Solo: A James Bond Novel by William Boyd – review

William Boyd's James Bond book is, if anything, superior to some of Ian Fleming's originals

The (rare) critics of this book in the past 10 days have fallen into the very trap against which Boyd gently cautioned. That of trying to judge his book against the James Bond films. It is, in mitigation, a faintly understandable confusion, the films having become down the decades such a lash-up of stylistic tics, fashion anachronisms, "humour", believable gunplay, cartoon violence and casual sexism that it's a wonder anyone can remember the Bond of the books as opposed to the brand Bond.

William Boyd remembers the distinction. He obviously remembers the very smell of those 1960s/70s paperbacks, with their tiny type, and page corners folded down with impatient grubby fingers on every monstrous interruption, as we learned the meanings of "cordite" "gunmetal-gray" and, for late developers, "nipple"; he obviously quietly revered the excitement of the creation. Whether, when older, he similarly revered the creator, Ian Fleming, is dubious – the two writers (as was Bond) were privately educated and with strong Scottish connections, but Fleming had a cruel streak – possibly a necessary legacy of the war – but also a streak of undisguised snobbery, whereas Boyd has a softly spoken dry donnish humour to him and his only streak is that of writerly success.

And he has succeeded indubitably in lifting to his lips the poisoned chalice of the Bond books franchise where so many, from Kingsley Amis on, have to a lesser (Amis) and greater (Sebastian Faulks) degree failed. Not only lifted it but drained it, then licked those lips. This book is more true to Fleming's intentions than some of the less good (and frankly padded) originals.

So we get, set in 1969, all the trademark worsted suits, and thin dark knitted ties, and the Dorchester (where Bond has been celebrating his 45th birthday, purposefully alone, lost in vague memories and specific cocktails); and the cars, but also the sordid Pimlico flat where Bond has to finagle a (believably) pilfered passport, and the whoosh of early cappuccino steam in the Cafe Picasso on the King's Road, and most viscerally the humid poisoned heat of west Africa (to which neither Boyd nor his fictions are strangers). All faithful, down to the guns, and the nipples, to Fleming's obsession with detail. But we also get the prose of Mr Boyd, which is frankly superior to that of Mr Fleming.

But he has not attempted to write "as" Fleming. Instead he's immersed himself in that Bondworld of his youth, with all the remembered excitements and fears and gadgetry of the cold war, and then pretty much just written as himself – he's no slouch in the spy genre – and made it immensely believable. And transposed it to 1969 and done so with hats-in-the-air faithful success, all the more remarkable in that 1969 arrived five years after Fleming had died (in fact Bond, by then, is a slight anachronism, but a determined one). This is not a pastiche, which is where some of his predecessors erred. This is a novel, by a grown-up, and could only have been achieved by someone who had been enthralled when young and still believed, and also believed, with the thrilling self-confidence accorded to few writers, that he could make it better.

A couple of small niggles. The explanation for the African adventure, recounted in hindsight to Felix Leiter, turns into a bit of a longueur. But an exposition on a small oil war in tribal west Africa is arguably more interesting, then and now, than Fleming's own expositions on the histories of voodoo or the Kentucky Derby. Also, offering this with the temerity of a vole between headlights, I seem to remember, in one of Fleming's books, M railing against men with tans, something about them being the preserve of foreigners and lazy playboys – yet here is M on page 32 with a vigorous gardening tan, for shame! But these are the only niggles I can find, in a long book – longer than any of Fleming's – and don't let anyone tell you Bond's been rendered "PC"; the quiet snobberies and sexism are there, just a little less obnoxiously so. Apart from anything else, it's simply a bloody good thriller. A triumph. Bond is back.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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