Happy New Year all! I hope everyone has a marvellous and prosperous 2014.
Since his death in 1964, Ian Fleming has not been forgotten. His obvious legacy is the world of James Bond of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the subject of fourteen published books by Fleming. Subsequent to these and the death of their author, there has been a huge amount of ‘continuation novels’ published by a succession of best selling authors. In the last decade, there have been three authors, each responsible for a one-off. Sebastian Faulks celebrated the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth with Devil May Care, a close imitation of Fleming’s style, and set in 1967. In 2011, American detective writer Jeffrey Deaver followed this up with something of a reboot in Carte Blanche – it’s 2011, and James Bond now works for an off-the-books post-9/11 government office tasked with super-secret clandestine operations.
After Deaver’s experiment, Ian Fleming Publications shifted their gaze to British novelist William Boyd, a writer with a passion for historical fiction, and Africa. Boyd was born in Africa, and, like Alexander McCall-Smith of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, fell in love with it. It’s always a delight to read works by writers who are passionate about their subject matter, and this certainly comes through in Solo, William Boyd’s contribution to the post-Fleming canon.
Released in September 2013, Solo is set in 1969 against the backdrop of a civil war in the fictional African nation of Zanzarim, in which a small province is attempting to secede as the Republic of Dahum. James Bond is tasked to enter Dahum and single-handedly end the war. It is a story in which no character is as they seem, and which sees James Bond, for the first time in a novel, out on a self-motivated mission of revenge.
One thing that is clear from the outset is that Boyd’s characters are very human. To varying degrees of success, Boyd attempts to add more depth to James Bond, beyond the expected womanizing and drinking. Bond, now 45, has nightmares about his time with a commando unit during the Second World War. He is also angered by the plight of children in Africa during a famine – the civil war of the novel is analogous to the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War of 1967-70, during which over 1 million people died due to famine and military conflict. Bond becomes motivated towards a personal mission of revenge, an idea only touched upon by Fleming – his Bond despised killing in cold blood – but which he never really followed through until You Only Live Twice.
The supporting characters of the novel fit in what seems to be the standard mould for these continuation novels – one of the villains has an unpleasant deformity, there’s a couple of strong women (one of whom may not be what she seems), a British expatriate slimeball, and CIA agent and friend to Bond Felix Leiter. This could have something to do with parameters set by Ian Fleming Publications; Boyd has mentioned that he had some difficulty with their requirements and working them into the story he wanted to write. Whilst I don’t have an issue with any of these characterisations, in some ways it does rather feel like the more recent continuation novels are quite ‘cookie-cutter’. Having said all of this, Felix Leiter is my favourite character from the novels, so his inclusion is always enjoyable.
The book contains some breathtaking imagery, wherever Boyd sends Bond. It’s this visual language where Boyd proves the strength of his love for Africa. He clearly knows it well, and the book is at its most readable when his lush scenic descriptions aid the formation of the visual in the readers’ imaginations. He’s obviously done his research for other settings too, especially in the second half of the novel where Bond travels to America. No residence is a mere flat; no downtown flophouse a mere cheap hotel.
Questionably, Bond turfs his Bentley Continental in favour of a Jensen Interceptor II (pictured earlier behind William Boyd). Whilst the Jensen is certainly a sexy car, I almost feel like a more appropriate choice would have been the rather similar Aston Martin DBS V8, which, coincidentally, George Lazenby’s Bond was driving in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the year this book is set. To delve deeply in to James Bond esotery, if one considered John Pearson’s biography of James Bond to be legitimate, one could imagine that the James Bond of Solo could go and see himself love and lose on screen in his own time. [Dearest Readers: I realize this is a massively obscure in-joke, but I’m proud of it. So there.]
On the whole, whilst I have so far found Devil May Care to be the best entry of the last three Bond novels, Solo is an enjoyable and gripping read. I would thoroughly recommend it for anyone searching for a novel to read over the Christmas break.