A licence to imitate: Sebastian Faulks

SEBASTIAN FAULKS has succeeded in copying Ian Fleming's writing style in his 1967-set James Bond book, and that is precisely where the problems begin

As well as being the best-selling author of such novels as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, Sebastian Faulks is an exceptionally gifted parodist. Pistache, his collection of pastiches from Radio 4's The Write Stuff, is a little treasure of a book. Faulks can catch, and caricature, another writers' fingerprints and foibles with a delicious precision that only a deep love of writing can teach. As such, he was the obvious choice to masquerade as Ian Fleming for this new James Bond novel, and therein lies both the triumph and the trouble of this book.

Forget about Daniel Craig, Roger Moore, Sean Connery and even Bob Holness, former host of Blockbusters and one of the first men to play 007: Faulks takes us back to Fleming's Bond. The great irony of this franchise is that the film of the book is better than the book of the film. Fleming may have created the icon, but his skills as a novelist were more scrambled egg on toast than omelette fines herbes, to use a Bond analogy. To his credit, Faulks has imitated the haphazard plotting, sloppy characterisation, Colonel Blimp politics, sexist guff and basic incredulity of Ian Fleming to a tee. It's a Nuremberg Defence of a novel: Faulks was only following orders.

It opens with an Algerian in Paris having his tongue torn out with pliers, cross cut with a jaded Bond on an enforced sabbatical, wondering if he'll ever be as svelte and important as he once was, and importantly, learning to play tennis. It's 1967, the Stones are being busted for pot, and the CIA and MI6 aren't as cosy as once was, because of Britain's lack of support in Vietnam. It's a nice touch, and I'd rather prefer Bond to be thrown into those waters than the tepid apocalypse he does avert.

Recalled to duty, M (and don't worry: Q Division, Miss Moneypenny, SMERSH, Felix Leiter and all the rest are there) tells Bond to investigate one Julius Gorner, who is (check) insanely megalomanic, (check) has a secret base in Persia, (check) intends to destroy Britain through importing vast quantities of heroin and (check) has a Bond Villain Deformity. It's not a third nipple or metal teeth – Julius Gorner has a monkey paw with an unopposable thumb concealed in his elegant white glove. Some Oxford toffs supposedly once taunted him about his chimpanzee hand ("with hair up to the wrist and beyond") and settled him on a single-minded mwa-ha-ha mission to destroy Britain. Or England – he tiresomely lists British imperial abuses such as the Irish Potato Famine and the suppression of the Gikuyu in Kenya to justify his master plan, and talks a lot about cricket, fair play and manners. He's not quite sure and neither is the reader.

But someone else is interested in Gorner. Bond is asked by a glamorous lady in stockings to help rescue her heroin-addicted twin sister from Gorner's gibbon grip. Scarlett Papava, seemingly a rich merchant banker, turns up in the plot in the unlikeliest of places, for which Faulks does provide a neat and contemporary justification. She's also the love interest stroke potential closing shag for the yarn, and is therefore usually described in gruesomely breathless tones. Bond may be characterised only by his clothing, but Scarlett (despite a section about "pink panties") is just usually hair, skin, mouth, legs and eye colour.

Finding Gorner involves a Parisian tennis match (the best thing in the book) and a trip to Persia that seems more like a few long lunches on the Edgware Road than a trip to the Gulf of Oman. Halfway through the plot, Gorner (and, I suspect, Faulks) gets a bit bored with his master plan and decides to try nuking a few cities instead. Look away now: Bond stops him, surprise, surprise.

Each clich is a knowing clich, and you can feel Faulks wishing he had a licence to kill, while actually fumbling with a peashooter. The final demise of the villain is un-cinematic in its banality, but reaches for cinema tropes at the same time, a single glove floating on the Seine being the most groan-worthy. It also involves a paddle steamer – no invisible cars here – about which the best that can be said is that Faulks has totally inhabited Fleming's distrust of the French. Are we really to believe that the body of the most notorious villain in Bond's new career didn't wash up – or worse, that he is alive for a sequel?

Faulks lays clues for the reader about his real interests: the new 004 being the most conspicuous, and some elegantly off-the-cuff material about how bad the CIA has become. A throwaway reference to MI6's haemorrhage of spies to Soviet Russia (Kim Philby et al) might have brought Bond up to date in the past, but languishes as a nod rather than a plot. There is a sense throughout the book of wider affairs, of the reality of the past, but Bond remains a fiction fighting phoney wars, defeating phoney monsters and having phoney gripes about how 00 agents now have to see a therapist occasionally. I wanted to imagine John le Carr's Smiley throughout the book as a young agent, thinking that blowing up planes and scuba-dives were not the way the Agency should go.

The prose usually sings like a bronchial magpie: "Barefoot, in her navy skirt, which they pinned up with a hair grip to make it look short enough to catch the eye of passing drivers, and with her hair tied back as neatly as possible, Scarlett looked like a beautiful but dishevelled schoolmistress." There's a wry wink or two when Faulks can't quite channel Fleming (such as Bond's hatred of gadgets, or Gorner's plan to turn the Times into a tabloid).

What should have been done with the Bond novels? I doubt that Devil May Care will be a movie, and this nostalgia is too beholden to its creator to successfully re-energise the characters. I'd prefer a Bond novel by someone who can fully ret-con the series, to use a comics term. The Fleming estate needs a Mark Millar or a Denise Mina, not a slavish ventriloquist.

But Faulks has done his job. For the most part, Devil May Care is a perfect imitation of tripe. The Devil may care; the reader couldn't care less. v

Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming, Penguin, 18.99