Hodder & Stoughton £19.99
Carte Blanche, By Jeffery Deaver
It has fallen to a US thriller writer to re-issue 007's license to kill. How does he handle this most English of gentleman spies?
Sunday 29 May 2011
Aaah Bond, you're back. We've missed you. Fans of 007 had been left high and dry in recent years, with MGM's financial troubles putting the production of the latest cinematic outing by Daniel Craig on hold, and without any new novels since Ian Fleming Publications Ltd authorised the publication of Sebastian Faulks's 2008 spin in the Bondmobile, Devil May Care.
Despite Devil May Care becoming the publisher's fastest selling hardback title ever, the reins have since been handed to the Chicago-born US thriller writer Jeffery Deaver. With 27 novels and 20 million book sales under his belt, there's no questioning Deaver's mass-market appeal, but would his Bond feel like the spy we know and love? Bond is, after all, the most British of heroes, despite his unnerving capacity to regenerate in different eras more proficiently than the Doctor himself.
The new novel's opening pages suggest that a classic Bond is with us once again. There is a Serbian train derailment and 007 is on the scene and at the centre of the action – and still home in time for three and a half hours sleep before his alarm wakes him in his Chelsea mews. What follows is a borderline pastiche of the "dashing spy has breakfast" scene. More reminiscent of Len Deighton's Ipcress File coffee and eggs scene – and Michael Caine's interpretation of it – the text is suddenly awash with premium brands. (Seven on one page.) The heart sinks and the stomach churns at the memory of the Bond movies' ever-increasing corporate sponsorship. Is this where we're heading?
Mercifully, no. Because, while Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme thrillers provide an almost forensic street-by-street description of New York (your reviewer may have got out Google Maps while reading them, on occasion), Deaver's London feels just as real. As Bond's Bentley eases its way along the gentrified streets of Marylebone or the bleak expanses of the Docklands, the reader relaxes, in safe hands.
Other must-haves are in place within the first 100 pages: Bond's colleague is the enticingly named Ophelia Maidenstone, and Mary Goodnight (last seen played by Britt Ekland in The Man With the Golden Gun) appears, allowing for a quick "Good morning, Goodnight" exchange. Pleasing.
And – praise be! – there are gadgets. In a world in which most spying is done by people in comfy shoes staring at computer screens, Deaver has done his readers proud by coming up with Q's latest creation: the iQphone. Yes, Bond is addicted to his smart phone full of apps just as much as the rest of us. And Jack Bauer could but dream of some of the toys Bond produces later in the narrative.
Crucially, the novel proves itself worthy of the 007 logo on its spine by presenting us with one of the most bone-chillingly creepy bad guys in history. Deaver's novels are rarely lacking in killers with repulsive traits, and Bond has faced some of the most deranged men in popular culture, but Severan Hydt is more haunting than most. A billionaire with a fortune made in waste management, his profession suggests an oily mafia don. But Hydt's job description is no wise guy alias: he actually is in waste management, and not for the money. He does it because he loves it. He's a man fascinated by decay in all its forms. This passion extends to his girlfriend: a once beautiful, now corpse-like former pageant winner who is not permitted by Hydt to wear make up, lest it conceal the visible signs of her ageing. As he strokes one of his long, yellowing fingernails across her ashen face, it is hard to imagine he could be more repellent ... that is, until his destructive plans are revealed, and the reason behind them.
All this might sound insufferable, ludicrous even, if you're a reader now used to laconic Scandinavian detectives and humorous Harlan Coben heroes. Which is where Deaver's immaculate sense of pace comes into its own. While giving Bond fans enough of the trinkets they deserve in an official novel, he also keeps the narrative pacey throughout and still allows our hero a few crucial moments of modern self-reflection. One minute Bond is blasting himself out of a waste disposal site that is rapidly filling with rubble, the next he is upbraiding himself for comparing his colleague's good looks to those of a Miss Felicity Willing. While he's far from metrosexual, Deaver's Bond has shed some of his more psychopathic traits.
It's hard to imagine anyone not being impressed by this novel ... except perhaps those who will be affronted by Bond drinking a new cocktail of his own invention. The Carte Blanche.
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