"It was like that old Chinese curse - 'May you live in interesting times' - reconfigured
as 'May vast reserves of oil be discovered in your country.'"
|First published September, 2013.|
At various times while reading Solo, I felt it was:
- the best John Gardner Bond ever.
- the most mature Ian Fleming ever.
- neither of those.
- a Fleming with all the pulp sucked out of it.
- a great book for someone not named James Bond.
- maybe a great Bond book?
- lacking tension.
- too subtle.
- maybe just subtle enough?
- too perfect.
- not perfect enough.
- maybe perfect for a different character but not for Bond.
- maybe a different kind of perfect for Bond?
That's not a chronological account, mind you, i.e. I didn't start on Gardner and end on perfect. I haven't been pulled in so many different directions by a book in awhile. I'm still conflicted, actually. I apologize if this post is a bit all over the place as a result. To try and organize my impressions, I'll stick with the traditional Bond organizers this time around.
The Plot: After celebrating his 45th birthday alone at The Dorchester, Bond is sent to Zanzarim, a (fictional) African country besieged by civil war. The oil-rich south of the country has declared itself the Republic of Dahun, and its charismatic leader, Solomon Adeka, vows to hold out against the aggression of the north. Bond visits Adeka's estranged brother Gabriel, who runs a London-based charity firm, before departing.
In Zanzarim, Bond is escorted into Dahun by Blessing Olgivy-Grant, MI6 Head of Station (uh-oh) in the nascent republic. They are captured by Jakobus Breed and his ragtag band of Rhodesian mercenaries. After an ambush by Zanzarim forces, Bond wanders through the bush, seeing firsthand the starvation and misery of Dahun's civilians. An apologetic Breed, who assumed (correctly of course) that Bond's cover as a visiting French journalist was bogus, rescues Bond and escorts him to Janjaville, the Dahun capitol. There he meets the suspicious financier of Dahun's bid for independence, Hulbert Linck. He helps repel an enemy attack at the Battle of the Kololo Causeway and subsequently learns Adeka is dying from cancer. When Adeka succumbs to the disease, Bond considers his mission finished and (after kidnapping Tony Msour, the rebels' "juju man" aka witch doctor) attempts to escape the country. At the last moment, Breed and an apparently-alive/working-with-Breed Blessing waylay him and leave him for dead.
After convalescing, Bond wastes little time in "going solo," i.e. following Adeka's charity firm to its new base in the United States. In short order, he learns both Blessing and Breed work for the firm. Before he can follow through on his vengeance, he is visited by Brig Leiter - nephew of old pal Felix - and another CIA man Luke Massinette, of whom Bond is instantly suspicious. Turns out Blessing (real name Aleesha Belem) is working for Uncle Sam. Bond pretends to go home but launches a solo raid on the charity, brutally murdering Breed and uncovering a) a drug smuggling operation, and b) Solomon Adeka, alive but hooked on heroin, and Hulbert Linck. Linck kills Adeka, and when Brig and Luke arrive, Luke kills Linck.
Later, Bond and Felix have a few drinks in Janjaville and reflect cynically on both the number of oil companies in the country and the ethical rigors of their trade.
- It's always nice to see Bond going "off-grid" on a mission of vengeance, but this is quite removed in spirit and pace from other Avenger Bond stories (License to Kill, etc.)
- Some nice structure in this one. At the beginning, Bond is beset by a dream of his WW2 service and how he was almost killed when his Sten gun jammed. He was saved by Tozer, the man who trained him in the doctrine of Disproportionate Response (i.e. the sort of speech Sean Connery gives Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. "He puts one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue.") These dreams disappear after the first part of the book, but moments after he kills Breed, Tozer is brought up again. Nice touch.
- Similarly, Bond's biggest problem at the beginning is whether or not to buy a Jensen Interceptor. His wavering on the subject (and his alcoholism) are by-products of the growing distance he feels towards his work. At the end, confronted with his part in being wielded as a blunt object by his government as a favor/ deal with the oil companies, his distance has hardened somewhat, but oddly enough, he's more at peace with himself. At least on the surface. Says BookBond (in a very thoughtful review):
"Solo is also a hugely moody and internal book; a book that brings us back inside James Bond. Turns out that's a pretty dark place. Because the James Bond of Solo is an extremely Dark character. But not in the obvious commercialized "darkness" of a Batman (or even Skyfall). Bond is simply a man who is resigned to living a solitary, voyeuristic, and dangerous existence which, like a cancer, is eating away at his soul and will kill him one sunny day."
