The American Jeffery Deaver, famous for his Lincoln Rhyme series and the latest to guest-author a James Bond novel, is an exceptionally good thriller writer.
There's probably argument as to whether he's a brilliant writer per se; but there's no doubt his thrillers are exceptionally good.
Deaver's plotting is supernaturally skilled: he weaves fiendishly clever stories that constantly twist and turn, taking the reader down blind alleys, doubling back on themselves, throwing in red herrings that aren't necessarily red herrings, creating a tremendously enjoyable maelstrom of confusion and second-guessing. Most importantly -- and impressively -- the twists never feel gratuitous.
Unusually for a thriller author, he also has a sensitive ear for dialogue and his characters, while not quite Dostoyevskian in depth, are believable and three-dimensional.
The right man, then, to take up the baton of Ian Fleming and continue the Bond books? Not quite, though Carte Blanche isn't without some pleasures. It's pretty entertaining, but it's not a great Bond novel -- nor a great Deaver one.
The author is a life-long fan of Fleming's iconic series; he has the storytelling chops and one of the great pulp creations to work with. He also has the narrative freedom to basically scrap Bond's history and restart the tale in the modern day (we have Jimbo using a mobile phone app for surveillance).
Bond is freshly returned from Afghanistan and seconded into a new agency, so secret it doesn't officially exist. This is a rougher, crueller world, a world of 9-11, al-Qa'ida and extraordinary rendition. We've moved a long way from the gentlemanly, almost quaint spy-games of earlier Bond.
Still, M is there, and Moneypenny; there are clever gadgets and sexual badinage. They haven't totally retooled the man and dumped the entire mythos. He's still suave and elegant and slightly callous; still introduces himself as "Bond . . . James Bond".
On the flipside, this new, less exotic milieu sees Bond drive a Jetta at one stage, which is disappointingly prosaic. Volkswagen make great cars, but it's not quite Aston Martin, is it? (He's also quit smoking, which really is going too far.)
It's hard to synopsise a book like this without giving too much away -- and in espionage fiction, the story is (mostly) all. Safe to say there's an insane scheme to kill thousands, a welter of colourful locations from Serbia to South Africa, a villain with the perfectly Bondian name of Severan Hydt, and a murderous sidekick with the slightly less outlandish name of Niall Dunne. Yes, he's Irish.
Actually, Dunne is one of the stronger elements in Carte Blanche: he's not some fantastical grotesque like Oddjob, but is very menacing and gives the book a nice edge of tension.
It's an entertaining enough read, rattling along at a good clip. There's drama, death, cool technology, narrow escapes and hot babes just waiting for Bond to sweep them into the boudoir.
So what more could you want from a Bond book? Why is Carte Blanche not the spectacular success it might have been?
I think it comes down to this: there's a particular skill set required to write espionage novels, and Deaver is not an espionage writer. Yes, he's in the same literary ballpark; but cop procedurals have different de-mands to spy stories.
Similarly, that fine novelist Sebastian Faulks made a pedestrian fist of the Bond book with 2008's Devil May Care. It's an experiment worth continuing, but Carte Blanche doesn't quite pull it off.