The Guardian reviews Blood Fever
Fast Show creator Charlie Higson accepted the ultimate mission - to take on the mantle of Ian Fleming and produce a young spy hero to challenge Harry Potter. Robert McCrum of the Guardian
reviews the second volume of his adventures, Blood Fever.
Ian Fleming died of heart failure in 1964 at the comparatively young age of 56, by which time he had pulled off a rare treble in English literature. He was rich, famous and critically acclaimed. The year before he died, Fleming earned more than Â£100,000, had close to 40 million James Bonds in print and was, with some notable exceptions, the darling of literary press and reading public alike. Not since Conan Doyle had a popular writer hit such a nerve, located, said Fleming, 'somewhere between the solar plexus and the upper thigh'. After a slow start, 007 became as much a social as a literary phenomenon, a classic of postwar fiction whose place in the pantheon was assured.
Fleming's death soon merged with the Bond legend. In his literary afterlife, the books were sustained, and even enhanced, by those films starring Sean Connery - From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, etc - which have passed into folklore. Indeed, someone has calculated that half the world's population has seen a James Bond film.
With the cash registers making merry mood music, Fleming's estate must have been tempted to let its goose go on laying golden eggs. Instead, demonstrating the wise stewardship of a lucrative literary brand, it has squeezed maximum returns from its golden copyrights in a variety of clever rights' deals.
Three years ago, to reach a new audience among the Harry Potter generation, and possibly inspired by the success of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider stories, the estate commissioned Charlie Higson, the co-creator of The Fast Show, to write a sequence of five novels about the young James Bond, at Eton in the Thirties. The first volume, Silverfin, published in 2005, in which a 13-year-old Bond overcomes killer eels in the Scottish fastness of an American megalomaniac, was a surprise hit, with bestseller sales surpassing the first Harry Potter and much movie talk. The second, Blood Fever, backed up by a cool Young Bond website (youngbond.com), is just out from Puffin. So it's a good time to take stock.
Fleming is a hard act to follow. The first Bond, Casino Royale, published in 1953, is a wonderfully atmospheric adventure story in the tradition of John Buchan and Dornford Yates, with a beautiful Russian spy and memorable scenes of gambling and torture. From the moment he says: 'My name is Bond. James Bond', the tight-lipped, world-weary and murderously handsome 007 effortlessly inherits the mantle of those supercool prewar heroes, Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond.
But the Bond novels are not just thrillers. Casino Royale, for example, is also a strange elegy to a doomed world of imperial grandeur and, at the same time, a vanity mirror to the sexually confused and troubled life of its author. Fleming liked to joke that he wrote it to take his mind off his forthcoming marriage to Ann Rothermere. Stirred into the prenuptial cocktail of Bond's adventures as an agent with licence to kill, the ingredients of espionage, global politics and sadomasochism achieve a kind of adult literary escapism that immediately places it at the top of and, possibly, beyond its genre.
Charlie Higson's task is unenviable, but he's well equipped. Bond was his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind, and he seems to understand that the orphan Bond (whose parents died in a climbing accident) can be the father to the man, but only up to a point.
Bond is, on closer examination, something of a weirdo who derives many of his qualities from his author's fantasy life. A cat who walks alone, he revels in having 'no acquaintances', just a few treasured male friends, and a bevy of adoring, untrustworthy women. As with Graham Greene, boredom is a vice, danger is the watchword. The face he presents to the world is 'ironical, brutal and cold', though, deep down, 007 is, like many English ex-public-school boys, a Peter Pan with deeply romantic fantasies.
Bond lives for a world of snobbery and violence that is, at the high end, fast, glamorous and expensive or, otherwise, sinister, spine-chilling and villainous. The archetypes of evil, Bond's foes are all world-class. Dr No, the descendant of Fu Manchu, is the epitome of evil. Goldfinger is the richest and baddest man in England. Blofeld is described simply as 'the biggest crook in the world'.
The universe of cruelty and menace inhabited by these thrilling monsters is not found in England's green and pleasant land but in the corrupt and steamy outposts of 'Abroad', a place we know to be inhabited by foreigners. Here, Fleming's racism and xenophobia become intricately linked to his innate sense of imperial entitlement. As members of an upper class whose time is up, he and Bond treat foreigners as objects of suspicion and disdain. Germans, black people, Jews, Russians, Japanese and, creepiest of all, Koreans: none is to be trusted, all speak funny and each, in turn, is to be vanquished by 007's patriotic British steel.
Bond's Britishness is Fleming's - stoic, right-wing and chauvinist. His sexual preferences, too, are Fleming's. He has no time for 'pansies'. Women are there to take dictation or be tumbled into bed for instant gratification, as 'a recreation', as Bond says in Casino Royale. Sex is a sadomasochistic gymnasium with a beautiful, but scarcely fathomable, goddess, ideally of oriental or African origin. And, outside the bedroom, Bond is really motivated by a code of chivalry as timeless as the white cliffs of Dover.
So, even in the Age of Cameron, to update 007 and give him an Etonian backstory acceptable to a 21st-century audience is Mission Impossible. To his credit, Charlie Higson does no more than nod casually at the complexities of Bond and his world. His audience is the 13-year-old boy. First in Silverfin, and now in Blood Fever, he goes, flat out, for adventure.
Moving from Eton to a Mediterranean summer holiday, young James's school trip swiftly plummets into the evil world of Count Ugo Carnifex and the seductive Countess Jana in a breakneck plot linking Eton to art theft and a sinister cult, and threatening the young spy's life with death from a thousand mosquito bites. Higson takes the reader by the throat and propels him - we're talking boys only - through a succession of narrative hairpin bends.
Here, in a nice twist, Higson has brought Bond back to his artistic roots. The thrillers that inspired Fleming - The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, The Riddle of the Sands - were the classic boys' adventures of the early 20th century. So many aspects of early 21st-century life are reminiscent of that age (rampant capitalism; technological frenzy; global instability) that it seems both normal and plausible to watch young Bond strutting the stage again. He won't outsell young Mr Potter, but Higson (no Ian Fleming) is a far better writer than Rowling. 007 should certainly give Harry a run for his money.
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