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June 11, 2008

The latest James Bond reminds Jeremy Black of the pleasures of a hot chocolate and not those of a strong drink on the edge: Devil May Care - Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming

Posted by Jeremy Black

Devil May Care
by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming
London: Penguin, 2008
Hardback, 18.99

Jeremy Black - the author, amongst much else, of The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen - reviews Sebastian Faulks' James Bond, and finds a case of product placement gone wrong.

The centenary of Ian Fleming's birth on 28th May 2008 has had a somewhat varied celebration. The most substantial contribution is Sebastian Faulks' novel, while the republication of the Bond corpus by Penguin is also notable. There were also: a series of newspaper pieces; an exhibition in the Imperial War Museum; at least one television programme; a radio discussion; and the treatment of Dr No as a radio play.

Some of this was good, with the radio play proving particularly impressive: Toby Stephens, a Bond villain on film, was an impressive Bond voice on the radio.

Much of the celebration, however, was limited. If it sought to introduce Bond to those who knew little about earlier commentary, there was, it is true, material of value, but the lack of new interpretation or profound insight was rather apparent, which lent a somewhat boring, and indeed bored, aspect to part of the celebration.

A key element that was not adequately brought out was product placement. The Bond corpus, both novels and films, is well-known for this, and it could have repaid more attention not least because much of the celebration involved such product placement, in this case on behalf of Penguin.

While not as crude as the use of licence-payers money to profit the motor-racing fraternity (and one can see Ecclestone, Mosley et al as C grade Bond-villain caricatures), it was notable that a clear light was not shone on the role of product placement in the celebration. For example, the Radio 4 documentary was fronted by David Cannadine, for long a Penguin advisor, and included much discussion by Simon Winder, a key Penguin editor; and so on.

Incidentally, the documentary included Winder putting-down Daniel Craig on the grounds that he dressed like a contractor in Iraq, an ugly example of snobbery which also begged the question of how many contractors he has met in Iraq. Fleming of course was a rampant snob, but he had often met the subjects of his scorn - however misplaced, patronising and pathetic the latter might be.

I had mixed views on Craig's first outing as 007, which I reviewed for this website; but it bears re-examination in light of the Faulks novel. With Casino Royale, there was much talk of taking the film back to the Fleming original, but that was not in fact the case. The film lacked the intimacy and restricted setting of the novel, its plot was a jumble and there were too many chases and too much violence.

With Devil May Care, in contrast, we have the opposite, a very close reiteration of Fleming, in which many of the detailed features of the original novels are redeployed anew in the service of a plot that takes Bond forward from where Fleming left him. The novels have clearly been analysed carefully, and style, themes, and tone are all reproduced. As such, there is a break from the Bond continuation novels by Gardner and Benson. Gardner, in particular, could not match the Fleming tone.

Instead, and this is praise, Faulks matches much of the achievement of Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham) in his Bond novel Colonel Sun (1968). Faulks offers a tauter novel, although I cannot see Fleming's Bond stealing money at gunpoint from a terrified woman in a headscarf at a petrol station, while, as a female friend put it to me, the new novel is limp.

Does the re-iteration of Fleming mean "writing by numbers"? Yes and no. Many features are similar. The ending, for example, is rushed as in many of the originals. There is a confidence in Faulks direction and prose that is missing in the sickly and depressed late-Fleming, although equally there is nothing to match the authorial skill seen in Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem. Fleming was writing about the here and now, and this gave an immediacy to his plots and to his references. Faulks does the complete opposite (maybe under orders). This is a plot very much located during the Cold War and in the Sixties at that. The geopolitical setting is very different to today: Savak, for example, operates in Iran in Faulks' novel.

As a result, there is an air of spectating when reading this novel, possibly replicating that of Faulks spectating on Fleming. For many readers, this may lead to an element of nostalgia, but for others there will be lack of engagement precisely because the agent is very much not in the here and now. The Americans are bothered about Vietnam not Muslim fundamentalism or China; and so on. It is rather like reading a newly-discovered Poirot in fact. I was reminded of the pleasure of a hot chocolate, and not of a strong drink on the edge.

More significant is the question of where this takes us for the future. Will Faulks or his successors slowly move Bond through the chessboard of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with megalomaniacs threatening Britain against the background of the Six Day War or the Biafra conflict or yet more Cold War plots, or will that tire as a plot device, as well as as a commercial opportunity working largely only for older readers?

In short, has product placement gone wrong? Has the opportunity been wasted to use a first-rate novelist to deploy Bond in a non-nostalgic and more up-to-date light? I thought the writing good, but I cannot see such novels competing with the films, which is a pity. Opportunity lost. Now how about that as a Bond title?

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen.

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