Allan Massie: Will James Bond still be shaken-but-not-stirred after William Boyd's novel take?
'THE scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. This is the opening sentence of Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, published 60 years ago; and the writer’s air of authority is compelling.
John Sutherland, in his 'Lives of the Novelists', says it was regarded by many as “high-class pulp”. Ian Fleming’s wife Annie dismissed it as “pornography” and her smart literary friends sneered, but others were more discerning. Kingsley Amis admired its “power and freshness” and Raymond Chandler wrote a glowing review in The Sunday Times. It was this that alerted me to Bond and for a dozen years the publication of a new Bond novel was a happy event. Then came the movies, and Bond became a global brand.
He has now long outlived his creator, and William Boyd is the latest novelist to have been commissioned to give us a new Bond. Fleming himself wrote 12 novels and a handful of stories. There have subsequently been 34 new Bond books, a figure that includes novelisations of films. Boyd will be the seventh author to have got to work on Bond.
The first of the post-Fleming books, Colonel Sun, was written by Kingsley Amis, using the pseudonym Robert Markham. Amis was still a Leftie then, if only just, and his novel starts with the kidnapping of M, whom he disliked and, in Bolshie manner, disapproved of.
The most prolific of the new Bond writers was John Gardner, who wrote 16 novels between 1979 and 1996, updating the action to the Eighties even though Fleming’s Bond had been old enough to drive a Bentley before the Hitler war.
An American author, Raymond Benson, took over, and wrote 12 Bonds. Some thought his style closer to Fleming’s than Gardner’s had been, but he followed Gardner’s example by giving his novels contemporary settings.
Sebastian Faulks took Bond back to the Sixties, but Jeffrey Deaver assigned him to a post- 9/11 agency. In one way this doesn’t matter. Thanks to the films, Bond long ago escaped Ian Fleming, just as Sherlock Holmes – being updated first to the Thirties in the films where he was played by Basil Rathbone, and more recently to our time in the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch – has escaped Conan Doyle. William Boyd, however, who read Fleming with enthusiasm as a schoolboy in the Sixties, promises a return to “classic Bond”.
This may not be so easy for two reasons. First, Fleming’s early novels are Cold War thrillers. The later ones, when the Cold War had eased, are more extravagant, less convincing. SPECTRE was never a patch on SMERSH. Second, John le Carré and Len Deighton – to some extent Fleming’s successors – transformed and complicated the black-and-white Fleming version of the Cold War; it became different shades of grey and the issues of the spy novel were now morally dubious.
It will be interesting to see how Boyd treats both the subject and indeed Bond himself. A socially conscious, politically middle-of-the-road Bond sounds like a contradiction in terms; it was a bad moment when the film Bond gave up smoking. A health-conscious Bond is ridiculous.
Still, one can be sure that Boyd will not be the last writer in what is now a long line of Bond authors. Bond was always a fantasy figure, Fleming’s wish-projection. He is a collection of attributes and tastes rather than a character. So Fleming’s successors can put him in whatever far-fetched drama they please.
What they can’t do – or at least what none has succeeded in doing – is to recapture the note of authenticity that sounds in Fleming’s novels, or at least the first half of each, before the plot spirals out of control.
None can share Fleming’s assurance as an English gentleman that the US and the CIA need Britain and Bond to ensure that right prevails. So the best they can offer is pastiche.