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Book review: Solo, By William Boyd
For the spy's latest revival, James Bond's new controller blends his African expertise into the classic mix
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 27 September 2013
"It's exhausting," drawls Javier Bardem's splendidly camp villain in Skyfall after another muddy, bloody hunt for 007. And so is keeping up with the post-Ian Fleming flow of James Bond books. After Kingsley Amis launched the sequence of authorised revivals with Colonel Sun in 1968, John Gardner colonised the franchise over a 16-novel stint, and Raymond Benson lengthened the shelf. With Sebastian Faulks's Devil May Care in 2008, it looked as if the secret agent had fallen into the hands of senior men of letters who would temper knowing irony with affectionate pastiche.
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The Bond afterlife then took a curious turn with thriller master Jeffery Deaver's enjoyably weird Carte Blanche. Now, something more like normal service resumes. Our latest mixologist, William Boyd, shakes some of his own specialist ingredients – small-scale, morally confused conflicts in Africa, and the traumatic reverberations of Second World War combat – into the classic blend.
Like Amis and Faulks, Boyd plays by the Fleming rules with his hero's background and career. It's 1969, and at 45 the veteran Bond struggles with flashbacks to the grisly scenes he witnessed as a 19-year-old commando after the D-Day landings. London swings around his Chelsea pad in a "fabulous harlequinade" that does nothing to abate the toxic power of wartime memories.
After a nicely-observed tryst with a divorcée actress in Hammer-style horror movies, Bond is dispatched by M to intervene – discreetly but lethally, under the cover of a journalist for a French news agency - in the civil war in "Zanzarim". Here Boyd revisits his own back pages. The author of A Good Man in Africa, An Ice-Cream War and Brazzaville Beach depicts a fight for secession that - with shades of both Nigeria and Congo - sees the oil-rich delta province of "Dahum" stage its plucky bid for independence.
Boyd, you feel, wants to linger here and complicate the picture. But the formula cracks its well-worn whip: a sexy, inscrutable and half-Scottish local agent (Blessing Ogilvy-Grant); a string of jungle scrapes and stunts, and grimly close encounters with our disfigured evil genius: Rhodesian mercenary Kobus Breed ("Jakobus" as the dark mirror of "James"). He sports a blown-away face and sadistic tastes that recall Conrad's Mr Kurtz. Among the louche expats with whom Bond spars in Zanzarim and Dahum, Boyd bothers to specify that the sleaziest "pond life" hack works for the Daily Mail.
Some impromptu tactical coups (that D-Day experience again) help our hero to win the war and secure the gush of "new Gulf" oil for Her Majesty. But after a near-death brush with Breed, Bond "goes solo" with a revenge mission in Washington DC. Cue a cameo appearance for Felix Leiter of the CIA, and a gory, twisty finale that feels more efficient than inspired: the burly Ford Mustang Bond hires in DC rather than the sleek Jensen Interceptor he covets in London.
Boyd has plenty of fun with the obligatory Bondian fetishes of brand and knack (007's trademark salad dressing demands a "vinegar overload"). He sprinkles literary allusions (Eliot, Greene, Dickens) deftly around and plays the set-pieces well (despite the occasional sign of hasty writing and sloppy editing). Yet he could have done so much more with Dahum and its doomed revolt. Like Bond, he has accomplished his mission with slightly soulless panache; and, just as with the homecoming spy, a vague sense of regret and unease hangs in the sunlit Chelsea air.
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