baci chocolates from Rome. We're advised that good caviar "should smell of the sea but never the fish" and, in the best "shaken, not stirred" tradition, that black pepper should be "cracked, not ground."
All this social and culinary guidance seemed more urgent to me in my youth than it does today. For me at least, the Bond fantasy has not aged well. Faulks has said he intended to write a "lighthearted" novel, and "Devil May Care" has its amusing and entertaining moments, but there were other moments when I thought it would never end. My advice is to invest your $25 in a good bottle of wine and wait for the movie.