From 2002 though a major sea change begins to take place at IFP after years of coasting. Benson departs and there's clearly some real thought being put into making Bond novels an event again rather than quickly knocked out production line fare. The first step in this new direction was the launch of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels in 2005, which despite having a terrible sounding concept (the adventures of James Bond as a teenager studying at Eton in the '30's where he amazingly keeps running into things that foreshadow his future job) quickly gained critical plaudits and fans amongst both the target audience of children and adults.
In 2008, as Young Bond was winding down, the fist adult Bond book to be done as a period piece was published, Devil May Care. Author Sebastian Faulks was arguably the biggest “Name” to work on Bond since Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun back in 1968. However, his byline read “Writing as Ian Fleming” (the book was supposedly to celebrate the 100th birthday of Bond's creator). This basically boiled down to it being an extremely rigid copy of Fleming's style rather than a Faulks book in its own right, which in certain places almost feels like a piss take rather than affectionate homage (such as the Goldfinger style scenes of the villain cheating at tennis with a net that raises up and down). With heavy promotion that basically ignored the preceding two decades worth of books to claim he was the first new Bond author since Amis it quickly became Penguin's fastest ever selling hardback, but the general feeling (myself included this time) is that is was something of a disappointment.
Which brings us to to the subject of today's blog, the brand new Bond novel by Jeffrey Deaver, Carte Blanche. Thirty years since Licence Renewed it's the first time Bond has been rebooted in the novels. Previously he's lived in the same sort of nebulous area as Poirot and Biggles where the same man was supposed to have been fighting evil for over 50 years, with no questions asked as to how (something that had become harder and harder during Benson's time as he kept referencing stuff Bond did in the '50's despite the late '90's setting). No doubt inspired by the successful relaunch of the films with Casino Royale it attempts to bring a young fresh(ish) faced Bond into the 21st century.
Now, I'm not familiar with Deaver's other books so I can't comment on how well this compares, but generally I found it to be very flawed in certain areas but still enjoyable once it kicks into gear. Of all the other authors it actually feels more like John Gardner's work than Ian Fleming's, there's a very carefully thought out attempt to fit Bond into the real British intelligence community (here the 007 section is no longer directly part of MI6 but an aligned top secret plausible deniabilty group which is M's sole responsibility) and an attempt at a big twist ending with a secret villain revealed, something Gardner became especially fond of starting with his third book Icebreaker.
The books big problem comes from how it sets up the new Bond world, most of the first 100 odd pages is entirely given over to set up creating a feeling of a TV pilot rather than a book. In sharp contrast to Fleming, who would generally only use the supporting characters as and when he needed them (M is pretty much the only once to get a decent amount of on page appearances in all the books) Deaver insists on wheeling out just about every single character who ever appeared more than once.
Worse than that, he insists on stopping the action everytime a regular fist shows up in order to give over at least a page to their entire life history and relationship with Bond. We find out more about Miss Monneypenny than we do in all the Fleming books put together, and Mary Goodnight gets more back story than she managed in the novel she was the main Bond girl. Most of which is irrelevant, we don't need to know that Goodnight looks like Kate Winslet and enjoys being sexually harassed in the workplace by Bond when all she proceeds to do for the rest of the book is open the door to Bond's office and let people in.
This reaches its nadir when Bond phones up Rene Mathis to do something that could be achieved equally well by any of the London based characters just so we can have two pages on how they first met. At least when Felix Leiter shows up he contributes more directly to the plot, and there's some fun with cock teasing over whether or not he'll suffer the same grizzly mutilation fate as he did in Live and Let Die.
What's especially annoying about all these info dumps is it limits future writers using this set up (at the time of writing that's the plan even if Deaver doesn't do another one). If any subsequent writer has a great new take on, say, Mathis, they can't use it as they're not constrained by his otherwise pointless showing here.
Thankfully however, once Bond finally leaves the country things pick up immensely. Severan Hydt is a wonderfully vile villain, a recycling tycoon whose obsession with dead things goes up to and includes necrophilia (though the book thankfully draws the line at doing more than heavily suggesting it, descriptions of him getting overly exciting by pictures of mass graves are disturbing enough). Deaver has clearly though through the implications of someone turning something as mundane as being an overly elaborate dustbin man into Evil and comes up with some wonderful ideas, I especially like the paper shredder that scans what it destroys so he can collect incriminating information for blackmail purposes.
Bond is also well defined, he's arguably a little nicer than we're used to (it's hard to imagine any other version taking the time to sort out school bullies) but he's also smart, resourceful, and generally comes up with some good dialogue without descending into endless one liners. A subplot about his parents deaths comes dangerously close to giving him a Batman like backstory, but as long as it's not followed up on it still just about works as some extra character flavour.
The three potential Bond girls (only one of whom he ends up sleeping with) are generally well drawn as well. Bond's work colleague "Philly" Maidenstone is the least memorable being a generic office fantasy, but isn't hugely annoying and innocent campaigner Felicity Willing and by the book South African policewoman Bheka Jordaan manage to be both likable and have a few surprises between them.
Deaver's writing style is generally solid, Dubai and South Africa are well realized and events proceed at a decent pace. His biggest flaw is he's overly keen on ending chapters on a shocking cliffhanger (Bond brutally shoots an unarmed innocent man!) only for the next to open by going slightly back in time to explain how what you just read wasn't what it seemed. Fine once or twice but the constant hopping back and forth comes dangerously close to derailing the momentum the books starts to build up once it leaves London.
As an American author the big question of course is how well he handles the British characters, and for the most part he pulls it off. At time however it does feel like he's trying a bit too hard to cram in all the research Amongst other things we get we get references to Radio 2, Doctor Who, The Two Ronnies and, least likely of all, someone talking about how they've seen Bond's Bentley reviewed on Top Gear. Who on Earth actually pays any attention to the reviews on that show?
One thing I've avoided talking about so far is the plot, as it so twists and turns it's hard to do so without getting into big spoilers. It did however keep me guessing, and the tension as the mysterious “Incident 20” gets nearer and nearer builds up nicely. I must also admit to not having guessed who the surprise villain was until the chapter where they first reveal themselves.
All in all, with a decent pruning of the first third this would be one of the best Bond continuation books, and is still a good solid entry in the series. Deaver creates a strong foundation for future novels, but then, that's hardly surprising considering he's basically using a set up that's endured for the best part of 60 years despite the cosmetic changes. I'd certainly like to see what Deaver could do now all the exposition is out of the way, so hopefully James Bond will return with him at the helm sooner rather than later.