Writing Portfolio

2.10.15

The literary James Bond: Solo and Moonraker

Much though I like James Bond – the books as well as the films – I don’t tend to go for the ‘continuation’ novels much. These are the ones that have been written by authors who aren’t Ian Fleming and there have been a lot of them; a parade of thrillers of varying quality where the hero happens to be a British secret agent by the name of James Bond, agent 007, licenced to kill, etc. Some, like the films, are set in the present day (present day when the book in question was written, at any rate) while others are set within the character timeline as laid out by Fleming (1950s-60s); the latter are usually better. The people who make the Bond films have never gone for adapting one of the continuation novels for the big screen.

That said, my ears pricked up recently when I heard that Anthony Horowitz had written a Bond novel; I rather liked what he did with Sherlock Holmes so I will get round to reading Trigger Mortis at some point. This was at the back of my mind when I came across a copy of Solo by William Boyd in the library and so I thought I’d give that a go. I’ve had Boyd recommended to me several times and while I doubt the recommenders had his Bond novel in mind, that’s what I went for.

(By the way, this contains spoilers – regarding Moonraker (the novel) as well as Solo. You have been warned.)

Boyd kicks off with a foreword that states that he’s sticking with the chronology of Bond’s ‘life’ as laid out in You Only Live Twice, the last novel to be published when Fleming was still alive and the one which included an obituary of Bond (missing presumed dead following a mission to Japan). This dates Bond to having been born in 1924 (although there is apparently some debate among ‘Bondologists’ regarding the literary character’s precise age as Fleming did change the timelines a bit over the course of his twelve novels and two collections of short stories), and it’s with this in mind that Solo kicks off with some rare war reminiscences on the part of 007 before introducing Bond in 1969 on his 45th birthday.

After an evening of dining, drinking and mild flirtation, Bond test-drives a new car (a Jensen FF; nice) and is given a new mission – there’s a civil war going on in the West African state of Zanzarim (a thinly-disguised version of the Biafran War in Nigeria; Boyd himself grew up in West Africa which must have helped with the setting). Quite simply, M wants Bond to go there posing as a journalist and take out the main rebel leader. It doesn’t entirely go according to plan (although the rebels are nonetheless defeated) and Bond is shot and left for dead by his supposed MI6 contact in the country (she’s also one of the two love interests here) and a sinister Rhodesian mercenary. After a brief convalescence, he decides to ‘go solo’ in order to get revenge.

Travelling to the United States on a false passport, he manages to track down the people he’s after with surprising ease, although things get complicated when it turns out that the American authorities (among them Felix Leiter’s nephew) are also after the surviving rebel leaders as they’ve set up an aid agency which is actually a front for a massive drug-smuggling operation. As per a lot of Fleming’s villains, the Rhodesian mercenary character is physically disfigured, in this case as a result of his previous fighting experience.

Bond out for revenge: This has been done before in the films – Licence to Kill, Quantum of Solace – but not really in the novels although a running theme, especially in some of the earlier ones, is Bond’s desire to bring down SMERSH after what happened in Casino Royale. Here, the character is older and wiser, but also more impulsive while still being prone to acts of extreme violence when he’s in the mood. He is, after all, a killer.

There are a few aspects of Solo that are rather formulaic of Bond; what he wears, what he eats, what he smokes and what he drinks (I suppose that these details have to be in place so that we can be sure that this is James Bond; authors dealing with Fleming’s creation do have to use some Fleming-esque details). The women with whom he is romantically involved seem to be there for no better reason than because they have to be there in a James Bond adventure (as soon as his contact in Zanzarim is revealed to be a woman, you know it’s only a matter of time before he has sex with her). It gets better outside the Bond comfort zone.

I found the civil war descriptions to be the best part of this novel, while the war reminiscences – Boyd has a young Lieutenant Bond of the RNVR serving in Normandy with 30 Assault Unit, which had been set up by Fleming himself – are a very clever tribute to Bond’s creator. Bond going for a spot of personal vendetta is also a good way of taking the character out of the usual comfort zone (see above). I tend to steer clear of Bond continuation novels for a reason (the formulaic feeling aside, some of them got a bit silly, and I wasn’t much impressed with the Sebastian Faulks one a few years ago) but this was pretty good; I’ll certainly be looking to read more William Boyd novels as a result.

