Solo by William Boyd

"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. 
- captivating. 
- over-structured. 
- subtle.
- 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. 

Some thoughts:

- 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."


  1. The pace of the novel did seem to be off at times, but overall, I liked this novel a lot. I really loved all the stuff with Bryce Fitzjohn; I thought that was a nice way to do a Bond-girl story that nobody else (Fleming included) had ever done.

    The African setting was a very effective one, I thought. I'd like to read some of Boyd's other books that deal with that continent; seems (for obvious reasons) like something he does well with.

    I'd forgotten Felix Leiter's nephew shows up. That one is a bit of a groaner for me. I mean, does he HAVE to be a Leiter? And for that matter, does Bond's new housekeeper HAVE to be related to May? This is the sort of thing that is bound to happen in a series like this, I guess; it doesn't bother me that much.

    I wish Boyd would write a second Bond novel, personally. In some ways, I think the rotating cast of one-off authors is working out nicely; but it also makes me wish there could be a bit more regularity, resulting in an actual series. But if the results are as good as "Solo" and "Trigger Mortis," I'm okay with it.

    1. I'm of the same opinion with the one-off authors. It's produced some cool books, but I'm curious to see what someone who settles into the role a bit might do.

      I'm also thinking of what Bond stories remain to be told, so to speak. (Obviously there's no limit but I just mean working with the established bio) I'd love to see the pre-TMWTGG / post-YOLT Bond-brainwashing-in-Russia story. (That'd make a hell of a story, actually.) And Bond-as-M, Bond's Final Adventure(s) sort of stories.

      Good point in the somewhat silly everyone-has-to-be-someone's-relation angle. It doesn't bother me too much either, but I know what you mean.

    2. I wonder if there has been any temptation to do a final-Bond-story novel. I bet that never happens (not in my lifetime, at least). If I were going to do such a thing, I'd commission an anthology of final-Bond-story short stories, and hire a bunch of great authors to do a bunch of different takes on the idea.

      That midquel idea of yours is pretty good, although I'd be reluctant to interject into Fleming's stories to that degree. Sort of a Bond-meets-"Prisoner" scenario, maybe, as a direction?

      Or you could do it as a post-"Solo" novel, era-wise, and have the narrative be split between the brainwashing and Bond getting revenge on whoever it was who performed it. I kinda like that idea, actually.

    3. I thought of that, as well - the "Bond goes back to get his brainwasher" story. How about this scenario: after the break-up of the Soviet Union, he accepts the one dude's invite from the end of "Colonel Sun" to go to Moscow and clandestinely accept his Order of Lenin. (M can have some side mission to accomplish, too, and of course there will be Russians who see the opportunity to finally kill him.) BUT - his real mission is to find brainwasher-guy and ice him.

      I like it. Ian Fleming Publications, if you're listening, give me a call.

  2. I didn't mind "Solo", but, much like "Devil May Care", it lacked any memorable set-pieces. Although, the 'Bond-left-for-dead' scenario at the end of part one was nicely done. Again, like Faulks' book, I may have to give Boyd's one another read. I quite liked his earlier book, "Restless", a wartime espionage story.
    Referring to this book as closer to a Graham Greene vibe is pretty accurate, too. I did feel at times that Bond did some 'unlike Bond' things. Sneaking into Bryce's house and leaving a note for her seemed a little creepy, in my view.

    As for one-off authors, I'd be interested to see them contracted to write two or three books, if only to provide a continuity of style, but I would steer clear of writers who are too literary. Some of them don't seem to 'get' Bond.

    1. I liked the creepiness of the note, myself. I don't advocate the approach, naturally, just enjoyed the way the scene played out and its (mild) foreshadowing of his lifting her passport later.

      I wish they'd lock down Horowitz for another one or two, myself. "Trigger Mortis" really worked for me.

    2. It just seemed to me that Bond sneaking into her house had a slight stalkerish element to it.
      And definitely lock down Horowitz for another one or two books. I'd love to see a Bond novel set in the early to mid 1970s. All the Cold Warriors would be pretty jaded by then. However, I wouldn't have Bond in his 50s. I'd take some artistic licence (or alternate universe/ RetCon theory) and keep him in his 40s, like Gardner did. To hell with continuity of age, I say.
      Another option would be something similar to "Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe", published in 1988 to commemorate Chandler's 100th birthday. Basically, it was 20 short stories, written by modern crime writers of the 1980s. Each story was set in a particular year, starting from 1939 and ending with a Chandler story called "The Pencil", which was published in 1959 ( I think). Some of these stories were absolutely wonderful. It would be great if Ian Fleming Publications did something similar, commissioning modern spy authors to write a short story each to form a compendium. It would also serve as an audition of sorts for these authors, with the better ones being offered to write a complete continuation novel.
      Just thinking out loud, folks.
      In the meantime, give Horowitz another go 'round. His book was my favourite of the three continuation books of the last ten years. I'm deliberately excluding "Carte Blanche". Didn't like that book at all.

    3. I like that idea quite a bit!

    4. Happy Australia Day (+1, well +2 perhaps, depending when you read this) by the way. I keep meaning to ask you if you're a St. Kilda fan. Have we talked Aussie Rules yet?

      We can just pretend it's Bond related.

    5. I was never hugely into Aussie Rules football, but I used to be a Collingwood supporter. We're going back a long way here. They got into the Grand Final back in '79, '80 and '81 and lost each time. By the time they won the Grand Final in 1990, I was over them and the game. It used to be the VFL (Victorian Football League), but the game went all corporate during the Nineties in an effort to gain popularity Australia-wide. I was very surprised when the game caught on in other States, since other parts of the country were very heavily into Rugby Union and I thought the Victorian game of football would have an uphill battle trying to win them over. Brother, was I ever wrong. The game is bigger than ever, but, like I say, it's gone corporate and in many ways, it's moved away from it's working-class feel because many of the hardcore fans of the game can't afford ticket prices they way they could back it was the VFL with twelve teams. Now it's known as the Australian Football League nationwide.
      Am I a St Kilda supporter? Well, I tend to go for Essendon these days, only because my cousin used to play for them, but the whole recent supplements scandal has really tainted that team. Though, I tend to lay blame on the coaches and officials rather than the players so much.

    6. That's a shame. About its corporate identity, that is. I know how that goes. For our football over here, my Dad and I would drive down to see the Patriots (our local team, where I'm from originally) practice for free and could get bleacher seats for peanuts. Now it's $50 just to get on the lot, not counting ticket, and my suggested-advertising is filled with expensive kits, none of the local stations can play the games due to huge cable deals, etc. Examples abound, of course, all over the place - don't get me started.

      Years back I worked in international conflicts resolution, and my counterpart in London was from Melbourne. He and his crew came to Chicago the week of the Grand Final in 07. He gave me a crash course in the game - I believe he may have mentioned how much it'd changed as well. Anyway, although St. Kilda wasn't in the 07 Final, he introduced me to the game through his own perspective, I ended up following them, as that was his team. I don't get to follow too closely, but (before the kids came along) I'd meet some guys out to watch a game or two. Fun sport.

    7. There was an ad on TV a few years ago where they showed some footage of an Aussie Rules game to some American NFL players. They were amazed that our players didn't wear any padding or protection. It was a funny advertisement, seeing their reactions to this game of ours.