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The mission, should you chose to accept it, is the ultimate in formidable foes: the die-hard Ian Fleming fan base. With varying degrees of success, many have attempted to show that James Bond missions can continue after Fleming. Amis, Faulks, Connolly, Gardner, Benson, Deaver: the roll call of writers to don the weighty 007 mantle is by no means short, and the fatalities for such a mission are high. Something William Boyd, as the latest writer to be approached by Ian Fleming Publications Limited, must be painfully aware of as the latest Bond instalment hit the shelves this week.
Solo, the latest reincarnation of 007 at the hands of Boyd, sees the 45-year-old James Bond dispatched to the fictional west-African Zanzarim with the task of single-handedly stopping a civil war. Published with the backing of the Fleming estate to much pomp and critical acclaim, it would seem that the 'ultimate Bond geek' has accomplished the ultimate coup: the faithful rebirth of a legend. Why then, does the longest mission to date leave me so unsatisfied? Reading the plethora of positive reviews currently circling the latest saga, I wonder whether I've bought a first draft by accident.
The first chapters of Bond, drinking, smoking, and lusting in Chelsea read beautifully. Boyd's 1969 is plush, decadent and glamorous. With an eye for detail that will please any Bond aficionado. The cars, clothes and cocktails described tick every box, like carefully studied fan-fiction. The martinis are suitably shaken, the eggs suitably scrambled, the wine suitably vintage, and the girl suitably...catsuited. Boyd has kept Bond thoroughly and shamelessly like Fleming's. As a perfect example, the reader waits less than 50 pages for 'Bond, James Bond' gratification. Story: nicely set up. Bond: hedonistic perfection. Mission: a little vague.
And so, to Zanzarim, where Boyd really comes into his own. With several of his own best sellers set in Africa, Boyd is safely in home territory. The landscapes are skilfully diverse and richly described. In due Cold-War style the politics are duly convoluted and corrupted with by power struggles over money and oil. This particular facet of the story is well-considered, developed and has just the right amount of character complexity. The only real story crease ironed out nicely later. The gun-slinging action seems to be written particularly with a transfer to screen in mind, but arguably these frequent tete-a-tetes are unnecessarily complicated and don't produce the same adrenaline rush on paper as they might on film.
As Bond returns to England, everything seems perfectly set up for the unravelling of villains, the foiling of underhand schemes and the settling of personal scores. However, in the second half of the book when the rogue Bond embarks solo, the plot thickens. And by thickens, I'm afraid I mean spoils. Reading perhaps like an editors' draft, with unclear subplots and multiple smoke screen villains, one rarely feels sure-footed. There are so many twists and turns - with seemingly very little in the way of real incentive or explanation - that Bond's reflective debrief at the end comes as quite the relief. "'Go on,' Felix said, leaning forward. 'This is where it gets confusing for me.'" And he's right. It would seem that, realising the last 150 pages have been less than clear, Boyd attempts to salvage the remnants of plotline by inserting all relevant detail into a penny-drops character disillusionment.This leaves the novel feeling a bit hollow, and is really why I closed the book feeling rather unsatisfied.
Rather than coiled nicely, the plot lines are knotted and left hanging more like a recent film-foray than the self contained stories of the great man himself.