"The coffee was good, but he could never feel enthusiastic about croissants.
At least there was something approaching marmalade."
Devil May Care takes place shortly after the events of The Man with the Golden Gun. It was the first of the Bond Continuation novels after Raymond Benson's run ended and the first to take place in the 1960s since Colonel Sun.
|It was launched in style via a Royal Navy sea boat escorted by two Lynx helicopters and model Tuuli Shipster down the river Thames. (Fleming's nieces seem a little mixed up about plot and character details in this new release.)|
The Plot: M sends Bond to Iran to investigate Julius Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate suspected of being a major heroin trafficker. As a result of insults he received at Eton over his congenital main de singe (monkey's paw), Gorner despises Britain and all she stands for. He plans to flood the UK with heroin to poison her youth and destroy her from within. He is attended by a Viet Minh war criminal sidekick wanted by the French government, Chagrin, who hides his misshapen head with the kepi of the French Foreign Legion.
With the help of old pal Felix Leiter, Head of Tehran Station Darius Alizadeh, and Scarlett Papava, a woman who follows Bond from France to England to Iran and who claims her twin sister is being help captive by Gorner, Bond must disrupt Gorner's operations as well as thwart his back-up plan: provoking a war between the Soviet Union and Great Britain.
I'm not too familiar with Faulks. I saw the film Charlotte Gray (based on his 1998 novel) and enjoyed it, but that's as close as I get to familiarity with the man's work. From what I understand, though, getting him to write a Bond book (under the "writing as Ian Fleming" conceit) was considered a coup by Glidrose/ Ian Fleming Publications.
Many consider Devil May Care the best of the Bond Continuation novels. I don't think it's terrible, but I'm not one of them. The "writing as Ian Fleming" conceit just doesn't hold up for me, because he doesn't capture the voice/ spirit-of-observation to my satisfaction. I chose the quote I did to start things off because it seemed to sum up Bond in this one: a very passive character, fussing about croissants and on the receiving end of lecture after lecture about British imperialism. At one point, he's made to lap water from a bowl on the floor like a dog, which he does, but passively, no mental quips or making a note for later revenge or even "No time for pride, damn it, he needed to hydrate." This seemed very uncharacteristic of 007.
To be sure, fussiness re: food and drink is a big part of Fleming's original characterization of 007, but too much other stuff (notably, tension, pace, and exclamation-point-inner-monologue) is missing. All the odder because Faulks claims to have followed the advice and instructions from an article Ian Fleming wrote entitled "How to Write a Thriller" to the letter. (He tells the full story here.)
Perhaps my problem is less what is missing and more what is there: a succession of swipes from Fleming's books. They're meant to be homages, I guess, but with this "writing as Ian Fleming" business, I couldn't help but wonder how people would have reacted had Fleming put this out after The Man with the Golden Gun. I bet "phoning it in" would have appeared in a few reviews.
Take the main baddies Julius Gorner and Chagrin. It's one thing to honor the formula (the main villain must have some physical deformity, an indestructible sidekick of a different ethnicity, and first compete with Bond in a socially acceptable battle of skills - golf, tennis, baccarat - that mirrors their deadly struggle to come). Is it too much, though, to namecheck Slazengers and to have Chagrin helping Gorner cheat the way Oddjob / Jill Masterson helped Auric Goldfinger cheat? And to more or less say "Spend the money quickly, Mister Bond" after losing, like Hugo Drax? And to simultaneously recall many a Gardner villain, to boot? I'd be shocked if Faulks read the Gardner Bonds, but surely someone at IFP/Glidrose recognized the similarities between Gorner and Brokenclaw and so many others?
I'm not sure where the line is, but it's smudged too much for my personal taste in Devil May Care. What can I say? I much preferred Anthony Horowitz's "unofficial" Fleming impersonation to Faulks's official one.
The novel opens with a murder of an Algerian drug runner in Paris, setting the action squarely around drugs and lingering colonial tensions. René Mathis is rather pointlessly brought into things when the murder interrupts his Friday night date with his mistress. (Why a mistress? No real bearing on the plot except to make him an adulterer, because French/ sophisticated, or something. Does he have a mistress in Casino Royale? I'll have to check.)
After convalescing, first at Barbados (where we see him playing tennis, which comes in handy when he and Gorner have their first meeting) and then at Marseilles (where he first sees Gorner and Chagrin, without identifying them, and meets Scarlett), Bond is recalled to London to accept the assignment from M.
|The drive from his flat to Regent's Park had a bit of a Blow-Up feel to it:|
"Every zebra crossing on the King's Road was packed with long-haired people (...) With the convertible hood down, Bond could smell the bonfire whiff of marijuana he'd previously associated only with souks in the grubbier Moroccan towns. He blipped the throttle and heard the rumble of the twin two-inch exhausts."
Faulks wanted to work a drug theme into Devil May Care because it fit the setting (1967) and because it hadn't been dealt with by Fleming. Not in his novels, no, but it was of course a central feature in "Risico," right down to the "The plan is to destroy England from within" sentiments expressed by Gorner. This Bond-raises-an-eyebrow-at-London-hippies bit, though, was appreciated.