I decided to follow this Bond literary experience up by going back to the original: Ian Fleming. I thought I’d read all of those years ago but it would seem not; while clearing out some old books recently I came across an Ian Fleming omnibus containing three Bond novels. Judging by the position of the bookmark (a card from a scuba-diving club!), it looked as though I hadn’t got as far as the third one, Moonraker. Post-Solo, that is what I read. I remembered that the film was one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious ones (if you haven’t seen it, four words – Roger Moore in space – will tell you all you need to know), but as the novel was first published in 1955 I doubted whether it went that far. I already knew, thanks to reading a book about the afore-mentioned wartime commando unit that Fleming set up, that the villain of the piece is a former Nazi who changed his identity in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The story begins in London where we find out that Bond is 37 years old, as he reflects that he’s eight years away from hitting 45, at which point he will cease to be a Double O agent and get a desk job instead (evidence here of Fleming changing Bond’s chronology over time, as previously mentioned). He’s flirting with the secretaries, although the principal flirtee is not Miss Moneypenny but one Loelia Ponsonby, secretary to the Double O Section (evidently the makers of the films thought that one secretary was sufficient). Anyway, time for a briefing from M: Sir Hugo Drax is a millionaire businessman who is bankrolling a British missile project known as Moonraker, an act for which he’s been knighted. Not much is known about his background but he’s a member of M’s club, Blades, and M thinks he might be a wrong ’un because he cheats at cards. There follows a card-table confrontation, the sort of thing that Fleming did so very well, as Bond – who, in addition to being the Secret Service’s best card player, also happens to know all there is to know about card-sharping – gives Drax a very expensive taste of his own medicine (£15,000 from a single game of bridge, and that’s at 1950s prices). Drax, foreshadowing several other villains who get bested by Bond in a club or casino, advises him to “spend the money quickly”.

Bond then gets assigned to Drax’s Moonraker project HQ down in Kent, where there’s already an undercover agent called Gala Brand, a Special Branch officer who’s posing as Drax’s secretary. So far, names aside, this seemed more like the basic plot to Die Another Day (which was bad without being funny) rather than Moonraker; proof that there’s always something in the films that can be traced back to the original source material. Between them Bond and Brand find out that Drax (who, by the way, has a facial disfigurement) is up to something, almost getting killed by part of a cliff falling on them in the process; they sort-of figure out what Drax is really up to, and there follows a car chase across Kent (Bond’s vehicle here is a pre-war supercharged Bentley; like many of its successors, it gets wrecked) after which Drax reveals his evil plan to the pair of them (the rocket that’s going to be test-fired actually contains a Soviet-supplied atomic warhead that’s going to destroy London) before leaving them to an elaborate death (specifically, they’re imprisoned close enough to the rocket that they’ll be killed when it launches) from which they are able to escape and foil the plans in such a way that this also results in Drax’s own demise.

Already knowing that Drax was an unrepentant Nazi before reading the book probably didn’t help in terms of the suspense but there are many clues that point the reader to this (all of the rocket technicians and henchmen are German, and Drax even drives a Merc). For an audience reading this in the 1950s, the combination of Nazis and nuclear annihilation would have been a potent mix. However, the main reason why I’ve chosen to divulge so much of the plot is to point out the main thing that I learned from reading Moonraker, which is the extent to which the component parts of your average Bond film can be found here: Early encounter with the villain at a card table, bonkers plan, car chase, ruthless henchman, full explanation of said plan for the benefit of 007 and his attractive female companion prior to elaborate but somehow escapable death – they’re all here.

Moonraker, though, also has a few elements that are not typical of a Bond adventure. It is set entirely in England, and we get to see some of the action from the woman’s point of view as well as that of Bond – and she, not Bond, is the one who actually finds out that Drax is going to fire the missile at London. And there’s a twist at the end – she doesn’t end up getting romantically involved with Bond (this may explain why ‘Gala Brand’ has never been a character name in the films). In creating James Bond, Ian Fleming came up with a winning formula but that didn’t mean that his thrillers had to be formulaic.

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