"It's twenty-first century imperialism. People used to exploit Africa for diamonds and slaves. Now it's exploited for its ability to purge the guilt of wealthy Westerners."
|First published May, 2011.|
In his review of the book for 007 Magazine, Luke Williams writes:
"(Carte Blanche) is a relatively entertaining thriller that blends generic elements of Deaver and Fleming into a readable but resolutely unmemorable 432 pages. As such it’s a typical example of modern 'franchise' fiction."
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, pop critic for Financial Times adds:
"The novel depicts an unconvicing Bond. The problem partly lies in Deaver's writing style, which its bizarrely clunky moments, like the description of a baddie 'who stood still as a Japanese fighting fish.' But (it) also faces two deeper difficulties:
One is the diminished stature of modern-day espionage following MI6 and the CIA's disastrous attempts to convince the world of Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, Carte Blanche avoids mentioning Iraq (Bond's back story has him fighting in Afghanistan instead) and it shifts his spy career from MI6 to a shadowy security service called the Overseas Development Group. Fleming's cold war setting is a distant glamorous memory.
The other problem is finding a way to modernize Bond while staying true to the characteristics that animated him so vividly in Fleming's books. The original Bond has a 'brutal and ironical' face; he is a sensualist through whom Fleming expressed a decadent, even kinky worldview, ripe with sadomasochism and sexualized violence (...) Sanitize this side of 007 and you're left with Deaver's Bond, 'a man of serious face and hunter's demeanor,' a killing machine who talks of 'target vectors' and 'shooting scenarios'."
As Deaver is not "writing as Ian Fleming" (as was the case in Devil May Care and why I objected to that book's un-Fleming-ness) and as this book does not take place in the Fleming-verse, Gardner-verse, Benson-verse, or the Eon-verse, I wasn't bothered by any of that. Does the marked difference between Daniel Craig's Bond - the other hard-reboot of the franchise(s) - and Connery's or Moore's or whomever's Bond make Casino Royale deficient? Sure it's got the Fleming source material, there, so it's not a perfect one-to-one. I think it's wholly worthwhile to determine what is or isn't "Bond" and compare accordingly, but there's enough of the traditional Bond in Carte Blanche, at least in my eyes, to justify itself.
Deaver's Bond is really just a 21st century version of Gardner's Bond, with some tweaks of his own (such as the subplot with Bond's parents, which I quite enjoyed.) There's even improbable (though not Gardner-level improbable) double/triple agents. I have more sympathy for the modern-franchise-fiction criticism, but that to me is more a comment on the publishing industry than the Bond one.
(That "Japanese fighting fish" simile, by the by, really seemed to ruffle feathers - I saw that mentioned in a few different reviews. I don't see the fuss, myself.)
Let's get to the book itself.
The Plot: Bond, a thirtysomething Royal Naval Reserve officer currently employed by the Overseas Development Group (an organization under the control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but with considerable latitude to protect the realm by any means necessary) is tasked to first discover the truth behind "Incident 20," an upcoming terrorist event of some kind, and then stop it. With the help of Q Branch and Ophelia "Philly" Maidenstone, MI6's liaison officer to the ODG, as well as some familiar faces (Felix Leiter) and the South African Police Service (SAPS), he uncovers a link between the planned incident and rag and bone tycoon Severan Hydt and his Northern Irish henchman/master planner Niall Dunne. Following the trail of clues from the Middle East to the Cape of Good Hope, Bond infiltrates Hydt's "Green Way" organization to try and stop the attack before it's too late.
Bond: Okay, so as mentioned above, I have no objection to writing Bond a different way, or depriving him of his more traditional idiosyncrasies, but he is a bit generic here. I saw him referred to as "James Bourne" somewhere, but that doesn't seem right to me either. He didn't remind me of Jason Bourne, or Jack Bauer, or any franchise spy, really - maybe that was the problem. Deaver's Bond is a perfectly reasonable, efficient spy, but I don't know how many books featuring this version of Bond I'd read. I like Deaver's style, which I'll get to in a bit, but not necessarily his Bond.
Although he did make several attempts to characterize him with a little of the ol' Fleming malaise and snobbery:
"Bond wasn't impressed by the Lodge Club. Perhaps back in the day, when it was the enclave of hunters in jodhpurs and jackets embellished with loops to hold ammunition for their big-five game rifles, it had been more posh, but the atmosphere now was that of a suburban banquet hall hosting simultaneous marriage fetes. Bond wasn't even sure if the Cape buffalo head, staring down at him with a studious glare from near the front door, was real or had been manufactured in China."
The Villains: Here I thought Deaver did a good job. Niall is a realistic foil for Bond, even if he's somewhat improbably said to be motivated by unrequited feelings for both Severan and Felicity Willing. (More on her in a moment.) Mainly, it was just nice to see an Ulster man who wasn't saying "Boyo" every other minute, as is all too often the unfortunate case with Yank genre writers.
I quite enjoyed Severan, whose love of decay and rubbish is an extension of his necrophilia. He's a traditional Bond villain - wealthy, sexually unconventional, with a physical deformity (his long, yellow nails) - but not given to cartoony speeches. I like my Bond villain cartoony speeches if they're done right, don't get me wrong, but the way both Dunne and Hydt were written fit the tone of Carte Blanche pretty well. The "Death in the Sand" / Liwa Oasis sequence - and the run-up to it, with the mistaken intel - was great.
Felicity Willing, leader of the International Organization Against Hunger, is the novel's surprise-villain. I appreciate that the villains are heads of famine-relief and recycling organizations. I'm of the opinion that greater evil is accomplished via not-for-profit front organizations than anything else. Which isn't to say all nonprofits are evil, only that people's naivety is (ongoingly) manipulated and exploited by evil people. Not just their naivety: please refer to the quote I started this entry off with.
