Boyd Tonkin: 007 - recycle in the rainbow nation

The week in books
Click to follow

Fans of the non-existent James Bond, and of the very real Jeffery Deaver, will have had many kinds of expectations about the new novel that the American crime-fiction maestro has added to the 007 franchise. Today Hodder & Stoughton publishes Carte Blanche (£19.99), with which Deaver follows Sebastian Faulks as the latest author licensed by the Ian Fleming estate to extend the lifespan of their brand. Yet nobody, I guarantee, will have looked forward to reading a warm tribute to high-quality local government in the London Borough of Newham. On page 118, we learn about Canning Town, and about the East End manor's "fiercely loyal residents and activist councillors who worked very, very hard for their constituents". All six - in the North and South wards - are now Labour. 007 endorses Ed Miliband's crew! Do we have a problem, M?

Among the high-end marques of crime, Deaver ranks in the Bentley Continental class (Bond's beloved wheels): a sleek, fast and supremely well-engineered suspense machine. Yet he also steers his zigzag plots into some darkly surprising places, notably in the novels that star the quadriplegic investigator Lincoln Rhyme. If Deaver seemed a shoo-in choice to create a subtly deranged globe-spanning villain, how would he negotiate the five-star snobberies and de luxe indulgences that also define the Bond formula?

In the event, Carte Blanche reads like a finely-blended cocktail of innovation and pastiche. Deaver treats the set-piece arias of a Bond novel – the fancy drinks, the luxury hotels, the meetings with gadget-master Q, the sparring with dim Whitehall fogeys, the seduction scenes (thwarted or otherwise) - almost as Baroque exercises whose strict rules permit only the tiniest original embellishment. (This Bond loves Kentucky bourbon.) On occasions, his obedience to the form topples over into something like poker-faced parody – as in the shameless tourist-office plugs for Dubai, where "many cultures and religions coexisted respectfully".

Deaver readers, though, will hardly seek an uncritical re-run of the Cold War attitudes, and Stone Age behaviour, that made Bond a prime target for critics impatient with this post-imperial hangover. (For a splendidly dyspeptic assault on the Bond cult by a recovering addict, see Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain.) Sure enough, his agent packs some gently PC politics along with his Walther PPK – even, and implausibly for such a well-briefed operator, getting cross about the use of the historical term "Coloured" for South Africans of mixed-race heritage.

Our climax arrives in the hills above Cape Town. But we begin in the made-over London Docklands, and the Thames estuary. There our apparent mega-monster (I will leave it at that) has built a green-tinged demolition, waste-disposal and recycling empire. Deaver's Severan Hydt, the ex-dustman "lord of entropy" in love with decay, is a real triumph. This creepily plausible mogul of "discard" treats waste as "a window on to our society... and into our souls". He may be planning a spectacular terrorist atrocity. But why, where – and on whose behalf?

Serbian and Afghan red herrings swim into view. The 007 franchise has to cross the world, and so must try to sidestep genuine bones of ideological contention. For long an icon of upscale consumerism more than a carrier of NATO views, the modern Bond could never confront a Bin Laden figure. This version, having chastely declined to press home a romantic advantage with his flame-haired motorbike-loving colleague Ophelia Maidenstone (Deaver does the names in style), is soon off to Dubai in pursuit of the links between Hydt's green garbage and the predicted mass carnage of "Incident Twenty". Then comes Cape Town – with an admiring portrait of the "rainbow nation", and its noble South African Police Service. Bond himself falls for tough detective Bheka Jordaan: both Zulu and Afrikaner, a rainbow in herself. Her endearing grandmother survived the Sharpeville massacre. By now, apoplexy may threaten the more reactionary of 007 buffs.

Bond reflects on his trade of espionage as "that great landscape of subtext where so little is as it seems". True to that vision, and to his special skills, Deaver - after a pyrotechnic showdown - whisks us into a shock-rich coda that recasts everything that has gone before. A twist too far, perhaps? No matter. Deaver has stylishly fulfilled his brief and – I suspect – won over sceptics, just as Bond slowly erodes Bheka's amused scorn for this posh English throwback. Carte Blanche delivers a recycling job that even the sinister Hydt might applaud.

Losing, and finding, one's place

In Carte Blanche, James Bond is recruited over lunch in that paradoxically famous haunt of spies, The Travellers Club. On Monday, the club played host to a throng of writers and journalists whom I wouldn't trust to keep a secret until they stepped out into Pall Mall. Thankfully, we had to celebrate as loudly as possible the award of the RSL Ondaatje Prize for the literature of place. It went to a book already, and rightly, cheered to the rafters: Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes. Accepting the award, De Waal (above) noted the paradox of his success with a memoir steeped in places, from Odessa to Vienna and Tokyo, yet "profoundly about displacement and diaspora" too.

A fairy-tale ending on the shelf?

It's easy enough to find fairy-tales inside bookshops – but fairy-tales about bookshops? You could wait for one of those until hell (where every title is flogged at 100 per cent discount) freezes over. Yet it currently looks as though the Tale of Waterstone's and the Sick Giant might steer towards the happiest of endings. After a deal that everyone had anticipated but then alarmingly stalled, Russian entrepreneur Alexander Mamut and his A&NN Group has agreed to buy Waterstone's bookshops from enfeebled HMV for £53 million. It gets better. The chain's incoming MD will be none other than James Daunt, who with his cluster of elegant, eclectic and smartly-stocked London outlets has shown how attractive the physical bookstore can still be. How will Daunt, who has built up a boutique estate of half-a-dozen lovely shops in well-heeled areas, cope with a sprawling portfolio of 300-odd? That and many other knotty questions remain on the table. But, for all readers and writers in Britain, this still counts as a moment to savour.