Sunday, 12 October 2008
Book Review: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks
After Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, various authors have tried their hand at recreating James Bond in the image moulded by Fleming. The latest writer to throw his hat into the ring and take up the challenge of imitating Fleming is Sebastian Faulks, the highly acclaimed author of books such as The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. Faulks’s Devil May Care is the 22nd authorised Bond book after Fleming’s death, written to commemorate Fleming’s 100th birthday.
Before I get to the crux of the matter and start commenting on Devil May Care, I should confess that I have read only two of Ian Fleming’s works (Thunderball and the Man with the Golden Gun) before. Moreover, I read them when I was in my teens, over 15 years ago. So, when I compare Faulks with Fleming, I will be doing so on the basis of my memories, which may not be very accurate.
Devil May Care, set in the late 1960s, comes with the usual Bond paraphernalia. It’s got a couple of glamorous women (there’s a twist to this number, but I’ll leave it you to read and find out), an evil villain and his even more evil side-kick, various fights to the death from each of which Bond survives with a few injuries. One of the fights involves the mandatory car and motorbikes whilst another is on a train (remember the Spy Who Loved Me?). The evil villain – Dr. Julius Gorner is as evil as ever, his objective being to flood the UK with drugs and provoke the USSR into nuke-bombing the UK. Dr. Gorner’s side-kick Chagrin is North-Vietnamese and has undergone an operation (at the hands of the Soviets) which makes him immune to pain. On the whole, it is a typical Fleming thriller and does keep you entertained (if you like books of this genre, that is).
Faulks is said to have written this book in 6 weeks (the same speed with which Fleming wrote) with the intention of imitating 80% of Fleming, keeping a decent 20% for himself. After reading this book, I would say the ratio is more like 60% Fleming and 40% Faulks. To begin with, there are too many bits of the book which read like real literature rather than pulp fiction. May be Faulks couldn’t help himself, but he shouldn’t have used sentences like “the large open space of the place de la Concorde was gleaming black and silver in the downpour.” When a Bond girl (one called Scarlet) tells Bond ‘you cold bastard, I should never have trusted you,’ Bond hasn’t been particularly nasty. Instead, he has only made a very sensible and practical suggestion. Bond does drink a lot, but he never asked for a martini, shaken but not stirred. The words ‘my name is Bond, James Bond,’ never appeared. Finally, Bond says No to sex, something I have never encountered in either of two Fleming books I have read or in any of the Bond movies I have seen.
The story is set in Iran, Russia (from the Urals to Leningrad), Paris , London and Helsinki . Which brings me to one of the few things I did not really like about this book. Faulks describes Iran as a desert country. ‘As soon as he stepped from the plane, Bond felt the intense heat of the desert country.’ I don’t claim to be an expert on Iran, but I doubt if it is can be called a desert country, even though a decent chunk of it is desert and it is very warm in summer. The head of the Tehran station is a cosmopolitan Persian who likes to have fun with women and opium. Darius tells us that despite his sophistication, he can be a tribal Bedouin if needed. I find this problematic since I tend to associate Bedouin with Arabs and not with Persians. Finally, Scarlet is supposed to be an investment banker from Paris who does mergers and acquisitions. To begin with, the term ‘investment banking’ was imported to Europe from the US in the late 1980s. Till then, the European term was ‘merchant banking’. Remember, this story takes place in 1967 or so. When one read Fleming, one got the feeling that the Caribbean where Fleming set his stories in, was a place which Fleming knew intimately. This is hardly surprising since Fleming used to live in the Caribbean. I didn’t get the feeling that Faulks was very familiar with the places in which this story is set.
Faulks get some bits of Fleming’s Bond right. He manages to convey the sort of chauvinism which Bond has always shown. For example, Bond regards the lands between Cyrus and India as the thieving centre of the world. Bond agrees with Felix that the French are riddled with Communists at all levels and are not to be trusted. An evil CIA double agent turns out to be gay in a decent burst of homophobia. Descriptions of gizmos, giant ships (hovercrafts actually) and hidden fortresses are also very good. One of the best bits of this book is a tennis match between Bond and Gorner which Bond wins, though it is actually rigged in favour of Gorner by a marvellous technical innovation.
Let me stop now rather than give away the entire story. On the whole, this is a pretty good Bond thriller and I’ll leave it to you to read and find out for yourself.