There's also Mahdi al-Fulan, who designs gadgetry and equipment for Hydt. When Bond sees his factory and showroom in Abu Dhabi, he remarks to himself: "If robots had pleasant dreams, they would be set in this room."
The Ladies and The Allies: Combined since the main love interest (unconsummated, shades of Moonraker) is both. The only Bond hook-up happens with Felicity - nice name, incidentally. There are quite a few here:
- M, obviously. Rather traditional take on M. I liked how he waved off Bond's assurance that he didn't screw up in Serbia (the "pre-credits sequence") despite the Serbians' claims that he did. M waves off the suggestion that any of his agents would be wrong, somewhat irritated.
"Explanation is a sign of weakness, 007."
- Felix Leiter. He shows up in Abu Dhabi (along with Yusuf Nasad, the CIA's man in the sands. Kiss of death, that.) He doesn't really need to be here, but hey, it's Felix. I was amused that Bond (of course) had to save him.
- The SAPS crew. Primarily Bheka Jordan, the beautiful police captain with whom Bond flirts but finds no joy. She's written and characterized pretty well. Actually my favorite character of the whole book. Her underlings (Kwalen Nkosi and Sergeant Mbalula) are effectively sketched but more just scenery, at least until the very end.
- Gregory Lamb (MI6 man in South Africa) and Percy Osborne-Smith (Department 3 aka MI5 man foisted upon Bond, based in London). Both are somewhat stock characters, but they move their parts of the plot along well enough.
|I thought it was Lamb who was wearing the Breitling (image nicked from here) but I was mistaken. This is Bond's watch in Carte Blanche.|
- And Jessica Barnes, a late-innings (but pivotal) ally. Onetime beauty queen, now kept as a prized "decaying object" for Hydt.
Gadgets: Very subdued - Bond accomplishes most of what he needs to do on his mobile, as modified by Q Branch, leading to its nickname as an I(Q)Phone. Har de har har. Q Branch comes off quite well, able to slip Bond things across the globe without setting up an entire shop in the middle of a pyramid or what not. (Not that I ever minded that in the movies - part of the fun.) Here Major Boothroyd is replaced by Sanu Hirani, an energetic and congenial young man with a fondness for cricket.
I forget where, but one of the reviews I looked at mentioned how Bond mentions his Oakley sunglasses "every other page." Undoubtedly just an exaggeration for effect - they're mentioned by name only a couple of times - but I thought his using the Oakleys to capture a bloodied fingerprint was quick thinking. I also enjoyed the nod to how improved surveillance and computer tech has made the analog spycraft of "the cobwebbed past" advantageous. (Shades of the Moore/Eick Battlestar Galactica.)
Locations: Quite enjoyed the Abu Dhabi and South Africa sections.
"The Lincoln eased through the haze and heat, paralleling the massive power lines conducting electricity to the outer regions of the city-state. Nearby was the Persian Gulf, the rich blue muted nearly to beige by the dust in the air and the glare of the low but unrelenting sun."
The Writing: While I found Bond a little bland, I thought this was a page-turner. The plot, action, characterization, dialogue, all of it. Moved at a better clip than Solo, even though I liked Solo more overall.
I thought the 007-Magazine's objections to one aspect of the prose - Deaver's "UK-ifying" his writing - silly:
"Although admirably accurate, they come across as a forced and heavy-handed attempt on the author’s part to prove that an American can master the British context and idiom, rather than acting as a seamless part of the narrative; so it is that we are subjected to a wealth of cricket and rugby references along with name-checks for, among others, Kate Winslet, the Harry Potter novels, Top Gear, Radio 2 and Radio 4, The Two Ronnies, Waitrose, The Times, The Guardian, I Claudius, Guy Ritchie and Boots the chemist!"
Could be just my American upbringing and all, but it didn't seem forced to me. And to refer to the rugby/cricket references as "a wealth" is an overstatement. Most of these things aren't even all that provincial to the UK: likening Mary Goodnight to Kate Winslet, for example - she's known the world over. Ditto for most of these things.
(Maybe not Boots the chemist. But who cares?)
"Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne /
He travels the fastest who travels alone."
The Book Launch: As they did for Devil May Care, IFP went all out with an invitation-only affair with Royal Marine commandos, a tricked-out Bentley, and a stunt rider/ supermodel (Chesca Miles):
Nice to see such things. Must have been a trip for the author.
One last thing: the book's dedication reads "To the man who taught us we could still believe in heroes, Ian Fleming." That struck me as a little odd. Fleming certainly didn't teach me anything about heroes. But when I dug more into Deaver's background, I came across this:
"It was when I started to read the James Bond books that I realized that adventure stories could be brought into the present day and have an immediacy. I grew up in a small town in the mid-west of America, but nonetheless, Bond spoke to me. I found the books to be inspiring. They opened up my world."
A nice sentiment. I suppose I could say something similar about the Bond movies and my own childhood, but sorry, Bond, Marvel Comics got to me first.
All in all, a perfectly readable what-if sideroad of the main Bondverse. I'm not sure what the grand plan is over at IFP - more one-offs? An ongoing series set in a reboot-verse like this one? Something new altogether? Time will tell.
~So ends my sojourn through the Bond books. (At least for now.) What was my favorite? Off the top of my head, probably Trigger Mortis. It's stuck with me, and I even pulled it off the shelf and ended up practically re-reading the whole thing a couple of weekends ago. But the Union Trilogy by Benson is also great stuff, and I loved Solo and Gardner's Nobody Lives Forever - all for different reasons.
An enjoyable project, all around. To those who read along, my sincere thanks. Your comments definitely helped shape my perspective on these things.