By Sebastian Faulks
Penguin Books 2008
Cleaning out the closet. This is the first of my cleaning out the closet reviews. When you visit PTK, you don’t see the bare bones underneath. You don’t see all the half written posts, sitting as drafts waiting for me to finish. I counted them today, and I have fifty-eight reviews lying in pieces across the site. It’s time to clean up a little. This review for Devil May Care was started in June last year, and has been waiting for me to finish it off ever since. Some of my comments are a little dated now as the book has almost been out for eighteen months, but still I thought it was still worth sharing.
Sebastian Faulks Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care was always going to be scrutinised quite thoroughly, especially as it was released with ‘Writing As Ian Fleming’ written on the cover. This met with quite a mixed reaction. Some believed it was a marketing tool to indicate that this story starts where Fleming left off in the sixties – which it does – ignoring all previous continuation authors. Others believed that to suggest the book was written as Fleming was the height of arrogance. And some said that it was purely a technical exercise for Faulks – attempting to write in Fleming’s style; in fact making the novel a pastiche of sorts.
I wasn’t sure if Devil May Care was going to get released down under. Many books get skipped over down here, and if they do get released in can be many months after the UK and US release dates. In fact though, it was released here in a large paperback version about a week after the rest of the world, but I wasn’t to know that, and so I ordered a copy from the UK.
For some reason my copy was held up and I didn’t receive it till a couple of weeks later (while waiting became very temped to double up and buy the Australian version, but common sense prevailed – unusual for me, I know!) But during that interim, a friend of mine had received both the novel and the unabridged audio book read by actor Jeremy Northam. While my friend was reading the book, he kindly lent me the audio book until my copy of the novel arrived.
Over the next few days we conversed about our respective progress through the book. His comments amounted to that Faulks was writing a pastiche. Now I didn’t get it. What did he mean? Were we reading/listening to the same story? From Jeremy Northam’s telling, I didn’t feel like the story was a pastiche at all. I though it was a solid, well written Bond story (with a few clumsy ‘sixties’ references – but I guess you’ve got to sell time and place).
By chapter four, I received my copy of the book and abandoned the slower audio book for the real thing. On the written page the story changed. No longer did I have Northam’s accents and theatrics to drag me into the story and along with the characters. I had to use my own ‘theatre of the mind’, and the situations within the novel began to revert to more familiar Bondian clichés. Don’t get me wrong here – I love the Bond formula, and am most forgiving of it flaws. But as I continued to read I felt that Faulks was simply ticking the boxes as he went along. I was beginning to see more of a pastiche than a forceful thriller.
Anyway, here’s a very brief overview of the plot. I will keep spoilers to a minimum so as not to ruin the enjoyment of this novel for those who are still to read it. The novel starts in Paris, and a French/Albanian drug trafficer is killer in a brutal fashion. Bond’s old friend René Mathis of the Deuxieme Bureau is assigned the case. Meanwhile a burnt out James Bond is on leave after the events in The Man With The Golden Gun. His break starts in Jamaica where he gets the tennis bug. During his rest period he plays quite a bit of tennis with a Jamaican named Wayland. Bond’s current flirtation with tennis is picked up later on in the book, where Bond plays a game with the villain of the piece.
After Jamaica, Bond heads to France and finally to Rome. Here he meets bored, affluent housewife Larissa Rossi. Bond is infatuated with the woman, but in an uncharacteristic mood he chooses not to bed her.
The next morning Bond receives a summons from M and returns to London (This is the old M – Sir Miles Merservy). Bond’s mission is to investigate Dr. Julius Gorner who is a pharmaceutical manufacturer. M believes his interest in pharmaceuticals extends far beyond headache tablets and may be one of the worlds largest heroin manufacturers and distributors. Bond is to attempt to get close and find out as much as possible.
Bond heads to Paris and checks into his hotel room. Much to his surprise waiting in his hotel room is Larissa Rossi – or rather Scarlett Papava – that’s her real name. It appears that when she was in Rome she was sizing him up for a job on the recommendation of Bond old pal, and ex-CIA operative Felix Leiter.
Scarlett’s sister, Poppy, is being held by Gorner and she wants Bond to free her. How’s that for a nice co-incidence! She wants Bond to investigate Gorner too, but she initiated contact with Bond before he had been assigned the mission.
