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Review: New James Bond book fails to hit target - Sun Times

31-May-2008 • Literary

"Devil May Care" review - Chicago Sun Times.

Sebastian Faulks seemed an odd choice to write Devil May Care, the new James Bond novel designated to celebrate the 100th birthday of 007’s creator, Ian Fleming.

Faulks is not an established spy novelist like John Gardner, who wrote 14 Bond books in the 1980s and ’90s. Nor is he a well-regarded Bond expert like Raymond Benson, who took over for Gardner and wrote six Bond books.

No, Faulks is a celebrated author who has written such hefty and critically praised novels as Birdsong and Human Traces. But he is not the first literary lion to take on Bond.

In 1968, four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun, a driving spy adventure with a terrific villain. Though out of print, it remains far and away the best non-Fleming Bond novel.

So with an acclaimed novelist charged with renewing 007’s literary license, Devil May Care promised to be the first truly great Bond novel in 40 years. Unfortunately, it proves to be the opposite of Colonel Sun. With a haphazard structure and unconvincing supporting characters, Devil May Care disappoints on nearly every level.

Faulks dutifully re-creates the elements of Fleming’s novels: the leading lady with a fetching name (Scarlett Papava); the ruthless industrialist villain (pharmaceuticals magnate Dr. Julius Gorner) with a deformity (a gorilla-sized left hand); the exotic locations (Paris and Iran). But the elements are not enough, and Faulks does not assemble them into a compelling, or even coherent, story.

Faulks does a few things right. His smartest decision is to move Bond back into the Cold War, setting the book in the late 1960s. Further, Faulks shields his book from the considerable influence of the 007 films. “Bond didn’t like gadgets,” he reminds the reader.

He also understands Bond’s psyche, more or less. The veteran agent is surprisingly gullible in Devil May Care, failing to question the motives of characters Maxwell Smart would find suspicious.

Aside from that, Faulks is comfortable inside Bond’s head. Perhaps too comfortable. He spends more time on what Bond thinks than on what Bond does. And Bond doesn’t do much here. The chore of saving the world is divided among several players, including Bond’s old CIA buddy Felix Leiter, who gets his own subplot.

Faulks’ greatest failure is the plot’s randomness. Bond tracks the villain to his base beneath the Iranian desert and learns Gorner has used his pharmaceutical empire to mass-produce heroin and build a worldwide smuggling pipeline. But when Gorner unveils his master scheme to redraw the world’s geopolitical maps, etc., it has nothing to do with heroin. It’s as if Goldfinger announced that instead of robbing Fort Knox, he would use radio signals to knock American rockets out of the sky.

Devil May Care is filled with tantalizing possibilities that are raised then discarded. Faulks introduces a remarkable vehicle, a cross between a jetliner and flying boat based on genuine 1960s Soviet technology, but does little with it.

Given Faulks’ reputation, you would expect Devil May Care at the very least to be well written. Yet the man who displayed a mastery of language in Birdsong produces sentences like, “The sun was blazingly hot,” where triteness and redundancy vie for superiority.

Worst of all, Devil May Care is dull most of the time. Nothing much happens until the midpoint. The plot picks up after that, but the action sequences are confusingly written and inert.

Fleming’s formula may have been a simple one from a literary standpoint, but that doesn’t make it easy to duplicate. Even a superb writer like Faulks can get it wrong.

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