Book review: Trigger Mortis - the James Bond conundrum remains

Anthony Horowitz is the fourth author to step into Ian Fleming's shoes. He incorporates unpublished work by the Bond creator, but the novel doesn’t succeed in creating a 007 for our times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 6:11pm

James Bond is a problem. Obviously, a literary character that generates billions of dollars over more than six decades is not the worst sort of problem to have, but he’s a problem all the same.

Since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964, Bond has passed through the hands of numerous authors – four of them since 2008. Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd wrote a single novel each, and now we get Trigger Mortis, Anthony Horowitz’s attempt at reviving the cold war relic. The truth is that, payday aside, stepping into Fleming’s shoes seems a thankless business. It’s not that Fleming is exactly inimitable, but the parts of his style that are easy to pastiche are also obnoxious, while the things that are worth copying are as elusive as they are distinctive.

It’s a literary cliché to acknowledge that Fleming was a sadist, a racist and a misogynist, and there is nothing covert about the viciousness that infuses Bond’s world. Women are bitches, anyone non-white and non-anglophone is definitively subhuman, and torture is lingering and explicitly erotic. A modern Bond-chronicler could copy these things and create a distinctively Flemingish fiction, but also one that would repulse almost everyone. Yet even with all his brutishness, Fleming was a gifted and striking prose stylist. Within the first three pages of Casino Royale, you know everything you need to know about Bond and his universe of smoke and sleaze and ambiguity.

This Bond is uncharacteristically cultured: he has a habit of literary allusion that suggests a sudden personality change

Horowitz’s job, then, is both simple and borderline impossible: do Bond exactly the same, and make it different. There are two things that give Trigger Mortis a leg-up. First, Horowitz has already proved his feel for Fleming with the Alex Rider series, which consciously updates the Bond mythos for the 21st century. Second, Trigger Mortis makes use of previously unpublished material by Fleming – a treatment for an episode of a Bond TV series that was never made – and follows on directly from Goldfinger, so we get a continuation of Bond’s relationship with Pussy Galore.

When it comes, the Fleming chapter slips in almost seamlessly, a testament to how attentive Horowitz has been to his master’s style. He delivers the tersely precise prose that makes Bond so compelling, but more than that, he also supplies touches of Fleming’s cruel poetry: a Maserati engine sounds like “a vast sheet of calico endlessly torn”, the burnt-out scene of a murder is “a black, ugly advertisement for hatred, violence and desperation”, and the Nürburgring race track is “a long, green scream”. I suspect that the latter is an authentic Flemingism, but it is notable that it doesn’t stand out. Horowitz also shares Fleming’s pleasure in real-world detail: engine specs, firearms models and contemporary news stories are all lovingly incorporated. And Jason Sin is a worthy entry to the pantheon of Bond villains, with his malevolent bent for gambling with others’ lives.

As long as Trigger Mortis follows the contours established by Fleming, it’s a brisk and effective ride. The problems arise when Horowitz deviates from the model. For example, the return of Pussy Galore may be a banker for the dust jacket, but Bond rarely went in for long-term relationships and she is also a deeply difficult character to revive for a modern audience: a lesbian gang boss who is turned heterosexual by Bond (having never met a “real man” before). It’s to Horowitz’s credit that he brings her back as something like a three-dimensional woman. On the other hand, she takes up fully the first quarter of the book, which feels like a long time to defer the thrills of a thriller in order to make a joke at the hero’s expense, however gratifying the punchline.

And then there’s Bond himself, who is curiously not quite Bond. He’s still a sexist and a xenophobe, although the narrator no longer endorses this chauvinism. But this Bond is uncharacteristically cultured: he has a habit of literary allusion that suggests a sudden personality change, and when he notes a young woman’s resemblance to Jean Seberg, the implied vision of Bond taking time out from double-0 duties to catch a screening of Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, the only film she’d made in 1957, the year the book is set, is almost unbearably funny. Even weirder, this Bond has qualms about killing – not the after-the-fact ruefulness on show at the beginning of Goldfinger, but a genuine respect for human life that intercedes in acts of violence.

As revolting as Fleming’s hero is, I prefer the Bond who squirts Oddjob out of a plane window like toothpaste to this merciful, interior-monologuing shadow. Horowitz certainly comes closer than most to solving the Bond conundrum, but the insoluble problem with Bond, in the end, is Bond.

Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)

The Guardian