Locations: London, Zanzarim, Washington DC. DC and London are effective enough and logical for the plot and all, but as mentioned here, DC is "effectively a political capital with a dirty 1960s’ underbelly (...) rather dull for the Bondiverse. At times we get glimpses of the more exotic aspects of late ’60s Americana (assertive black women in afros and flares and red Mustang sportscars), but these are fleeting."
|Chelsea, London in the late 60s.|
I particularly liked the evocation of immediately post-colonial Africa. Probably because of:
The Author: I've not read any other William Boyd, though I've heard good things about A Good Man in Africa and The Ice Cream War. He grew up in Nigeria and witnessed firsthand the Nigerian Civil War, which is the obvious real world basis for the Zanzarim/Dahun fictional conflict. Speaking at the London Book Fair, Boyd said "(Bond) goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he's in is absolutely 1969. (...) there is a very precise reason why I chose that year." While Biafra's capitulation was in 1970 and not 1969, I suspect (though he does not explicitly confirm this) that's the reason to which he alludes. Maybe that's the year he saw something similar to what Bond sees on his tortured journey to Janjaville.
Should Boyd have simply placed Bond in Nigeria/ Biafra itself? I can see that being problematic. Maybe we should keep Bond out of real-world conflagrations. (Gardner placed him after-the-fact in the Falkland Islands affair. I actually wouldn't mind seeing a Bond-in-the-Falklands novel. But, probably an even more problematic idea than putting him in the Biafra War.)
All in all, I thought this was a superbly written book. But perhaps there is a lack of a certain Bond-something, as Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review of the book for the New York Times:
"Fans of James Bond movies aren’t likely to recognize the hero of this new James Bond novel. (It does not) feature a hero, who — aside from some pretty generic traits like an eye for the ladies, an ability to kill and an appreciation for expensive cars and a good meal — really feels like the Bond we have come to know over the last five decades. (...) He also seems oddly deficient in irony, style and dangerous competence — those essential Bond traits. Often, he comes across as more of a weary civil servant than one of Her Majesty’s licensed-to-kill agents.
"There is little of the original novels’ pulpy energy or the movies’ inventive fantasies here — not to mention less humor, and no glamour whatsoever."
I think these are fair charges - someone (I apologize for neglecting to grab the link) - refers to Boyd's Bond as more of a Graham Greene protagonist, and that seems about right. This might be what alternately kept me at a distance and pulled me in as I was reading, that sense that while a great book, Solo might be an odd-man-out of the other Bond books.
Is this a bad thing? YMMV. I think, like Colonel Sun or the first few of Gardner's Bonds, it's an intelligent take on where Fleming's Bond might have been, mentally and emotionally, in the time period assigned.
"As for his clothing, Bond had bought a black leather blouson jacket with big patch pockets, a black polo-neck jersey, a black knitted three-hold balaclava and a length of nylon rope. He was going to wear his dark charcoal trousers from his suit tucked into his socks with a pair of black sneakers with thick rubber soles.
He smiled grimly to himself."
The Villains: I read more than a few reviews that knocked the book for its lack of proper Bond villains. I understand this reaction - Breed is an effective enough villain, with his ruthless stringing up of dead soldiers by hooks ("used to string up ZIPRA terrs at Matabeleland in '66, scares them senseless") and his face wound leaving a perpetual tear running down his face, and Linck is appropriately mastermindish (and wealthy) - but the real supervillains of the book are the captains of state and the oil companies with whom they're in bed. Is there any other Bond book that (subtly) likens such luminaries to Blofeld and SPECTRE? I like that.
The Ladies: I didn't know what purpose Bryce Fitzjohn - a B-film actress (Vampira, Queen of Darkness) that Bond meets in the first chapter - served until Bond meets her after he gets back from Janjaville and (after seducing her) steals her passport to use on his solo mission. I thought okay, that was an interesting way to set that up, but I hope he circles back to this. And he does, with Bond, after another night of romance, realizing it'll never work between them because he can't see her killed. He steals away in the night with the classic "It's not you it's me" note. (This is a neat bit of mirroring to an earlier scene.)
|I imagined Ingrid Pitt playing her. Appropos for the time period, I think.|
The other female protagonist is Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant aka Aleesha Belem. Turns out, she's not Head of Station in Zanzarim. But if you're thinking, oh good, she must survive then, so much death in the world... well. Not quite. Poor Blessing. (I open the floor to casting suggestions, but nobody who wouldn't have been the right age in 1969 please.)
The Allies: Felix is handled well, as are Brig and even Luke, who gets the thankless CIA-assassin part. (A version of this story from his POV would be quite interesting.) Bond's housekeeper May is retired and replaced by her niece, Donalda, who gets a crack on the skull from unseen assailants for her troubles. And I liked his press buddy, Digby Breadalbane, perpetually low on funds.
James Bond's Salad Dressing: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that we get a glimpse of Bond's personal mixture of salad dressing. Because who would leave themselves at the mercy of some hotel chef somewhere? Not only does Boyd show us his making it and all the ingredients in the right order, with Bond's commentary, there's a footnote (a la "007 in New York") with the recipe spelled out in traditional form.
Quite a good novel. I can understand where those who felt it lacked tension or wasn't a proper Bond novel are coming from, but I admire its structure and enjoyed a glimpse of Bond in Greene (as in Graham) pastures.
"Dirty tricks were as old as history."