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Review: Finanical Times slams Sebastian Faulks for cheapening James Bond

02-Jun-2008 • Literary

"Devil May Care" review by Christopher Hitchens in The Financial Times.

If there were to be a principle of Bond-writing, it might be expressed as a version of Gresham’s Law. It once made one mediocre author – Ian Fleming – write at the top of his form. But it causes superior practitioners to fall well below their customary standard. Kingsley Amis was the first to demonstrate this principle when in 1968, under the nom de plume of Robert Markham, he churned out Colonel Sun. Now Sebastian Faulks, under his own name, has incautiously committed himself to the following “wannabe” formulation:

Suppose, I thought, I wrote a hybrid, with elements of both – the pace of Live and Let Die and the creepy menace of Moonraker. Suppose I took all the best of Fleming and none of the slow or silly bits ... And then I had an idea for what the villain might be up to; and then I found a location overlooked by Fleming. Then I blocked six weeks out of my diary. Then I wrote it.

The only one of the above principles that has been followed in this book is the one – candidly and breezily admitted by Fleming himself – that confesses the mere six weeks necessary for composition. But pace? This pot-boiler takes several times as long as most Bond classics. There is almost no sex until the very last pages. There is almost no torture – an absolute staple of a Bond narrative – until the very last pages. The villain isn’t so bad or, rather, he is bad but he doesn’t really give off any chill or stench. And his sidekick – who admittedly is given the original name of “Chagrin” – is made no more gruesome for being Vietnamese rather than Korean.

As for the unities of the drama concerning time and place, we can guess at the outset that Bond’s London is that of the summer of 1967 through clumsy references to Sir Francis Chichester and the Rolling Stones. But that surely doesn’t mean that “M” would speak of “pressing the flesh”, or that there would be a department of the service called “R”, devoted to making agents feel psychologically good about themselves? All right, it’s no shock to find that Felix Leiter of the CIA is now working in the private sector. Nor is it a surprise to find Bond himself suffering from the same anomie that afflicted him at the start of From Russia With Love. (“Had his mind run to fat?”) No, what is dispiriting is to find Faulks being self-evidently bored with his own “creation”.

There’s quite a promising little shoot-out at the start, for example, as Bond heads to London airport and is ambushed by two motorbikes. But the author of this episode forgets about it almost completely for the rest of the story, and barely remembers to tie up the loose end in a brisk call to the omni-capable Loelia Ponsonby.

There is only one reason I can think of for the change in the heroine’s name from “Larissa” to “Scarlett”. She is depicted as having helped tighten the net on a tennis court, saving Bond from a sub-Goldfinger sports-cheat, and thus persuading me that Faulks would rather have been in a reverie about a certain Ms Johansson in a certain tennis movie, Match Point, directed by Woody Allen. Only inattention, after all, not haste, could make a writer of this stature describe a telephone call as having been put through “without demur”.

Those who have a canonical attitude to Fleming will be able to collect their share of in-jokes and cross-references. An assassin’s gun is wedged through the back of a chair just as it is in Casino Royale. The fate of a psychopathic killer on a Russian train is mingled – whether consciously or not I cannot say – with the fate of another would-be rail-borne murderer in the movie version of Live and Let Die. (There’s also a joke, about how the parents of a girl named “Sweetheart” must have been “clairvoyant”, which is a lame version of the “Plenty O’Toole” film gag and makes one wonder how much confusion can be allowed between pulp and celluloid.) Wispy fragments of Vesper Lynd and Honey Ryder drift in and out of shot and memory in much the same way. The all-important torture scene, when it eventually does occur, is, oddly enough, borrowed from Kingsley Amis. There is a rather saccharine moment when Bond and his girl are not only in Russia, but in love.

Fleming himself used to claim that he marched the plot along fast enough to silence all the doubts about its credibility – a guileless yet brilliant tactic. But Faulks takes fatally too long to smuggle his own effort past the customs. Except for absurd coincidences that really do stretch one’s credulity, such as Bond running into the monkey-pawed villain just before being briefed about him, everything is laboriously spelled out. An experienced French cop is made to wonder, of an established international criminal in 1967, “what commercial gain there might be in having an entrée to the dangerous triangle of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia”. Perhaps Inspector Clouseau could be consulted here. The word “triangle” may or may not be a clue...

The sick implausibility of the CIA’s motive in double-crossing our hero, finally, is something that no publisher would have allowed for 10 seconds if we did not live in a culture of paranoid anti-Americanism that makes Fleming’s anti-Sovietism look tame. It is this crashing chord that is the crass register of all the other failed notes of etiquette, accuracy and care. A recurring phrase, employed by a Persian version of Darko Kerim, is that the true hero is “a citizen of eternity”. Even those who might withhold that noble title from James Bond can object to his being cheapened as he has been here.

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