With a Mind to Kill by Anthony Horowitz review – 007 in a polished page-turner

Bond is headhunted by Smersh in a plot to eliminate the moderate Khrushchev in this rollicking Russian spy story

Anthony Horowitz’s third James Bond tale begins both dynamically and canonically. It starts immediately after the events of Ian Fleming’s final Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, at M’s funeral; his murderer is none other than 007, who has now been brainwashed by the Russians and turned into their prime asset. Nothing is as it seems, though, and a labyrinthine game of spycraft develops, with Bond caught between British intelligence and a dastardly group of Smersh villains who regard Khrushchev as too moderate. They wish to recruit the British spy to further their nefarious plans. Will they succeed? Or will Bond save the day?

This is the first 007 novel to be published post-No Time to Die, which ended with the death of Bond. A similar sense of unpredictability permeates With a Mind to Kill. The secret agent depicted here is an ageing, vulnerable figure, weary both from torture and from years of deceiving everyone around him; this is not so very far from the Daniel Craig incarnation, but I was also reminded of William Boyd’s poignant representation of an over-the-hill Bond in his 2013 African-set novel Solo. At one point, a junior MI5 agent angrily says to 007: “Whatever you were is gone… there are no heroes any more, and you’re just the lowest of the low.” Strong stuff.

But, as with Horowitz’s earlier two Bond novels, this is popular fiction at its most accomplished, purring along with the sleek assurance of an Aston Martin. All the ingredients of a cracking spy story are present, from the smooth, dastardly villain, Colonel Boris – a dig at our prime minister? – who is said to be “the high priest of an evil religion” and practises mind control on his unfortunate victims, to the young Russian agent Katya Leonova, who has “something of the young Jean Seberg about her face... [and is] far too beautiful for the uniform she has chosen”. She might sneer of Bond that he is “extroverted, highly self-opinionated and borderline psychotic”, but such things are seldom a bar to a union in these tales, and so it proves here.

There seems an inexhaustible public appetite for all things 007. One day, we might grow weary of him, but if his fictional incarnations remain as page-turningly entertaining as With a Mind to Kill, we will be hoping that Bond doesn’t hang up his Walther PPK for a while yet.

• With a Mind to Kill by Anthony Horowitz is published by Vintage (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Alexander Larman

The GuardianTramp

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