I haven’t read anything by William Boyd before, but have (potentially shamefully) read every single James Bond book written by Ian Fleming. God. I don’t think I should admit to that. There are FOURTEEN.
My favourite elements of Ian Fleming’s books are his absurd spurious facts*, the occasional recipes he has Bond offer the reader and, sadistically, the brutal physicality of the injuries Bond always sustains. And, yes, the glamour of the drinking and the smoking and the travel. (Note that I’m not including sex in this list – though James Bond does make a lot of love, Fleming does not recount these encounters with any erotic charge at all.)
William Boyd, in his “official” Bond novel, does manage to get most of these in. The reader is informed, close to the start, that “The Dorchester has the most powerful showers in London”, we are given the recipes for a couple of cocktails and even a salad dressing, and Bond sustains a shitload of physical damage. And, of course, the action happens in multiple locations – London, a fictional West African country in the midst of a civil war, and Washington DC and the countryside around it.
What the book lacks, though, really, is something quite important, but I couldn’t quite work out what it was.
Sebastian Faulks also wrote a Bond novel a few years ago, but his was styled as “Faulks writing as Fleming”, meaning that though it veered towards parody in places, the tone very much felt like the “original”. Boyd has, with Solo, seemed to try to emulate Fleming, but has stopped short of copying his style. Which is almost frustrating, as it feels like the book is almost trying to be something it isn’t really trying properly to be. Does that make sense?
The villain has a physical deformity, Bond fucks multiple women, Felix Leiter turns up as a “consultant” to the CIA who seems to be senior to everyone actually employed by it. There is a bit of laziness to Solo, a bit of going through the motions, and I think that is what is disappointing.
I’d like for Boyd to have subverted classic Bond ideas in the ways that he teases he might do throughout. There is, for example, a strong, well-educated young black women, but she ends up both dead and shagged by Bond. Bond’s other lover is age appropriate, has a career and he gets on with her (!) but, surprise surprise, it doesn’t work out in the end.
The plot, I suppose, is quite exciting. There are twists and turns that I didn’t expect, but the whole thing felt rushed and just nothing, not a patch, on books like Goldfinger, From Russia With Love and Dr No, all three of which are entertaining and brilliantly fun thrillers.
What it boils down to, I suppose, is that James Bond is a fantasy figure from the Cold War, and that although he can work as a period piece describing minds and ideas that are gone, the stories about him are not really the kind of thing there needs to be more of in the world.
Ultimately, even though there were bits of this I enjoyed, I couldn’t help but feel that Solo is a complete waste of time. How disappointing.
* Most famously, the one about homosexuals being unable to whistle.
Scott – I think what is lacking is the way Fleming was unsentimental, modern and prescient about the future and that gives them an interesting vitality, while the Bond retreads are inevitably exercises in nostalgia.
Fleming anticipated consumer fetishism with his cleverly chosen product placements, sent Bond buzzing all over the world like a tourist with a credit card before that whole idea had really been taken by the middle classes, in Felix Leiter showed that from WW2 onwards, Britain’s only really important geopolitical relationship would be with the USA (not the empire and certainement pas L’Europe), and popularised sex without a hint of chivalry or romance – long before free love or even Loaded. We could add factoids which have gradually seeped from thriller world (where they have long been a mainstay) into the mainstream of culture. Of course he reads like an exercise in nostalgia now but in fact he saw the modern world very clearly and rejected fusty old Edwardian values so completely that the more or less vaporised them.
I am slightly embarrassed at having thought so much about Ian Fleming. But only slightly.