Meet the new spymaster
Thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver will publish his latest novel, Carte Blanche, next month. In the normal scheme of things, this would be one of the publishing events of the year: with sales in excess of 20 million copies in more than 150 countries, Deaver is one of the world's more popular writers. Yet, Carte Blanche will be bought by people who have never heard Deaver's name, much less read a word of his prose.
The reason for this surge in his popularity is easily explained. The name is Bond, James Bond. Carte Blanche is the 37th adventure to feature the world's favourite secret agent. Plot details are highly confidential. Deaver's publishers make SMERSH - the Soviet counterintelligence agency featured in the Bond books - look like a bunch of gossipy schoolchildren. So far we know it takes place in the present day, stops over in Dubai and features, by literary standards, enormous amounts of product placement: Emirates airline and Bentley cars.
Carte Blanche arrives 58 years after the late Ian Fleming introduced Bond in Casino Royale. Our first glimpse is of a terse loner whose profession requires that he trust no one, much less fall in love with them: 'James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his mind and body had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.'
What makes Bond's rise to global sex symbol all the more remarkable is how frequently these exacting standards spill over into misanthropy and misogyny. Informed that his partner in Casino Royale is female, Bond snarls: 'Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. Bitch.' Bond repeats the invective after the death of Vesper Lynd, the traitorous spy who loved him: 'The bitch is dead.'
Fleming wrote 12 novels and nine short stories in all, estimated to have sold more than 100 million copies. Like Arthur Conan Doyle before him, he tired of the hero that made his name. Nowhere was Fleming's ennui more obvious than the late short story, The Quantum of Solace, whose title is the only link to Daniel Craig's disappointing sophomore appearance as 007.
Bond's only contribution is to listen as the governor of the Bahamas relates an anecdote of romantic betrayal and revenge: 'Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow ... stuff of an adventure-strip in a cheap newspaper.' Bond leaves for his next mission more like a character in Conrad than Fleming. His parting words sound eerily like a cri de coeur by his creator. 'The prospect, which had previously interested, even excited him, was now edged with boredom and futility.'
Fleming may have tired of Bond, but the same cannot be said for Bond himself, who greeted Fleming's death in 1964 as a minor inconvenience. Stirred? Quite possibly, but shaken? Bond had taken on a life of his own after 1962's movie adaptation of Dr No replaced Fleming's gritty misogyny with a more accessible, if no less offensive brand of sexism.
Agent 007 may have been increasingly considered a star of the screen, but his literary adventures were not over. He has now appeared in many more adventures without Fleming than with. Carte Blanche is the 25th instalment to be licensed by Ian Fleming Publications since Fleming's finale, The Man with the Golden Gun. This figure includes novels, short stories, novelisations and Charlie Higson's Young Bond, but ignores enjoyable spin-offs like Samantha Weinberg's The Moneypenny Diaries, John Pearson's fictionalised 'biography' of Bond published in 1973 and many comic book adaptations.
Asked why Deaver was selected, Corinne Turner, managing director of Ian Fleming Publications, says: 'I'd always enjoyed Jeffery Deaver's thrillers, but I particularly liked Garden of Beasts: it demonstrated that he was not only a master of the contemporary American thriller but could also write compelling novels of period suspense within a European setting. I didn't know anything about the author himself and expected a fairly low-key response from him when he received the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. I was surprised and delighted when he spoke very fondly of Ian and about the influence that the Bond books had had on his own writing career. It was at that point that I first thought that James Bond could have an interesting adventure in Jeffery Deaver's hands.'
Bond's posthumous existence is a mixed bag. The challenge for anyone following Fleming was how to remain faithful to the originals without descending into parody. Whose Bond was this anyway? Fleming or movie mogul Cubby Broccoli's? It was noticeable that, after the movies, Fleming's works were quickly re-branded with kitsch but sexy covers. A plethora of novelisations cashed in still further, fleshing out screenplays into works of pretty lousy fiction.
A more faithful adaptation was produced by Kingsley Amis, arguably the most illustrious author to extend the series until Sebastian Faulks four decades later. Writing under the pseudonym Robert Markham, Amis' Colonel Sun (1968) was a farewell of sorts: to Fleming's Cold War Bond.
As the films proved, Bond could not stay put in the middle of the 20th century forever. Audiences wanted the latest gadgets, enemies they could relate to (Russia was so 1964) and Bond girls in contemporary fashions. And 007's beliefs could not stand still. Even the most half-hearted feminist would find his treatment of women neanderthal to say the least.
If Judi Dench's casting as M signalled the end of an era on screen (in Goldeneye, she even called Bond a relic), the posthumous novels by John Gardner and Raymond Benson did the same on the page. Although their titles border on d?j? vu - License Renewed, For Special Services, and the surely ironic Nobody Lives Forever - these hired guns dragged Bond towards the 21st century. Benson's first contribution, Zero Minus Ten, begins shortly after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Both writers were capable, but neither attracted an audience beyond Bond aficionados. Cue Ian Fleming Publications' canny decision to commission established novelists for one-off adventures: the first was Sebastian Faulks, whose Devil May Care was published in 2007 to mark the centenary of Fleming's birth. Each new book is guaranteed to be an event, a tantalising mixture of the traditional and the contemporary. And now it's Deaver's turn. The writer says: 'I began reading [Fleming's books] when I was about nine or 10, ignorant of the Cold War politics they explored but enthralled by their sense of adventure and derring-do. They appealed to me as wonderful stories, but they also stood as singular examples of a thriller writer's craft. I learned, through osmosis as well as design, much technique from Fleming's work: compactness, attention to detail, heroic though flawed characters, fast-pacing, concrete imagery and straight-forward prose.'
But can he impress Bond's most exacting fans? He is certainly a more natural heir to Fleming than Faulks: Deaver's writing is succinct, his stories well plotted and suspenseful, and invariably containing twists in the tale. Whatever the outcome, it will be fun finding out - all over again. Or to quote Julius Gorner in Devil May Care: 'What an enormous pleasure to meet you, Mr Bond. Now, shall we play?'
Carte Blanche is published on June 14