But Scarlett proves useful and arranges for Bond to meet Gorner, socially of course, at a tennis club, where they play a not so friendly match. You see, Gorner doesn’t like to lose. So much so that he cheats by having the height of the centre court net raised and lowered slightly, depending on who is serving. Despite Gorner’s dishonorable tactics, Bond still manages to win the match, much to the Gorner’s chagrin. ‘Chagrin’ also happens to be Gorner’s oriental manservant – the man who secretly raised and lowered the net during the match.
After France, Bond traces Gorner’s activities to Tehran, and here he meets MI6’s ‘Man in Persia’, Darius Alizadeh. Now I may be wrong here, but it would appear that Mr. Faulks is a fan of Nick Cave, or at least the song The Wild Rose (which Cave sung with Kylie Minongue). In the song a girl named Eliza Day, is known as The Wild Rose. The flower motif is used extensively throughout the story. Gorner even explains to Bond, that the poppy’s correct name is Papaver sominferum. It’s only a small step from Pava to Papaver — therefore in the story we have female character called Scarlett Papava (= Scarlet Poppy) and Poppy Papava (= Poppy Poppy).
I must admit, I enjoyed the second half of story quite a bit, and in the end I would say that this is a passable effort. As mentioned above, I enjoy Northam’s telling of the story more than reading the book. Northam acts as a buffer between me and the written word, taking the emphasis off the clichéd passages. What I mean here is the ‘Bondian’ clichés rather than lazy, unoriginal writing type of clichés. For example, if you were to ask me to write a Bond style parody, I would include the ‘sea island cotton shirts’, ‘comma of dark hair’ and possibly ‘a thin cruel mouth’. And while I appreciate that these are elements that Fleming used in describing Bond at some point in his novels, they have now been milked so mercilessly by every Bond parody, that including them in a Bond novel — even an official one — is courting danger. It unconsciously turns the book into parody. But I must say in all fairness to Faulks, he tried not to walk into those traps.
As a comparison it is interesting to note that Faulks doesn’t really attempt to describe Bond until page 144 (in the Penguin UK Harcover).
“Bond checked himself in the bathroom mirror. The comma of black hair, dampened by the shower, hung over his forehead. The scar on his cheek was less distinct than usual, thanks to the tanning effect of the Persian sun. His eyes were bloodshot from the salt water but retained, despite the spidery red traces, their cold, slightly cruel sense of purpose.”
Whereas, John Gardner in License Renewed, released in 1981, described Bond’s appearance on page 21 — note here, that Bond didn’t appear in the first chapter. From the Jonathan Cape UK Hardcover:
“She stared in space for a moment, her head filled with the after-image of the man who had just entered M’s inner sanctum: the bronzed good-looking face, with rather dark eyebrows above the wide, level blue eyes; the three-inch scar which just showed down his right cheek; the long, very straight nose, and the fine, though cruel mouth. Minute flecks of grey had just started to show in the dark hair, which still retained its boyish black comma above the right eye.”
And when Raymond Benson took over writing duties, in his first novel Zero Minus Ten, released in 1997, he chose to get the description out of the way as soon as possible, appearing on page 4 of teh Coronet UK paperback:
“His short black hair had just a hint of grey at the temples, was parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick comma fell down over his right eyebrow. There was a faint three-inch scar on his right cheek. The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip, below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth.”
I guess it is hard work being a Bond novelist. And with each passing year it gets harder. Fans like myself can slowly pull apart every word they write and compare it to the master — which is not really fair. The final washup is this. It’s great to have Bond back in a literary form, and although the book isn’t as good as I may have wished for, it certainly is entertaining. Sebastian Faulks was always walking a very thin tightrope. We Bond fans (like any pop-culture property with a huge fan base) are a tough audience to play to. We know the best. We know the worst. And we expect any person taking on the mantle to know it as well. At times, I wasn’t sure if Faulks did. For example, even the villain’s name ‘Dr. Julius Gorner’ – did Faulks realise that a previous Bond villain was Dr. Julius No. I am sure he had heard of Dr. No, but was he aware of the character’s christian name? If so, it seems a bit contrived to have two Dr. Julius villains. Small quibbles, I know! But these little nagging things coloured by perception when reading.
But isn’t great just to be able to hold a new Bond book?