THE FANS ARE worried, angry, upset. "James Bond for kids?" spluttered Jonathan Ross when Charlie Higson told him about his next project. "Shame on them and shame on you!"
On the Bond websites - there are more than 100 - Higson’s novel SilverFin, about a 13-year-old James Bond at Eton - is arousing deep suspicion ahead of its publication this week. "Messing with Bond is like messing with Superman," says a typical entry on commanderbond.com. "It touches a nerve." "I’ve got a bad feeling about this," warns another fan with bad memories of the sheer awfulness of The Young Sherlock Holmes.
John Gardner, the English thriller-writer who wrote 14 Bond novels after Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, also scorns the whole notion of Bond as a children’s hero. "It’s just the last desperate attempt to draw in a new audience," he says. "The films have little to do with the Bond we used to know, and now the books are going the same way."
Over to you, Charlie Higson.
At first sight, the 45-year-old across the table from me, whose thick-framed glasses make him barely recognisable from his appearances in The Fast Show, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Swiss Toni, might seem an odd choice to write a series about James Bond in his early teens. Look, 007 purists could say, here is a man whose track record on writing about the world’s greatest fictional spy is to reduce him to ironic irrelevance.
And they’d have a point. Consider Swiss Toni, the bouffant-haired garagiste for whom everything in life can be compared to making love to a beautiful woman. If he could have done a Sean Connery accent, says Higson, that’s how we would have first heard him. "Because for Swiss Toni, Bond is his ultimate idol, a perfect aspirational figure - a suave, sophisticated ladies’ man who knows all about fine wines and Belgian chocolates. It’s no accident that in the first series, the bar they go into is called Fleming’s and it’s James Bond-themed."
Highlighting the disparity between the James Bond dream and life’s grim realities - in Swiss Toni’s case, a dead-end job in a grotty car showroom - was something Higson had already done before in his first novel, King of the Ants. "I wrote it in my twenties, after I’d just finished reading a lot of Bond novels, and the plot mirrors theirs, although it’s a grimy thriller set in London. In the book, the character reads James Bond, and he’s also called Sean because his mother named him after Connery - so, yes, there were quite a few echoes."
At this point, if I were in charge of the Ian Fleming estate and picking which writer would win the millionaire-making franchise of writing about world’s best-known spy, Charlie Higson would be talking himself out of a job. On this evidence, I might have judged, he wouldn’t take Bond seriously enough. Yet I’d be completely wrong.
Because this time Higson writes Bond completely straight. He tested it out, a chapter at a time, on his own three sons (aged 12, ten and six) and, apart from his middle son always wanting Bond to kill everyone in sight, it passed the test. I’m not surprised.
His Bond isn’t too knowing, not a mini-me version of the film Bond, always ready to deflate tension with a cool quip or a deadly pun. Nor is he, like Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider - the nearest contender to the Bond title on the young adult shelves - a whizz with hi-tech gadgets. Instead, Higson’s Bond takes us straight back to Fleming’s books - and an altogether different kind of superhero than the one we know from the multiplexes.
"The Bond of the books is a far more interesting and complex character than he is in the films," says Higson. "He is more real in his motivation, more vulnerable. He has thoughts about death, gets hurt, gets cross, and knows that he has to keep himself separate from other people because of his job. I wanted to put all of that in a book, and for it to be a proper book, not a jokey spin-off."
Instead of something like Spykids, in other words, SilverFin takes us straight back to the old-fashioned physical adventure stories of the 1930s. His 13-year-old James Bond is more like a young Buchan hero or a proto-Bulldog Drummond than a Superman-in-waiting. There’s even a bit of depth and flashes of humanity - not normally qualities anyone readily associates with Bond.
SilverFin begins as Bond starts his first term at Eton. His parents have died in a climbing accident and - just like that other orphan confronting the mysteries of Hogwart’s - James has to work out his place in a particularly eccentric parallel universe. This Eton is a place which is so cold that pupils wear gloves in the classroom, where there were all kinds of strange rules about collars never having to be turned down or umbrellas rolled, and which direction certain streets can be walked down.
"I’ve read as much as I can about Eton and the 1930s, but in a way I’ve had to create my own versions of both, because a real 13-year-old boy like James Bond would have had attitudes that were completely insufferable to today’s children. So, it’s a kind of fantasy Eton. We can all relate to starting at school, but this is a particularly weird, interesting place."
At Eton, Bond is bullied by George Hellebore, whose father turns out to be the villain of the piece, with a Scottish castle at which he conducts horrendous genetic experiments. Some of these involve eels, but their main purpose is to breed aggression. And, without giving away too much of the plot, it is sufficiently frightening to hold the interest of young readers. My 12-year-old son adored it.
Even if he hadn’t met Paul Whitehouse at university in Norwich in the 1970s; even if he hadn’t met Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer through mutual friends there; even if he had never gone on to be a key figure in British TV comedy, Charlie Higson would always, he says, have been a writer.
Whatever else he has done - which includes being the lead singer in the Higsons, a "poor man’s Talking Heads" in the 1970s, as well as all his Fast Show roles - writing matters most to him.
"At university I specialised in American Gothic literature and started writing all these dense, post-modernist novels that were completely unreadable. I’d always been quite snobbish about reading popular fiction, but a friend turned me on to American crime fiction. The turning point came when I thought why, instead of all these bits of fake genre thrillers I was writing, don’t I just write a straight thriller instead?"
It worked. Writing thrillers instead of flash po-mo magic realism meant that his books had a powerful running motor, instead of disappearing up their own exhaust pipe. The trick was to learn how to tune up the plot while still fleshing out the characters. "In The Fast Show, that’s what we were always trying to do too. Some of the characters, like the ‘Suits you, sir!’ guys [two camp tailors with the most annoying catchphrase of the 1990s] we couldn’t do much with.
"But with all the other characters, at least we gradually tried to show a personality behind them."
Indeed, by the end of The Fast Show, with characters such as Ralph, the tongue-tied aristocrat unable to express his feelings for his Irish gardener, had established a humanity that transcended the limits of a rapid-fire gag show.
Sometimes, the more limits there were on a project, the more fun it became to work on. "The worst thing is someone coming up and saying - Can you write me something, anything at all, and we’ll do a film deal. Paul and I get that quite a lot. But with Swiss Toni, it was the opposite: probably the most constrained writing it is possible to get. You’ve got the same set every week, and everything has to happen within it. It only makes you more imaginative."
So look again at SilverFin. It has another person’s character. More than 100 million people have bought books about him, millions more seen the films. They know what to expect. No writer could have greater limitations than that.
Higson’s triumph is that he both meets those expectations and yet surprises his readers. It’s a tough act to pull off, but on this occasion at least, perhaps nobody does it better.
SilverFin, by Charlie Higson, is published this week by Puffin, priced 5.99.