There was much hoopla and brouhaha this week in London. Not because of the visit from Prez Obama - though he went down a storm as he always does in the UK, because we're pathetically, obediently grateful he's urbane, intelligent and articulate and not a knuckle-dragging oaf like Dubya. The other big event was the launch of the new Bond novel, Carte Blanche, at the newly refurbished St Pancras, complete with Bond girls, flash cars and abseiling soldiers. The whole of Hodders' launch budget splurged in one tacky orgy of publicity. It'll be warm white wine and twiglets for everyone else from here on in.
Jeffery Deaver was the chosen author for this gig. I tried to read the first one, written by Sebastian Faulks, I writer I enjoy, but found it an act of literary ventriloquism too far. It didn't work as a Bond book, nor as a Faulks book, and I barely made it halfway through. While I like some of Deaver's work, I thought him an odd choice. But then I find the whole idea of exhuming Bond unappealing and pointless. Though the point is, obviously, to make great stacks of cash, which the Faulks one did, and I'm sure Deaver's will too.
I doubt bad reviews will make a difference. Yet this morning I came across this spectacularly bitchy one by Steven Poole of The Guardian. Poole is a weird choice to review a thriller, being the sort of pseud who likes to extol the virtue of Schopenhauer's Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason rather than meet a thriller on its own terms, but it appears from other reviews as if his opinions will be shared by other, less self-conscious reviewers. Anyway, make your mind up.
The plot sees Bond running around Serbia, London and Cape Town, trying to prevent an explosion going off somewhere and killing people. He investigates a rum villain called Severan Hydt, who has long, "yellowing" fingernails and an obsession with corpses and decay. Hydt runs an international waste-disposal company: in his crazy headquarters complex, he delivers an interminable speech to Bond about, appropriately enough, rubbish. Even the "deafening" noise of his machines doesn't diminish his lust for exposition: "'Recycling's a curious business,' Hydt yelled."This new Bond is "a man of serious face", which probably does not mean that he has a really massive face and needs oversized Oakleys. Bond is in his 30s, a former navy officer who saw frontline action in Afghanistan and was then recruited – not to MI6, but to a black-ops outfit called the "Overseas Development Group". Bond is still run by M and furnished with gadgets by "Q Branch". (Bond's mobile phone, in an excitingly modern way, has lots of espionage "apps".)
Hydt's main enforcer is a taciturn Irishman named Niall Dunne, who at one point "stood still as a Japanese fighting fish". (You know, one of those fish that stand very still, on their little fishy legs?) Other henchmen are made the more threatening by the scary versatility of their eye muscles: "The assailant glanced up and, scowling, stared at the intruder."
Bond is a more sensitive fellow than he used to be, even when he is being pursued by enemies: "Bond saw no reason to kill the young man so he shot him near the elbow." Fleming's hero in Casino Royaleconsiders women fit to be "softly wooed or brutally ravaged", but nu-Bond declines to go to bed with a hot colleague (owner of an "insulated leather jumpsuit"), because she's on the rebound. Understandably, he is less able to resist the cratylically named food-aid entrepreneur Felicity Willing. "Her face was intense, striking. Expertly made up, it exuded a feline quality." She had, I am guessing, drawn cat's whiskers on her cheeks with eyeliner.
Our modern-day Bond is healthier, too: a "former smoker" (no more Balkan Sobranies, alas) who still likes the odd cocktail but also spends "at least an hour a day exercising and running". This helps him in the novel's action scenes – a train derailment, a building being demolished, a gun battle in an exotic garden – where he sprints about a lot and does things, in a fascinatingly inert action-movie shorthand: "Bond ran to the warehouse and used a lock pick to open a side door." In one scene, an ally is tied to a conveyor belt trundling towards the gnashing jaws of a garbage compactor, very much as Adam West's Batman always was. The total lack of suspense is palpable, despite the staccato paragraphing. Still, the last 80 or so pages of Carte Blanche do sputter into a kind of mindlessly diverting life. For example, Bond does something satisfyingly clever with a door.
Fleming's Bond was not much of a comedian, and Deaver's isn't either. The difference is that he tries to be. "Upscale pubs were more 'ghastly' than 'gastro', he'd once quipped." Perhaps it's the nicotine withdrawal. Bond does have a usefully named secretary to whom he can say "Good morning, Goodnight", but the best comic effects derive from the style's fanatical commitment to elegant variation. When Bond thoughtfully studies a bullet, subsequent reference to the bullet cannot call it a bullet again; it must be "the solid piece of ammunition". If Bond "whisks" a woman's dress off, subsequent reference to the dress cannot call it a dress again; it must be "the insubstantial blue cloth". And if Bond scrambles some eggs, subsequent reference to the eggs cannot call them eggs again; they must be "steaming curds". That image is a poetic, almost alchemical transformation, and in a way Deaver has accomplished the same feat with his novel as a whole: taking the nutritious egg of the Bond mythos and turning it into one giant steaming curd.