For the Ian Fleming centennial in 2008, the author’s estate kicked off a new project: a series of stand-alone James Bond novels, each penned by a notable novelist handpicked for the mission. Three writers — Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and now William Boyd — have taken up the challenge, and just as they’re a mixed bunch (two Brits and an American), so too has this series proven a mixed bag. Faulks’s “Devil May Care” seemed a kind of period piece, picking up where Fleming’s original series left off and indulging in the trends of the Summer of ’67. Deaver chose to relocate Bond to the present day for his relentlessly paced “Carte Blanche,” which took 007 from London to Dubai to South Africa, with some hints of African genocide to push the plot forward.
Now, for “Solo,” Boyd steps back to the late ’60s once more and centers his story on a civil war in the fictional West African country of Zanzarim. This is a setting connected less to anything in “Carte Blanche” than to Boyd’s own background and bibliography: He was born in Ghana and has written several books with African themes, among them “A Good Man in Africa,” “An Ice-Cream War” and “Brazzaville Beach.” As its title suggests, this new novel stands as a solo effort in many ways.
To some degree, though, a Bond book is a Bond book. M, Q Branch, Miss Moneypenny, some fast cars, some fast women, a little globe-trotting, a little fate of the world in the balance — then shake, don’t stir. But as with the various shifts in the Bond franchise, small changes can make big differences. Boyd’s Bond reveals himself to be reflective, at times even rueful, moved to fresh depths of moral awareness by thoughts of his past and observations about conflict and cruelty as his mission unfolds.
Just after his 45th birthday — an evening marked by troubled memories of World War II, musings on mortality and an encounter with an alluring woman who sparks something primal in him — Bond is assigned to travel to Zanzarim. Two tribes there are engaged in a civil war over “a vast, apparently limitless, subterranean ocean of oil.” A post-colonial nation, Zanzarim remains of intense interest to the Brits, who have sided with the official government, while the rebels have proven steadfast under the leadership of Brigadier Solomon Adeka, “the African Napoleon.” Bond’s mission is to travel across the rebel border in the guise of a French journalist, meet Adeka and neutralize him.
Joined by the service’s station chief in Zanzarim — young, beautiful, Cambridge- and Harvard-educated — Bond is introduced to casual mercenaries, a disillusioned foreign press corps and a spirit of “frontier recklessness.” He then travels south into what he thinks of as “the real Africa.” A moment on the roadside finds Bond musing about man’s frail place in the natural world; a glimpse at the fate of children in the war-torn region seems some “surreal vision of hell” and leaves him feeling so powerless he wants to weep; encounters with one of the opposition’s officers prove increasingly brutal, even more so after Bond has supposedly worked his way into the man’s uneasy trust.
Even after the mission seems to have been accomplished, fresh betrayals and brutalities reveal themselves. Disillusioned and angry, Bond strikes out on his own — solo — for London, then Washington and deceptively placid Northern Virginia, to discover the truth and get revenge.
It’s no small thing that Bond reads Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter” on his flight to Africa, and it’s perhaps no surprise that each time he meets his quarry, the general proves something less than promised and then terrible to behold. Horror upon horror reveals itself along the way, and ultimately Bond finds some darkness in his own heart — a burst of savagery, even sadism, that may startle even hard-core Bond fans. As much as Boyd is channeling Fleming here, “Solo” also includes faint echoes of Joseph Conrad, whose stories of adventure, intrigue and espionage are deeply infused with a sense of moral inquiry and consequence.
Each of the books in this new series has been distinctive and enjoyable in its own way, but “Solo” strikes me as perhaps the boldest departure — still demonstrably a Bond novel but also a Boyd one, with richer and deeper concerns coursing right alongside the Flemingesque flourishes that should keep fans satisfied, as well.
A professor at George Mason University, Taylor frequently reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
A James Bond Novel
By William Boyd
Harper. 322 pp. $26.99