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An obsession with Bond

Devil May Care; The New James Bond Novel; Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming Doubleday: 304 pp., $24.95 // 14 James Bond books reissued; Including "Casino Royale," "For Your Eyes Only" and "The Spy Who Loved Me"; Ian Fleming; Penguin: $13 each, paper

May 28, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Fleming had flirted with writing and literature while at Eton and, afterward, read widely among leading British and continental literary magazines. It's unsurprising, therefore, that the novel he produced, like its successors, slipped neatly into a serious -- though entertaining -- genre that the British invented early in the 20th century. What we now call espionage or spy fiction begins with three great English novels -- Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" (1901), Erskine Childers' "The Riddle of the Sands" (1903) and Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" (1907). All three authors were from the periphery of the Empire and profoundly concerned with questions of identity -- Kipling the Anglo-Indian, Childers the Anglo-Irishmen, Conrad the immigrant. Their concerns would predominate in a field of literature whose greatest practitioners -- Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Maugham, Len Deighton and others -- all would be British. Their subject would be identity and loyalty in a century in which ideology's demands obscurely challenged, indeed subverted, older, more traditional bonds. Fleming's Bond is untroubled by all that ambiguity, but he confronts profound questions of identity in distinctly midcentury, post-war fashion. He's an unself-conscious patriot but deeply conflicted by the nature of his work, its demands and by the necessity of defining himself though his work. Very much in the mode of his time, he also defines identity as style -- one that quickly made its way into the consumer economy as, for example, a penchant for casual, short-sleeved shirts, dry martinis and Rolex watches.

Coming to Fleming's utterly masterful Bond novels fresh after many years, one is surprised to find just how tough-minded and extraordinarily well written they are. (It's easy to see why John F. Kennedy so admired them, a taste that was instrumental in winning Bond's first American audience.) Fleming was a taut and propulsive stylist with a deep gift for characterization. Perhaps because we now see Bond through the gauzy scrim of affable, slightly preposterous films with inevitable political and sexual happy endings, it's easy to forget that the Bond of Fleming's books was, in many cases, an unlovely character, often described as "cruel," his relations with women often aggressive and forthrightly exploitative.

That brings us to the latest in a long series of Bond novels by Fleming impersonators sanctioned by his estate. (The first, "Colonel Sun," actually was written by Kingsley Amis under the pseudonym Robert Markham.) "Devil May Care" by Sebastian Faulks is the 22nd such book and, though competently enough constructed, belongs more to the cinematic Bond tradition than to the one Fleming tapped out on his Remington. In this case, Bond is summoned back from a sabbatical in Italy to swinging London during the 1960s. The story revolves around an Eastern Bloc plot to flood the West with heroin, and most of the action occurs in France. It's all likely enough in an undemanding sort of way, but it compares with the real thing in about the way a sour apple martini compares with the proper cocktail, shaken not stirred.

Take this opening paragraph of Faulks' book: "It was a wet evening in Paris. On the slate roofs of the big boulevards and on the small mansards of the Latin quarter, the rain kept up a ceaseless patter. Outside the Crillon and the George V, the doormen were whistling taxis out of the darkness, then running with umbrellas to hold over the fur-clad guests as they climbed in. The huge open space of the place de la Concorde was glimmering black and silver in the downpour."

Here's the opening of "Casino Royale": "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling -- a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension -- becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it."

One of those is postcard exposition; the other is an MRI of the spirit.

Here's the last, all-too-familiar line of Faulks' cinematic Bond: " 'Yes,' said Scarlett, smiling as she pulled back the covers to reveal her naked body -- pink from the bath, clean, soft and waiting for him."

And here's the last line of "Casino Royale" in which the distraught Bond informs his London handler that his love interest, the beautiful Vesper, had been a double agent all along: "Yes, dammit, I said 'was.' The bitch is dead now."

Most of all, what one misses in the work of the Fleming impersonators is the unsentimental confidence of a writer willing to describe his one and only protagonist -- and alter ego -- as Fleming does with Bond in this passage: "His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt Police Positive with the sawn barrel. Then he slept, and with the warmth and humor of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold."

I'll take mine shaken not stirred, and hold the fruit liqueurs.


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