Monday, June 21, 2010

Nobody Does It Better, But Many Have Tried

I only occasionally discuss books on Me and Matt on Media; when I do, it's usually in thecontext of an adaptation like Point Blank or The Prestige. This has never been a literary blog, and I don't intend to make it one. I'm discussing a series of books today, but I'm not going to pronounce on Great Literature. Nope, I'm going to be talking about James Bond novels. More specifically, I'm going to talk about one of my great vices – the 007 continuation novels.

Before I address Bond post-Fleming, I must speak a little of the original Bond stories. When I started reading Casino Royale, I expected to find the Bond of 1953 archaic, campy, and / or dry. I'd read one or two of the novels, then return to more serious endeavors. Her Majesty's Secret Service wouldn't distract me for long. Like so many before me, I underestimated Mr. Bond. Very soon I ran out of books to read – twelve novels and two story collections just weren't enough. The twenty-two movies are all well and good, but only four or five of them satisfy the Fleming fan. If the continuation novels could provide even half the enjoyment of an authentic Fleming, I figured they would be worth a shot.

(This post isn't intended to be comprehensive. I have my standards, however low, and some of the continuation novels are evidently so poorly-written and ill-conceived that I shall never read them. I've glanced at Raymond Benson's Bond novels, for example. A page of that prose was more than enough to scare me off.)

Though the first Bond continuation novel is probably the best, I can't help but think it should have been better, given its pedigree. By 1968, the year Colonel Sun appeared, Kingsley Amis had been one of Britain's most acclaimed novelists for over a decade. As far as I can tell, his first novel, Lucky Jim, has never been out of print. Not only was Amis a fine prose stylist, he was a friend of Fleming and the author of The James Bond Dossier, a hundred-and-twenty page monograph on Bond and his literary value. As ever with Amis, the Dossier is funny, well-written, and insightful. He was a fine critic; many "serious" writers never receive critiques half so satisfying.

Colonel Sun strikes me as the least disposable of the Bond continuations. Amis preferred a Fleming novel to an EON film, so his story doesn't read like a disappointed screenplay. There's moral ambiguity, but no passages of le Carré pastiche. The villains' plot is sufficiently outré to surprise us, but it never strains our credulity as much as late-period Fleming so often did. There's something missing from Colonel Sun – I'm not sure quite what – but Fleming fans should seek it out. The book may be out of print, but used copies are fairly cheap. Had Amis written a few more adventures, I think he might have equalled 007's creator as a thriller writer. Amis' mainstream fiction is far better than Colonel Sun– I could write a column or two about it – but MaMoM isn't the venue for me to tell you about it.

After Colonel Sun, there wasn't a "proper" Bond novel until 1981, when John E. Gardner published Licence Renewed, the first of his fourteen sequels. Thus far I've read four of Gardner's stories, which are enjoyable but far too filmic and convoluted. Gardner imports Q's improbable gadgets, ups the number of Bond's lady friends, and sets his stories in the eighties. Bond acquires a photographic memory, an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and a library of quips. He's closer to Timothy Dalton than he is to Roger Moore, but I wish that Gardner's hero more closely resembled Fleming's agent. Gardner also has the lamentable tendency to over-complicate his plots, often at the expense of believability. Licence Renewed has M seeming to operate at third-grade intelligence level, while Icebreaker features several double crosses, a triple cross, and – crowning absurdity – a Nazi infiltration of Mossad. Gardner has some fine moments, but he has just as many stumbles. He's a lot of fun, but I don't see myself rereading him anytime soon. Before I leave Gardner, I must acknowledge his knack for titles: Win, Lose or Die, Never Send Flowers, Nobody Lives for Ever [sic], For Special Services.

In 2008, the Fleming Estate once again decided to give Bond to a "literary" novelist like Amis. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care has a fine title and a few well-done fight scenes, but is otherwise a disappointment. I was pleased to see Bond return to the sixties; I was less enamored of the bland villain and forgettable girl. Bond dispatches the Oddjob-esque henchmen and the Dr. No-lite villain in almost exactly the same manner. It's a failure of ingenuity that has no place in a well-made thriller.

I don't see myself running out of Bond novels anytime soon; there's a new Bond novel coming out next year from Jeffery Deaver, though I'm somewhat wary of its prospects. The yet-untitled "Project X" features a thirty-year-old Bond operating in 2010. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm somehow more excited about rereading the original novels.

1 comment:

Bryce Wilson said...

Just wanted to let you know I gave you the Versatile Blogger Award

That and two dollars will get you a cup of coffee but the sentiment is genuine.