10.13.2015

Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

"Yes, I suppose knifing people one after the other can become a strain, 
even for someone like you." 


Let's have a look at the first post-Fleming Bond novel:


"Robert Markham" was meant to be an umbrella pseudonym under which various authors would write the books to give the illusion of authorial continuity. Glidrose Publication Ltd. approached Kingsley Amis for many reasons but primarily because he'd written the literary critique The James Bond Dossier and the tongue-in-cheek The Book Of Bond (Or Every Man His Own 007), a how-to manual credited to M's Chief of Staff, Bill Tanner.

Ian Fleming's widow Anne was unhappy with the decision. She thought Amis was too sympathetic with communism and warned he would turn James Bond into a petite-bourgeois red-brick "Philby Bond," a reference to Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent. 

I doubt Amis had such an aim in mind, but who knows? Nothing of the sort happens in Colonel Sun, though, which as it turned out, was the only Bond adventure Amis ever wrote, despite its selling very well. 


The Plot: From the flap copy: 

"Lunch at Scott’s, a quiet game of golf, a routine social call on his chief M, convalescing in his Regency house in Berkshire – the life of secret agent James Bond has begun to fall into a pattern that threatens complacency … until the sunny afternoon when M is kidnapped and his house staff savagely murdered." 

A conspicuous clue at the crime scene leads Bond to Greece, where he hooks up with a native gorgeous communist with ties to the KGB, Ariadne Alexandrou, and Nico Listas, a former WW2 resistance fighter and the kind of earthy rugged individualist with whom Bond often forges an instant and solid friendship. They sequester themselves on Nico's boat, the Altair, and look for M.

M has been kidnapped by Colonel Sun of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, primarily as bait for Bond. Sun's plan is to sabotage the Middle East d├ętente conference that the Soviets are hosting on a remote Aegean island. Sun's plan is to fire trench mortars at the Soviets, then blame it all on M and Bond. He's recruited Von Richter, an ex-Nazi "atrocities expert," to help him carry it out. 

Serialized in The Daily Express, March 1968.

The "soft life" at the beginning of Colonel Sun is not the same prison for Amis' Bond as it was for Fleming's; as a result of the traumatic events of the last 3 Fleming levels, perhaps, the accidie has been burned out of him, or reduced to a manageable level, not requiring the "rounds of gin and tranquilizers" he previously needed. 

Critics seem to have been divided on this score. The Chicago Tribune's SK Oberbeck wrote that Bond "has become a sensitive man-of-ethics who suffers pangs of doubt and remorse over the 'senseless' violence of his profession. (...) The greatest flaw in Amis' conception of Bond is that he has attempted to transform the consummate spy-hero into something he was never meant to have been: a man with a job." 

I'm sympathetic with such a view to a point, but a) Fleming definitely gave Bond many a pang of doubt and remorse over the senseless violence of his profession, and b) at the end of the day, Bond is a man with a job, just one way better than yours or mine. (Definitely mine.) But here, too, Fleming had Bond filing reports and doing office work for months on end - hating it, naturally, but the point being: he was always a guy with a job. Not every day is a zigzag escape down the Black Run on Piz Gloria.

All in all, I had no trouble believing this was the same Bond of either the books before it or even of the ones still to come. Amis captures Bond in perfect transition between the two eras, actually, which makes me wonder what Gardner thought of Colonel Sun. I'll find out when I get there.

There are some nice callbacks at novel's end. As mentioned above, things get started with the brutal murder of M's house staff, the Hammonds. M doesn't know they are dead, though, until Bond confirms it for him. I was touched by M's remote anguish, as well as the note of vengeance he later strikes in their name. Also, a seemingly out-of-place chapter involving the last captain of the Altair (a man named Iodides) is tied up with a single sentence in some of Nico's last remarks.  


