Author Steve Cole on reinventing James Bond in his new book Shoot to Kill

Cole: 'The name remains a promise for action and adventure and pure, pulse-pounding excitement, for anyone – anyone – who wants to join him'

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The Independent Culture

James Bond books aren’t just for boys.

I state this explicitly for two reasons. Firstly, because when a cultural icon endures for as long as Bond has – can it really be over 60 years since Casino Royale was published? – critical assertions made decades ago can easily become enshrined as truths, and so engender stereotyping. The Let Books Be Books campaign, supported by this newspaper, aims to challenge the imposition of demeaning gender boundaries on our children’s fiction; pander to the same old tropes, you get the same old tripe, whereas encouraging progressive attitudes can bring about positive change.

The second reason for my stating it is because, for me, this issue just got personal. I’ve just written my first Young Bond novel, a task that was shrouded in as much secrecy as anyone could wish for. When friends found out, most were pleased and excited for me, but some were a little prickly over their perception of Bond’s gender politics. Others took the black-and-silver colour scheme of the jacket as being deliberately über-boyish, rather than reflective of the monochromatic 1930s Hollywood output of the era.

If I sound over-sensitive, it’s perhaps because as a writer who typically operates in the action-adventure genre – whether it’s fantasy thrills with the Astrosaurs or the Z Rex and Tripwire novels for older readers – I occasionally chafe at well-meaning educators citing the boy-appeal of my fiction, as if this was my overwhelming concern in creating it. Of course I’m delighted when I’m told I’ve helped boys get into reading, but I don’t set out to exclude anyone when I write, and know from hundreds of book events, in schools and festivals, that boys and girls laugh at and thrill to the same things. Following my recent Young Bond event at Stream Festival, many girls bought copies for signing. Samantha, 11, told me it was the action and suspense that drew her to Young Bond, while Holly, a year older, assured me she liked James Bond “because there’s always death about”.

And yet James Bond, thundering through popular culture like a careering juggernaut, comes with a certain reputation. His attitude to women, and succession of sexual conquests, can arouse hostility amongst feminist critics. But many of these criticisms are made of the movie Bond; the literary Bond is typically more of a serial monogamist and a lot more human. His emotions and frailties run deeper in the books.

In Diamonds Are Forever, for instance, he falls hard for Tiffany Case, the diamond smuggler, and stays with her for “many happy months” before a protracted and difficult break-up; in the next novel, From Russia With Love, we learn, “he missed her badly and his mind still sheered away from the thought of her”.

And sometimes our suave hero misses his mark entirely. In Moonraker he is interested in Gala Brand, but she remains chastely loyal to her fiancé and the novel finishes with Bond resolving to “get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere”. For all the casual sexism he displays on occasion, Bond’s behaviour towards women, however chauvinistic it may seem, is one of wanting to protect.

Ultimately, of course, Bond himself would be unmoved by censure or argument; as a state-sponsored assassin, he doesn’t give a damn what others think, he’s more concerned with trying to do his job and stay alive. And we don’t have to endorse any of his opinions to enjoy the visceral thrills of his adventures.

That said, Young Bond’s attitude differs in that he views girls very much as equals. Only 14-years-old in Shoot to Kill, he’s a decisive, proactive alpha-male – of course he is, he’s still Bond – but he is not a superhero, and not yet the self-sufficient killer he’ll grow up to become. He is a believer still in ideals of justice and fair play. He may make mistakes, but he won’t run from them. I hope he’s an aspirational character to boys, and that girls see him as a likeable figure – either to imagine themselves in his place as a female Bond (why not?) or else accompanying him for the ride.

No, not that sort of ride. “The finest, cleanest love is lust,” the adult Bond will muse in Goldfinger – but such cynicism is yet to be learned in the playgrounds of his youth. And since Fleming tells us that James lost his virginity at 16, the frisson between Bond and a girl he comes to like can develop less predictably. In 1965’s The James Bond Dossier, Kingsley Amis pointed out that the Fleming Bond Girl is “inside the plot rather than a sexy or status-conferring appendix to it”; and that’s something that is even truer of a Young Bond adventure. I hope male readers will enjoy the company of Shoot To Kill’s prominent female characters because they see similarities to the strong, likeable girls around them. And I hope teen girls will identify with these empowered, proactive Bond girls, or elements of them at least.

Amongst those on the side of the angels, we find schoolgirl (and would-be engineer) Boudicca “Boody” Pryce and Asian-American journalist Tori Wo. Neither is a “nice” character, simply reacting to Bond’s decisions and actions. Both have specific non-gender-related skills. They work to create their own opportunities, and while they don’t relish violence they will employ it effectively to protect their friends. On the other side of the coin, Beatrice Judge is a Properly Bad Girl behaving badly – there’s no undermining suggestion that she is attracted to Bond or in thrall to a male. She is who she is, prepared to wield force against anyone she chooses.

Of course, this is James’s book; he drives the adventure, and Boody does need rescuing on occasion. But then so too does James; hardly a new development as Fleming set the precedent himself (both Tiffany Case and Kissy Suzuki spirit the adult Bond to safety when he’s incapable of finding it himself). And it’s fair to say that in Shoot To Kill, Boody plays a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the adventure, one that James freely acknowledges.

Happily, even if some of the adult Bond’s attitudes raise eyebrows on occasion, the most important component of his character – and one that defines him keenly and enhances his enduring heroism – is freely adaptable to any age and any medium. It is Bond’s appetite for living: while others nibble at life, he’s out to prove he’ll eat it whole, in pursuit of the best that being alive can offer. It’s a powerful, positive quality possessed by many of the characters in Shoot To Kill to greater or lesser degrees – male and female alike.

James Bond books aren’t just for boys. I’ll keep stating that, over and over. The name remains a promise for action and adventure and pure, pulse-pounding excitement, for anyone – anyone – who wants to join him.