I finally got around to reading Carte Blanche, the new James Bond novel written by Jeffery Deaver and published last May, under commission from Ian Fleming Publications. Put simply, it is a really good novel but I’m not sure is a good Bond novel. A little context to begin with; I read all the Ian Fleming Bond novels a long time ago. More recently I read Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis (written under the pseudonym Robert Markham). I have also read Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks in the style of Ian Fleming and published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Fleming’s birth. I haven’t read any of the other Bond novels.
What I didn’t realise until I started reading was that Carte Blanche is actually that most fashionable of things, a reboot. This isn’t the first time Bond has undergone the reboot treatment, but it is the first reboot of the novel series. The most recent and significant reboot of the film series was the 2006 movie Casino Royale. Based on the first novel that had not been filmed before within the official series, it lent itself very well to a reboot. The only distraction was Judi Dench’s M. Having watched her for over ten years in the Pierce Brosnan movies she didn’t quite fit. The reason I mention this as it is the same problem that Carte Blanche suffers from, the story is filled characters from previous books (M, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, Q, Mary Goodnight, May (Bonds housekeeper), René Mathis, Bill Tanner) that have been re-imagined for the new story. The use of too many existing but rewritten characters breaks the rhythm of the story and has a distracting/alienating effect preventing the reader from getting lost in the narrative if they have prior knowledge of the earlier stories.
The basic plot revolves around Bonds attempts to avert a terrorist attack on England. The trail takes him to Serbia, Dubai and Cape Town, these are perfect locations for the rebooted Bond. They are suitably exotic and more importantly (off the top of my head) new destinations for Bond. The most successful aspect of the reboot is making Bond relevant in the modern world, the character was a cold war character with origins in the Second World War dreamt up by Ian Fleming during his time with British Naval Intelligence. With 9-11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a backdrop it is possibly easier than ever to reinvent a character like Bond.
The book is well written and well thought-out but I can’t help thinking Deaver doesn’t quite get it. For example my old Pan paperback edition of Casino Royale contains just 158 pages (the original hardback had 213), but Carte Blanche checks in at over 400. It contains all the elements of an investigation into a mystery that you would expect of a bond novel but lacks the simplicity and snappy pace of the original stories. Bond certainly hasn’t gone soft or Metrosexual but at a time when his onscreen presence is at its most rugged he does seem to have lost his edge. Changing from his (Italian) suit to outdoor clothing before going to snoop around an old building may be practical but is it Bond?
Great emphasis is placed on Bonds car, in this new version he drives the new Bentley Continental GT. It just doesn’t fit the character. True, Bond is a Bentley man, Casino Royale describes “Bond’s car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4 1/2-litre Bentleys with a supercharger by Amherst Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and kept it in careful storage through the war”. When this car is destroyed in Moonraker he uses the proceeds of a card game to buy a 195”3 Mark VI” with an “open touring body”. Later in Thunderball we are told of: “Bond had the most selfish car in England. It was a Mark II Continental Bentley that some rich idiot had married to a telegraph pole on the Great West Road”. it goes on to describe how Bond purchased the bits had the chassis straitened and commissioned a new coach-built body. Does this sound like the man who would buy a flash car more associated with footballers than car enthusiasts. He would be more at home in an Aston Martin as driven by his cinematic incarnation. I would even have rather seen Bond driving a the Volkswagen Phaeton that the Bentley is based on, it would also give the opportunity to remove the device that electronically limit’s the top speed, this would be a very Bond thing to do! Another (more exotic) alterative would be a Bristol Fighter, the price tag may be an issue but a “rich idiot” story like the one from Thunderball would be a nice reboot touch.
There is an age old trick of telling a story then backtracking to explain how it isn’t exactly as we first thought. Imagine a cliff-hanger at the end of an episode of a serial: Someone is locked in the boot of a car, the car goes over a cliff, to be continued….. Then the next week we see the same thing except crucially the person escaped fro the boot before the car and its other passengers plunged to their doom. You get the idea, so did Jeffery Deaver, and he does it a lot. After the first couple of occasions I found myself thinking ahead as to how the situation would play out. It became a little tedious at times.
At this point a more talented reviewer would give a witty verdict, but I kind of said it all at the top, it’s a really good novel but I’m not sure is a good Bond novel. I think I just like my Bond in the 50’s and 60’s and still want to see a reboot of the movie series set in the 50’s. Having said that, I do think there is some mileage in the series and would be interested to see where it could be taken. One thread I would like to see followed up involves a subplot of Carte Blanche, without giving anything away there are references to Bonds mother, Monique Delacroix Bond. A prequel novel featuring her could be interesting. The future of the reboot series is unsure, it was recently announced that novelist and screenwriter William Boyd will write the next Bond novel, due for release next year. The publisher, Random House say on their website: “ While the details and title of the next 007 adventure naturally remain secret, the author has revealed that next year’s publication will mark a return to ‘classic Bond’ and will be set in the late 1960s”.
James Bond Will Return, we just aren’t sure where or when in history!