Wednesday, May 28, 2008

James Bond Gets a Retro Makeover

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

He is, for many, the archetype of the secret agent: debonair, blithe, sexy, deadly. His Sobranie cigarettes and Walther PPK handgun are iconic.

But even though half the people on the planet are said to have seen a James Bond film, he didn't start off as the fabrication of Hollywood, but as a literary concoction, spawned from the imagination of author Ian Fleming.

Born 100 years ago today, Fleming penned a score of Bond novels, starting with Casino Royale in 1953, and two books of Bond short stories. Since his death in 1964, nearly two dozen additional novels starring 007 have been penned by a trio of authors: John Gardner, Charlie Higson and Midland's Raymond Benson.

Add to this list Sebastian Faulks, whose new Bond novel, Devil May Care, arrives in bookstores today.

Mr. Faulks was a curious choice by the Fleming estate to take up the Bond baton. Unlike his predecessors, he was known as a writer of cerebral literary fiction and nonfiction, rather than thrillers. His best-known work, 1993's Birdsong (3 million copies sold worldwide), examined the horror of World War I; his 2001 novel Green Dolphin Street was set during Kennedy-era Cold War, with a worldly newspaperman as his hero.

It is to the year 1967, the year after Fleming's last book – Octopussy – was published, that Mr. Faulks returns Bond.

Rather than plopping him into a conventional cloak-and-dagger setting, Mr. Faulks sets him amid the nascent hippie scene. On returning to London from a sabbatical that has taken him to Paris and Rome, Moneypenny informs him that M has – Gasp! – taken up yoga. Bond is forced to learn deep-breathing exercises.

Not only has the world changed, so has Bond: When, early on in the book, Bond is invited up to share a nightcap with a seductive woman in her hotel room, he – Gasp! Choke! – turns her down, at least initially. (She is one-half of a set of twins, after all.)

Fortunately, the villains are no different. Bond faces off against Dr. Julius Gorner, a Lithuanian mad scientist with the literal hand of a gorilla, and his sidekick, a Vietnamese assassin memorably named Chagrin (the French word for "pain" or "grief," we are told). Gorner stokes a deep resentment of the "stuck-up" and "xenophobic" English derived from not fitting in while he was at Oxford: "He hated England because he felt it had laughed at him, and he decided to devote his life to destroying it." The trail takes Bond from London to Paris to Tehran and beyond.

Though it takes nearly half of the short novel (just 270 pages) to build to much action, the payoff is eventually worth it as Bond, Gorner and associates leave a trail of mayhem across a small swath of the globe.

While some of this sounds as if it skirts the edge of parody (A man with a gorilla hand! Twins with only a small strawberry birthmark on an upper thigh to distinguish them!), it is dutifully close to echoing Fleming's own plotting and prose. In particular, Mr. Faulks does an excellent job of mimicking Fleming's obsessions, from Bond's bathing habits – scalding hot shower, followed by a blast of cold – to his cataloging of food, clothes and exotic women. Fans will revel at the familiar references to his earlier adventures.

In much the same way Sean Connery is to many people the original and best movie Bond, Fleming too is the best and original. Though Devil May Care is no literary landmark – Mr. Faulks said it took him only six weeks to write – it comes commendably close to the original and, provided you know what to expect, provides some real, retro pleasure.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

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