He meets Scarlett again (was the name picked to evoke ScarJo in the reader's mind?) who tells him this business mentioned above about her twin. Something about that didn't ring true with me, and I immediately suspected she had no actual twin. This is perhaps more the result of reading so many Bonds right on top of one another rather than any predictability in how Faulks wrote it, but when the mystery of "who is 004?" was dangled before the reader and then Scarlett shows up in Tehran, well. There was really no mystery there; it had to be her as there was no other character it could be. For this to be the "big reveal" in the last few pages was awfully anti-climactic.
Scarlett's okay but nothing special. We'll look at the ending more in a bit, but while we're here, after teasing it out for the whole book, they finally hook up in the last few pages. You can hear the saxophone from "All Time High" begin to swirl immediately following the book's last lines:
"Some office," he said, returning to the bed.
"Yes," said Scarlett, smiling as he pulled back the covers to reveal her naked body - pink from the bath, clean, soft, and waiting for him. "And some romance."
It's kind of unsexy, though so's the end of Octopussy.
As for Bond's other allies, Felix is his usual self, dropping everything to fly across the world to help his friend out, and Darius Alizadeh, Head of Station Tehran, indulges in the same self-delusion as all Heads of Station asked to assist 007:
"It's a pleasure to meet you. In my darkest hours I feared that destiny would never bring James Bond to my home town. I am aware of the danger you have placed yourself in, but I rejoice in my good fortune. Come inside."
Oh you poor, stupid man. Is there is a MI6 position that seals more death warrants than Head of Station? If so, we've yet to see it. Before he meets his inevitable doom, he shows Bond around Tehran, taking him to the Paradise Club where the elites smoke opium and splash about in a pool with beautiful virgins. No sex, just a glimpse of the rewards of Paradise, as Darius explains. A page out of Hassan i Sabbah's book for the UK's premier assassin.
The CIA contact in Tehran is Carmen Silver, so named, Felix explains, because on a previous assignment, he banged a remarkable number of car salesmen. "Car men." Turns out he is willing to let Gorner's plan succeed, to punish the UK for not supporting the US in Vietnam. Felix and one of Darius's surviving aides take him (and the "Caspian Sea Monster" - recalling Dr. No's dragon - the Ekranoplane) out.
There's another nod to Dr. No when Bond tries to escape via a sewer of some kind called "the Cigar tube," which Gorner is quick to point out was a method of British aggression in Iran and Afghanistan. ("I learned everything from studying the British Empire.") That this is perhaps the only sequence of the book with any real tension or action-sweep - not counting the subsequent scuffle and escape on the airplane, which recalls Goldfinger or the train attack in Russia, which recalls From Russia with Love - is problematic.
Somehow, these (and the novel's many other) allusions to other Fleming sequences failed to register with the reviewer from The Guardian, who wrote that Faulks "resists pastiche." Does pastiche mean something different in the UK? That review is an eyebrow-raiser on many levels, not to mention condescending - to other Bond continuation authors, as well as all Bond readers - though I agree on one score: to write an effective thriller, one must love thrillers. I'm not sure Faulks does.
The biggest hurdle for me was Gorner. The deluge of Marxist talking points is in keeping with the character, but it sure got repetitive to read. Given this angle of the character, what are we to make of the end, when he is churned to death by the paddles of a tourist steamer in the Seine, the (ahem) Huckleberry Finn? Too cheeky by half? Just right? I suspect this plays differently with a British audience, but I can't tell for certain.
I did enjoy one of Gorner's remarks re: Chagrin, whose misshapen head is the result of poor Russian surgery after he was extracted from Vietnam. When Bond asks why of all the ways he could hide it he chooses to wear the hat of his hated French, Gorner shrugs: "I think the Russian neurosurgeons removed his sense of irony." Good Bond villain line, that. Besides that, he reminded me too much of Brokenclaw, or, worse, Chang from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with his constant quoting of British history and even 'In Flanders Field.'
The most immediate problem, plot-and-logic-wise, and even with the considerable leeway of Bond villain scheming, is Gorner's back-up plan, which is the all-out two-pronged (!) nuclear attack on the Soviet Union he intends to blame on the British. Why is the back-up plan so much more involved, dangerous, and costly than the main plan? Technically, I suppose it's not the back-up plan but a new front in his personal war with Britain. Gorner attempts to address this at one point ("I had hoped to bring Britain down to its proper level by the use of narcotics alone. And I have high hopes of success in the long run. I think I can change most of your cities into drug slums by the end of the century. But I am an impatient man. I crave success. I need action. I need to see results now!") but it was a bad structural choice for me. The plan materializes and is unraveled in far fewer pages than everything else in the book: an odd choice for something meant to be the climax of the action. It - and Bond's and Scarlett's train trek across the Soviet Union - could have been novels in and of themselves.
Devil May Care sold quite well, but for all these reason I was underwhelmed.