The Villains: This review from The Quietus nails it pretty well: 

"Amis ties the new threat of Red China to an older one with the character of ex-Nazi officer Von Richter. Like Hugo Drax who had 'half his face blown away' and Blofeld’s changing guises, this 'Butcher of Kapoudzona', with the left side of his head burned and his disfigured ear, keeps to the trend of Bond villains having distinguishing physical characteristics. The combination of Sun and Von Richter is one of Amis’ many subtle callbacks to the Fleming books: Dr. No, his own 'Dali-esque' features causing him to resemble 'a giant venomous worm', was also half-Chinese, half-German." 

Speaking of Dali-esque, here is the 1st ed. UK hardcover.

Colonel Sun and Von Richter are perfectly fine, as are their various underlings, but they replicate the status quo rather than reify it. Von Richter is not substantially different from any ex-Nazi officer you've seen or read anywhere else. And outside of bringing Red China into things, Colonel Sun could be swapped out for just about any other Bond villain, from Mr. Big through Blofeld. These aren't really failures, just missed opportunities.

I did like that the novel reflects the geopolitics of when it was published rather than carrying on as if it's still the 50s. In the late 60s, and due in no small part to the Sino-Soviet schism, the USSR and the West eased tensions considerably. We do have Soviets in the novel, of course, most notably General Arenski, the pederast in charge of security for the conference. At one point he delivers this summary of James Bond to Ariadne:

"He has conducted terrorist activities in Turkey, France, and the Caribbean. Quite recently, he committed two assassinations in Japan for motives of pure personal revenge. He has cleverly involved you in his schemes with tales of kidnapping and wicked Chinamen - he is a dangerous international criminal."

All true! And yet, not. Very interesting. 

After all is said and done, Bond gets a personal thank you from a Soviet foreign minister, Yermolov, who wants to give him a medal for his services. Bond declines the medal, and the two part on friendly and cautiously-optimistic terms. Yermolov even offers to host Bond as his guest in some after-the-fighting-stops Russian holiday of the future. I liked this moment. It'd have been a natural moment to follow up on post-Cold-War. A story where Bond visits Yermolov in modern-day Russia has a lot of potential. I could even see it going something like The Sopranos episode "College." (Allowing for some adaptation. And how cool would that be?)


The Allies: Ariadne is decent. It's difficult to tell what Amis was going for. She works as an extension of the thawing-Cold-War theme of the book. (And with regard to Anne Fleming's fears, it doesn't seem like Bond is any danger of selling England out as a result of his hooking up with her.) But she didn't jump off the page at me.

Nico Listas is a familiar Bond ally. I loved that he is only swayed to the cause when Bond gives him his "word as an Englishman." Wow! I'm not saying it's undeserved, it's just something no one would buy today. 

Later, when Bond reflects on the frame job Sun is planning, he remarks "No one who understands the British would be taken in." Hard to get a handle on his politics - Bond's just as apt to write off both parties and all politicians as he is to defend them - but underneath it all is a stubborn belief in the rationality of the English way of life. 

What Ariadne Alexandrou had said about the decreasing Greekness of Greece came to Bond's mind. In thirty years, he reflected, perhaps sooner, there would be one vast undifferentiated culture, one complex of super-highways, hot-dog stands and neon, interrupted only by the Atlantic, stretching from Los Angeles to Jerusalem; possibly, by then, as far as Calcutta, three-quarters of the way round the world. Where there had been American and British and French and Italians and Greeks and the rest, there would only be citizens of the West, uniformly affluent, uniformly ridden by guilt and neurosis, uniformly alcoholic and suicidal, uniformly everything. 

But was that prospect so hopelessly bad? Bond asked himself. Even at the worst, not as bad as all that was offered by the East, where conformity did not simply arise as if by accident, but was consciously imposed to the hilt by the unopposed power of the State. There were still two sides: a doubtfully, conditionally right and an unconditionally, unchangeably wrong.

He admires this about both Nico and Ariadne, who are endowed with "the undying nationalism that sits in the heart of every Greek, even the most sophisticated."  


