When we think of James Bond, we picture the cinematic version: a man parachuting, guns blazing, into exotic locations; fancy clothes, big breasts, hard biceps, shiny diamonds; and untrustworthy roulette wheels spinning amid an intoxicating blend of sexiness, sophistication and danger. Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming (1908-1964), unwittingly laid the foundation within his novels for the movies’ bombastic interpretation of Bond’s character, though his writing presented a more reflective and at times darker protagonist. Even so, Fleming’s Bond and the cinema’s version of him did share a playful approach to the world of espionage. In Fleming’s case, this was derived from his career as a Naval Intelligence officer in World War II, when he was involved, albeit at a distance, in the reckless, frequently barmy and often victorious escapades of real British spies. No doubt he also saw the gritty and grimy side of spying, though he chose to eschew that in his books in favor of delivering playboy espionage to a shell-shocked and impoverished 1950s readership.
Jeffery Deaver’s “Carte Blanche” — the latest installment in the immortal franchise — brilliantly captures Fleming’s bitten-off, occasionally distracted, Boy’s Own style. The opening chapters take us straight into the action. A thirty-something Bond is in Serbia, monitoring a nasty piece of work (an Irishman called Niall Dunne) and a dangerous piece of machinery (a train carrying a deadly cargo). When the operation goes wrong, Bond has to escape from the country and get back to London.
GCHQ, the British equivalent of America’s NSA, has intercepted a communication about a terrorist attack that will kill thousands of people and adversely affect British interests. Bond — the ladies man with a penchant for fast cars and rifle-shot quips — is given “carte blanche” to stop the attack. But other intelligence and security agencies in England hamper his progress, and it’s not until he gets on the trail of an arch-baddy called Severan Hydt that Bond really hits his stride. What follows is a magnificently manic, impeccably researched and at times gory plot, with Deaver’s trademark misdirection and twists flying.
Who cares whether “Carte Blanche” is realistic? For obvious reasons, most people don’t understand what spy realism is. Secret operatives are, by nature, creatures who believe that anything is achievable. That psychological outlook was prevalent in the daring takedown of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs and in a thousand other American and British operations. During the lead up to possibly the greatest covert escapade of all time — “Operation Chariot,” the British Royal Navy and Commando raid on St. Nazaire in 1942 — high-ranking sceptics said the mission was impossible. But Lord Louis Mountbatten shot back, “The fact that it is regarded as impossible, makes it possible.”
The same outlook is evident in Deaver’s terrifically exciting reincarnation of Fleming’s hero. Bond is ultimately a flawed loner, but he’s not an inhibited cynic. He’s a fearless doer.
By Jeffery Deaver
Simon & Schuster. 414 pp. $26.99