Friday, 10 June 2011

Book Review: Carte Blanche

I don't read very many new books - classics are easier to find, and more reliable in quality - so don't expect book reviews to become a regular feature on the blog. I am, however, a huge James Bond fan, so the prospect of a new entry into his literary canon - even after Sebastian Faulk's less than distinguished effort, Devil May Care - is irresistible. Since my passion for the character is most likely shared by a fair number of my readers, I thought I'd write up a review for Jeffery Deaver's novel, which is out in the UK now and released in the US/Canada on Tuesday, June 14th.

The novel pulls Bond into the 21st Century, where he is now a veteran of the Gulf war and recruited into a black ops secret service outfit inspired by Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, a clandestine World War II spy organisation - unofficially, but brilliantly, known as the 'Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' - famous for its huge number of foreign moles and amateur agents who performed great deeds in sabotaging Nazi operations. One of its most famous agents was Christine Granville, whom Fleming used as inspiration for his first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. I, for one, can say that using the SOE as inspiration for a post-War spy department is a spectacularly good idea, because my novels do so in almost (almost!) exactly the same way as Deaver's - should I be annoyed, or flattered? Either way, it's a shame he doesn't do anything more with it than give Carte Blanche a bit of historical perspective. Honestly, Jeff, if you're going to nick my ideas...
Moving swiftly on, the novel's chief success comes from having an experienced thriller writer at the helm this time. Deaver's prose is tight and to the point, despite a couple of troublesome and occasionally hilarious metaphors ('steaming curds'), maintaining a steady pace from start to finish and presenting a labyrinthine plot with perfect clarity. Mercifully, Sebastian Faulk's condescending tone is nowhere to be found. Deaver, who has been writing thrillers since the late '80s, knows and respects the inner workings of the genre, which means that for all its faults, Carte Blanche has a credibility to it and avoids veering into pastiche.

It helps that Deaver isn't trying to be someone else - as he has said, this is a Jeffery Deaver novel, only starring James Bond. Whilst his passion for Fleming's original novels is clear, coming through in a number of sly but non-intrusive references for long-time fans (and possibly also one for readers of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels), Deaver tells the story he wants to tell, expanding the scope of Bond's world from straightforward man-on-a-mission thrillers to including a greater number of twists and subplots than Fleming - a more experimental writer than he is often given credit for - ever attempted.

It's exciting to read Bond being placed in the context of a much wider field of espionage than just him, his mission and immediate allies. The subplot involving an old Soviet operation called 'Steel Cartridge', which suggests that one of Bond's parents may have been a double agent, is a welcome and engaging look into the history of a character whose past has previously been little more than a footnote. Deaver's research into the intelligence services is extensive and intricate, painting a picture of a vast network of agencies domestic and foreign, communicating via methods with increasingly ridiculous acronyms, to the extent that Deaver is compelled to include a glossary at the end.

The flipside of the coin is that the wide scope also brings a fair number of problems. Considering its complexity, the plot leads us down an exciting road, only for the destination to prove deeply underwhelming. In many ways, it's a relief that the novel doesn't go the 'take over the world' route, but the 'British interests adversely affected' which Deaver uses as a lure proves to be on a ridiculously small scale. He even throws in a second ending to combat this, but it comes so out of left-field that any impact is nullified.

Characters old and new are given little air to breathe. Felix Leiter and RenĂ© Mathis get cameos which feel more like Deaver taking unnecessary detours to satisfy fans than vital plot developments. Deaver takes greater interest in his own characters, but even the most prominent of these, Percy Osborne-Smith, only really serves as an obstinate foil to Bond's domestic work. The contributions of Bheka Jordaan or Gregory Lamb barely register. Philly Maidenstone is the character who most closely fits the Bond girl role, but even she is out of the picture for most of the plot. Whilst I prefer the novel when Deaver doesn't feel the need to kowtow to Fleming's formula, the absence of a regular female companion makes the adventure feel a little lonely. Even the main villain, Severan Hydt, has little to offer except a meaninglessly unusual name  - Fleming usually tied his villain's exotic names to some aspect of their character - and necrophiliac tendencies. Henchman Niall Dunne is the blandest of heavies. 

Deaver's handling of Bond also feels a little untidy. Attempts to make him a more modern man end up removing much of what was fun about him in the first place. Let's not pretend that Fleming's Bond could have existed in a present setting without coming across as a complete buffoon, but exorcising the caddish streak altogether results in him becoming a rather nondescript lead. This was presumably done to make him more 'likeable' in the modern world, yet the fact that Fleming's protagonist is rather appalling by the standards of any time is what makes him engaging and different. 

Deaver's Bond is a former smoker, decides against sleeping with a recently divorced woman and makes a point of protesting when a South African character refers to mixed-race people as 'coloureds' (there was no reason to include this, other than to prove Bond's modern values)... all in all, a bit of a goody two shoes. I appreciate Deaver's recognition that Bond has to be a hero in the purest sense, regardless of the politically complex situations he navigates, but these novels should be a means of escaping the New Labour mindset, not having it reaffirmed.

The 21st Century setting generally brings problems. The movies have proven that there's no reason Bond can't exist in something approaching modern times, but Deaver seems constantly compelled to remind us of how current his novel is. References to iPhones, apps, Top Gear, the mandatory 9/11 nod (with 7/7 thrown in for good measure) and various other bits and pieces of present day life - movie references are a favourite, although I suppose Fleming did this too - are problematic not because they're modern, but because they feel shoehorned in to prove a point. Thankfully, a pre-release rumour about Twitter's inclusion doesn't come to pass. The recycling aspect of the plot, on the other hand, is a quintessentially modern idea and also a lot of fun: it works because it's part of the plot and therefore a natural fit into the novel's world. Frequent references to the apps on Bond's phone, or enemy henchmen conversing about seeing Bond's Bentley on Top Gear (incidentally, my memory is that Clarkson and co. gave the Continental GT a far more middling review than Deaver suggests), is grating in its pointlessness.

To an extent, I don't want to be overcritical: Carte Blanche is an enjoyable read. Deaver's experience in the genre ensures that much at least. It's a passably solid novel in its own right, just not a particularly good Bond novel. There's clear affection for Fleming's work, but significant difficulties arise in transposing what made those stories special into the time and ethics in which Deaver is comfortable operating. (Some of the 'Englishness' comes across as a bit forced too, but is generally better than I was expecting). It's a big improvement from what Sebastian Faulks had to offer, and Deaver's bravery in doing his own thing with such an established and beloved character is to be commended, but there's still no-one who can do it better than Ian Fleming.


1 comment:

Silent Hunter said...

Thanks for this. I'm planning a review myself, but I've only got up to the South Africa part so far.