Solo: A James Bond Novel
By William Boyd
Johnathan Cape | Pages: 336 | Rs. 599
Ian Fleming swore softly under his breath. He put down this new book and lit a Gitane Filtre, his thirtieth of the day. He hated what his various legal heirs had done to the James Bond character he had created.
The cinema rights had gone to a company called Danjaq llc, and they had turned his Bond into a bloody parody. But he was even angrier about the book rights. They had been inherited by Fleming’s own family, who had commissioned a series of writers over the years to produce James Bond sequels, so they could make whatever money they could off his legacy. ‘To monetise the Bond brand’, as their business consultants put it. So that was what his 007 had become now. No longer a spy, or cult figure, but simply a brand; nothing more than a marketing asset to be periodically exploited.
To be fair, to write this new book, Solo, Fleming’s family had brought in William Boyd, probably the most competent author they’d ever commissioned, someone who had himself been twice shortlisted for a Booker Prize. And Boyd had chosen to set the action in a place that he in turn knew intimately: Africa, where he’d grown up, and set some of his earlier novels. The result was this Ian-Fleming-meets-Frederick-Forsyth kind of thriller, with resonances of The Dogs of War, set in 1969 in a fictionalised Biafran civil war, and featuring the world of mercenaries and war correspondents. Boyd had also, naturally, played with all the props and elements that had made Ian Fleming’s books what they were: lashings of high living, sex, violence, cynicism and pseudo-sophistication. There was a suitably sinister Rhodesian mercenary for a villain, two rather libidinous heroines, a Jensen Interceptor sports car (one of the design icons of that era), and lots of alcohol, both shaken and stirred. There was also, incidentally, Bond’s personal salad dressing recipe (5 parts red-wine vinegar, one part extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, Dijon mustard, fresh pepper, sugar—the red-wine vinegar overload being a characteristic flourish).
Truth is, Bond isn’t the dark character that Chandler admired, he was now primarily a brand, nothing more.
But despite all Boyd’s talent, and best efforts, the book was underwhelming. It was, admittedly, a Catch 22 situation for any novelist: write in Ian Fleming’s voice and the book became a parody; write in your own voice and it was no longer James Bond. Most Bond sequels fell somewhere in between, neither grouse nor pheasant. Even the redoubtable Kingsley Amis had learned this the hard way when he wrote Colonel Sun, the very first sequel. This new book had hit the bestseller lists in the UK, as you’d have wagered it would. But the truth was, James Bond was no longer the dark, faintly Hemingwayesque literary character that Raymond Chandler had admired; he was now, primarily, a brand—nothing more, ironically, than a literary version of the Morland’s Balkan blend cigarettes, Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches, or Lentheric soap that Fleming had punctuated his books with.
So now what? Ian Fleming suddenly felt very, very tired. To hell with them, to hell with his family, and their money-making ways and slick marketing consultants. He poured himself four fingers of potent Stolichnaya vodka and knocked it back. ‘Il faut laisser aller le monde comme il va,’ he said to himself, softly: Let the world go the way it goes. It was a good philosophy, under the circumstances.