Book review: Solo by William Boyd
Jonathan Cape, £18.99
AFTER he wrote Devil May Care, published five years ago to celebrate the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth, Sebastian Faulks noted how hard he’d found it to give James Bond any kind of interiority. Bond, he said, was a snob rather than a hero, and from a writer’s point of view, easy to handle when the plot called for action sequences but damned difficult when it didn’t.
If Solo is anything to go by, William Boyd doesn’t seem to have the same problem. This isn’t to say that he has written a Bond who could give Sartre a run for his money, but at least 007 emerges as quite a bit more than two-dimensional, which – along with being a hero more than a snob – is all that most of us ask of him.
The difference between the two writers’ takes on Bond is surely one of intent. Although Faulks emphasised that his novel wasn’t just a work of pastiche, the novel’s byline (by “Sebastian Faulks Writing as Ian Fleming”) and his admission that he was aiming for a style that was “80 per cent Fleming” hint at a certain distancing. Boyd has no such qualms: he’s not writing as Fleming, but as himself, with the proviso that he’s handling someone else’s characters. This probably makes it an 80 per cent Boyd novel, which I would argue makes for a more enjoyable read than even 100 per cent Fleming.
Why? Ask yourself whether Fleming would have written a sentence such as this one from Solo: “A spasm of church bells sounded and a gang of pigeons… clapped up into the dazzling blue of an early morning sky”? Of course not, he couldn’t.
Nor could he have slipped back across the decades to the Second World War as effortlessly as Boyd does in the opening chapter, when the 44-year-old Bond, his memory triggered by the smoke from a Chiswick garden fire, recalls the first time he stared death in the face – in a Normandy orchard after D-Day when he was a 19-year-old lieutenant serving with the AU30 commando unit tasked with moving ahead of the advancing Allies and retrieving enemy secrets before they were destroyed. And while we’re on the subject, making Bond serve with AU30 is particularly ingenious, given that Fleming set up the unit in the first place.
Then there’s the plot. Fleming boasted about only spending six weeks on a Bond novel, and sometimes it showed. Boyd’s plotting is in a different league. First of all, the mission M sets Bond is even more demanding than usual: this time, nothing less than bringing an entire war (here, a thinly disguised Biafran War) to an end.
The second half of Solo is what gives the novel its title. Because Bond has been betrayed in West Africa, he does what even his double-0 licence doesn’t permit – acting out of revenge rather than in HMG’s best interests. Whereas Fleming’s plotting was often fairly basic (in Casino Royale, for example, the action hardly moves from the gambling resort near the mouth of the Somme) here the change of pace is marked, with the second plot pulling through from the first like a magician’s rope trick.
Of all the emotions, revenge is probably the most effective page-turner. So while officially recuperating in Scotland after his African adventure (another big plus: this may well be the most Scottish Bond novel yet), Bond follows the guilty party to Washington DC. Arriving at Dulles airport in deep, unsanctioned, cover, he is immediately hailed by “Bloater” McHarg, whom he had last seen 30 years ago while at Fettes (yet more of the Scottish connection). One of many nice comic touches.
Because this time Bond really is on a personal mission of revenge, there’s no need for any cartoon-like villain bent on global domination. True, as Boyd is working within the Fleming convention that the villain has to be immediately obvious in a totally un-PC way, we know that Rhodesian mercenary Jacobus Breed is a bad lot as soon as we see his half-blown-away face. But at least Bond’s motives for revenge against him and his sidekick are credible and grounded.
Think of Boyd’s other spy novels in the past decade or so (Restless, Waiting For Sunrise, even the sublime Any Human Heart) and you realise that his interest in spying is serious, and at the level of identity shifts and managing deception rather than a fun battle between Good and Evil. Freeing Bond from all the usual world-in-his-hands nonsense, making him just that bit less invincible and the action just that bit more credible, Boyd has done something rather unlikely: he’s given us a middle-aged, fallible Scottish hero we can almost believe in.
• William Boyd will be talking about Solo at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, tonight