Review: Solo, By William Boyd

Boyd’s Bond is driven but torn

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The Independent Culture

The guns, the goons the girls. There can be few people in Britain who are not au fait with the James Bond format. But what about the Aertex shirts, the Old Spice and fry ups? This is the shabby chic milieu of William Boyd’s Bond circa 1969: a decent, clever, World War Two veteran who chain smokes and ponders the progress of his flat’s redecoration. This is, most definitely, not Daniel Craig.

Solo, Boyd’s baton-running addition to the posthumous Bond library, is a serious venture for the author, a self-confessed Ian Fleming obsessive. And when the late author’s estate hands over the licence to kill it’s holstered in a whole lot of expectation, both in terms of sales and pop cultural critique. When Sebastian Faulks took aim, with Devil May Care, he fired off a pastiche of Fleming’s sassy Brit-noir. Boyd appears to be more interested in Bond’s psyche and historically specific and troubling times. The result is a cool thriller that makes 1969 seem like a bumper year for tobacco firms and despots. The novel opens in The Dorchester with Bond celebrating his 45th birthday. He has a bottle of Taittinger Rosé for company, with a few dry martinis in hot pursuit. It sets the mildly melancholy tone nicely.

M quickly sends him off to the fictional West African state of Zanzarim, a country split in two by a civil war fuelled by the high stakes of oil reserves. Bond is to derail the rebels’ cause under cover as a journalist for a French press agency (France, naturally, supports the insurgents). There is a lovely sense of British amateurism in Bond’s preparation for the mission. He takes Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter as briefing notes and Q equips him with lethal toiletries. “He who travels lightest, travels furthest, Bond supposed, and that included weaponry. Into a war zone with a can of talcum powder and some aftershave.”

In Zanzarim, Bond liaises (in a flexible definition of the word) with Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, the Service’s pretty, brown-eyed agent on the scene, before heading to the frontline where a much greater plot is uncovered. 

Boyd’s strengths are at play here: from the names that stick like a tic (Digby Beadalbane the hack; Kobus Breed the killer) to the portrayal of a cracked African state weeded with mercenaries. And in 007 he has stripped the gadgets away to reveal a driven but existentially torn spook dealing with betrayal and a thirst for revenge.

I’m just amazed that he has the strength with all the bacon breakfasts and smokes.