I came to Bond early, thanks to a review of, I think, Live and Let Die by Raymond Chandler in the Sunday Times. Ian Fleming was the paper’s foreign manager, and Chandler was a friend of his, but that’s no reason to think Chandler’s approval insincere. Thereafter I bought each Bond novel on publication, and continued to enjoy them, even while recognising that the books got worse after Blofeld and Spectre replaced Smersh as chief villain. The first films were likewise enjoyable, those that followed much more caper than thriller, and I haven’t seen a new one for years.
Fleming-Bond long ago became a business, a very successful brand. Apart from the movies, new Bond novels go on being written by, among others, Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks. Now the baton has been handed to Anthony Horowitz. Few could be better qualified. This is his second Bond novel – he has written Sherlock Holmes ones too, also episodes of the TV series Foyle’s War and Midsommer Murders, as well as his “teen spy” Alex Rider books.
In short, he is a thorough professional, and this New Bond is up there with the better Old Bonds.
He has had the nice idea of going back to the beginning. It’s the late 40s or early 50s. The operatuive formerly known as 007 is dead, murdered in the south of France, and James Bond has just been promoted to the improbable rank of agent “licensed to kill”, and takes on the dead man’s number.
The Riviera and the casino in Monte Carlo are good Fleming territory, and it will not be long before young Bond finds himself entangled with the glamorous Sixtine, who may or may not be an enemy, but who is to prove as resourceful as she is redoubtable; in good Fleming fashion she is given a romantic backstory which explains how she came be what she is – whatever that may be – friend or enemy? Lover, of course, either way.
The villains are satisfactory: a grotesque Corsican gangster, who is a mogul of the heroin trade and is accompanied everywhere by his translator since he speaks only a Corsican dialect, and an embittered American billionaire industrialist who is, as Bertie Wooster might have put it, loopy to the tonsils.
Fleming would, I guess, have been happy to have come up with either of them.
There is a mysterious, even sinister factory, heavily guarded (partly – I liked this – by poisonous nettles). The action is suitably violent, Bond enduring punishment which would put a champion boxer in hospital and out of action for months, but which he shakes off in an hour or so, to return, battered but undaunted, to the fray.
The denouement on the American’s magnificent new cruise-ship is a very fine piece of action writing, requiring, as Fleming used to, that you suspend your critical faculties to find it credible. But you do so willingly.
There are authentic Fleming touches: a good casino scene and instructions, this time from Sixtine, on how to make the best Dry Martini (I think the formula will be copied by Bond in Casino Royale, even down to that dubious vermouth, Kina Lillet).
In another nice piece of anticipation, it is Sixtine who directs Bond to the tobacconist, Morland’s, who will henceforth make his cigarettes with the three gold brands, a mixture of Turkish and Balkan tobacco.
Previously we find him smoking Du Mauriers, a cigarette for ladies or effeminate men. There are lines of glorious snobbish absurdity. Bond sips a glass of champagne “approvingly, recognising the delicate flavour and quiet effervescence of a 1934 Pol Roger”.
As usual Bond is careless, even credulous, when it comes to security. A man holds him up with a gun and he accepts his word that he is a CIA operative. Tradecraft doesn’t concern Bond. George Smiley would have had no use for him, would surely have regarded him as a liability. But who cares? If Bond wasn’t so confoundedly careless he wouldn’t get himself into the terrible scrapes from which he must rescue himself , and, one hopes, the girl, heroically.
It’s all great fun, and Horowitz has done splendidly; best of all he keeps Bond where he belongs, in the Fifties, when political correctness wasn’t even a tiny cloud in the sky.
Forever and A Day, by Anthony Horowitz, Penguin, 288pp, £18.99