As for Bond's mental meanderings - such an enjoyable part of Fleming's Bond - Amis is sparing but precise. At one point, he says with absolute conviction that "hatred of tobacco was a common psychopathic symptom, from which Hitler among others had been a notable sufferer." Bond was Godwin-ing before his time.

My favorite of these was in conversation with Ariadne, when he bluntly offers his opinion on Lord Byron: "As a poet, he was affected and pretentious, he ran to fat early and had to go on the most savage diets, his taste in women was appalling, and as a fighter for liberty he never got started."

Ariadne, of course, disagrees, considering his exile from England "a victory for bourgeois morality." Ah, the Cold War. 


Colonel Sun is sampled at least twice in the Bond movies, albeit in a non-royalty-generating way. M's kidnapping is a plot device for The World Is Not Enough, and the villain in Die Another Day is named Colonel Tan-Sun Moon. And as mentioned here:

"Although Kingsley found the films'‘denatured' and 'an almost separate being', he still held out hope for a cinematic release of Colonel Sun. Rumor has it that despite owning the rights, (Cubby Broccoli) was put off making a film version of Sun by Kingsley’s public dislike of the Roger Moore movies. Earlier, when Harry Saltzman was still involved with EON Productions, he had blackballed the notion of a Colonel Sun film in response to Glidrose rejecting Per Fine Ounce, a project with which he was involved." 

Per Fine Ounce (two pages of which of the believed lost manuscript can be read at the Quietus link) was a Bond novel by Fleming's friend Peter Jenkins that was commissioned by Glidrose but rejected.

4 comments:

  1. There were some really good covers for this one! I've got a copy of the Dali, but I think my favorite is the Companion Book Club edition, which I've never seen before and will likely now be compelled to try to purchase.

    I did not know that "Robert Markham" was intended as a revolving-author pseudonym. That's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure I see the advantage in it. I'd understand it if the estate was foolishly trying to use the name "Ian Fleming" in such a capacity after his passing. But what good would it be to try and convince the world that one solitary fellow had taken up the Fleming burden?

    I like the novel fairly well; I'd say it's slightly above-average for the continuation books. I think I probably like Ariadne and Colonel Sun both a bit more than you do, but in both cases, they end up being sort of unmemorable. Knowing myself as I do, I'd speculate that the only real reason I like Araidane is that I love the name "Ariadne." I'm an easy mark.

    You could make the argument that the movie version of "For Your Eyes Only" might have been very slightly influenced by this novel, too, what with the stopover in Greece and the shaky-truce scene with the Russians at the end.

    It doesn't surprise me much to learn that Amis disliked the Roger Moore era. I suspect Fleming would have been somewhat appalled by it, as well. But the books and the movies are very different beasts, and that's fine by me.

    I would like to see some of these continuation novels receive proper adaptations someday, though. I suspect I'm doomed to disappointment on that score.

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    1. Yeah, probably not for the continuation novels. It's too bad, I agree.

      Good point re: FYEE. I'd meant to mention that actually - where did my brain go...

      I know a few series (like the Three Investigators books, and the Richard Blade series) had umbrella-pseuodyns. I guess that was a concern for those series - "the kids need to think this is all the work of one person!" I can't think of any contemporary series that does this, can you? Maybe it's simply a relic of a different age. I'm glad Glidrose/IFP gave it up.

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    2. I guess there's the "Tom Clancy" books of today, which -- if I am not mistaken -- are almost entirely ghostwritten by other people. I'd almost be willing to bet there is some romance author's name being used in that capacity, too, but I've got no data to back that up.

      I forgot to mention that I especially like Bond's assertions regarding Hitler and Byron. I'd forgotten about them, but they both seem entirely Fleming-appropriate to me.

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    3. Oh yeah - Clancy, and James Patterson as well. Sounds like a sweet gig - sign me up.

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