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CARTE BLANCHE - The new James Bond novel from Jeffery Deaver

PRAGMATISM RULES

LUKE WILLIAMS reviews Jeffery Deaver’s CARTE BLANCHE,
a novel which proves, once again, that nobody did it better than Ian Fleming!

MINOR SPOILER WARNINGS: If you haven’t yet read CARTE BLANCHE you might want to wait before reading this review.

CARTE BLANCHE - Waterstones special edition

Opinions within Bond fandom on the merits or otherwise of the post-Ian Fleming novels oscillate wildly – for the purists, no one will ever live up to Fleming, and the attempts of Amis, Gardner, Benson et al to do so are necessarily doomed to failure and therefore fair game for severe and damning criticism. The pragmatists take a more philosophical view, arguing that the production of new novels keeps the Bond brand in the public eye (as well as re-igniting interest in the Fleming originals) and that such ‘continuation’ works should be judged on their own merits, rather than be exhaustively compared with the Fleming originals.

I’d describe myself as a purist with pragmatic leanings – I’m not ideologically opposed to the concept of non-Fleming Bond novels if the resulting material is entertaining and well-written but, unfortunately, the various continuation novels over the years have rarely been either. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the John Gardner novels satiated my youthful thirst for new Bond material, but were too often hamstrung by ridiculously contrived and convoluted plot twists and workmanlike prose. Raymond Benson’s six novels benefited from a more straightforward narrative approach, but they always struck me, in their over-reliance on continuity (for example, by resurrecting the likes of Marc-Ange Draco and ‘Tiger’ Tanaka), as a sort of superior form of fan fiction; well-researched and well-intentioned, but ultimately unsatisfying. Both Gardner and Benson also appeared caught between balancing the demands of the literary conventions of Bond with the showier and more well-known excesses of his cinematic incarnation; witness, for example, the way that a female ‘M’ was shoehorned into Benson’s novels in a deliberate echo of the Brosnan era casting of Judi Dench.

In my eyes, the writers who have had the most success continuing Fleming’s legacy are Kingsley Amis, whose taut and involving COLONEL SUN could slip pretty much un-noticed into the Fleming canon; Charlie Higson, whose Young Bond series was ludicrous in concept but wonderfully entertaining in execution; and Christopher Wood, whose novelisation of his screenplay for The Spy Who Loved Me appropriates many Fleming-esque flourishes without sliding into parody or pastiche – a trap Sebastian Faulks singularly failed to avoid when writing the dire DEVIL MAY CARE “as Ian Fleming”. (We should have realised it would end in tears when Faulks, with staggering self-importance, compared his being hired to write a Bond novel to “someone who writes complex symphonic music” being asked “to write a pop song”).

Chesca Miles and Jeffery Deaver at the CARTE BLANCHE launch

Perhaps the most daring reinvention of Fleming’s Bond was John Pearson’s 1973 JAMES BOND: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF 007, which took a truly fresh angle on the existing Fleming canon, while also offering a convincing vision of 007 as an older agent. However, literary daring is less important than sales and marketing expertise in securing book sales which is probably why DEVIL MAY CARE (backed by the sort of publicity and marketing blitz Pearson, Gardner, Benson etc could only dream of) managed to become the fastest-selling hardback title in Penguin’s history, shifting over 44,000 copies in its first four days. This success made further Bond novels a commercial inevitability – all of which brings us to the latest man entrusted with the literary Bond franchise; Jeffery Deaver, hired initially for one novel, although he has already admitted he is open to the idea of penning further Bond novels.

Deaver’s appointment is in many ways a canny move by the Ian Fleming estate; he already has a solid reputation as a thriller writer, as well as an established fan base which will doubtless help boost sales. The 61-year-old American also knows his Fleming, having been an avowed admirer since childhood. “It was when I started to read the James Bond books that I realised that adventure stories could be brought into the present day and have an immediacy,” he admitted recently. “I grew up in a small town in the mid-west of America, but nonetheless, Bond spoke to me. I found the books to be inspiring. They opened up my world.”

Despite his admiration for Fleming, Deaver admits that he made a conscious decision not to directly ape Fleming’s style, commenting: “What we agreed to do was to take the Ian Fleming James Bond character’s personality but throw him into a Deaver type book, with my writing style, which is very fast-paced, rollercoaster, with lots of twists and turns.” Given the absurd parody that resulted when Faulks attempted to imitate Fleming’s unique and refined prose, Deaver’s approach makes sense, nevertheless CARTE BLANCHE still makes for a largely unsatisfying literary experience. Indeed, it is a novel that only really proves, once again, that Fleming wrote Bond miles better than anyone else. Hardly a new thesis, but there you go…

In its basic conception CARTE BLANCHE works just fine; Deaver’s decision to ‘re-boot’ the series by returning the Bond character to a un-specific age in his “thirties” but located within a contemporary British setting is effective, giving the novel a freshness of tone and preventing it from becoming embroiled in continuity issues. Much interest and curiosity in the early chapters of the novel is derived from discovering which aspects of Bond’s original characterisation Deaver maintains and which he updates. Wisely, he sticks to many of the fundamentals of Fleming’s original conception of the character: Bond still has an appetite for Martinis, Rolexes and fast cars; he is still a consummate professional; he still has a Scottish housekeeper called May and he still views breakfast as the “his favourite meal of the day”. However Deaver modernises other aspects of Bond; he is now a “former smoker” while gadgets such as a throwing knife in the heel of his shoe have given way to a sophisticated mobile phone equipped with encryption devices and special surveillance ‘apps’ (inevitably, and somewhat cheesily, the device is nicknamed an ‘iQPhone’). Somewhat more disconcertingly, Deaver’s Bond has a tendency to raise his eyebrows almost as much as Roger Moore, at one stage even doing so “nonchalantly”!

007 logo on the Bentley Continental GT

Instead of working directly for the Secret Service, Deaver makes Bond an operative of a newly formed ‘Overseas Development Group’, a unit with the mandate to “protect the realm…by any means necessary”. The ODG’s credo enables Deaver to establish the novel’s thematic motif, as he explained in a recent interview: “Part of the suspense in the novel is the looming question of what is acceptable in matters of national and international security. Are there lines that even James Bond should not cross?” Despite repeated references to the concept of ‘Carte Blanche’ throughout the novel (and a joke concerning ‘Carte Grise’ which needlessly recurs three times) the theme isn’t explored in any great depth, and mainly serves to create a contrast between Bond and South African policewoman Bheka Jordaan, whose insistence on following protocol clashes with Bond’s more maverick attitudes.

Despite an opening set-piece in Serbia which suffers from too many changes of perspective, the first third of the novel is relatively entertaining. The basic plot is straightforward and intriguing as Bond attempts to discover the truth about ‘Incident Twenty’, an anticipated terrorist attack which will “adversely affect” British interests. ‘Rag and bone man’ turned recycling and waste disposal magnate Severan Hydt soon emerges as the prime suspect. An intriguing and potentially menacing antagonist, Hydt possesses the requisite physical peculiarities and perversities one expects from a Bond villain, in this case long yellowing fingernails (“long by design, not neglect”) and a disturbing fetishistic interest in dead bodies and decay.

As the novel progresses though, Deaver gradually loses his way. Partly this is due to the introduction of far too many subsidiary characters, almost all of them wholly functional rather than memorable. Hydt and Bond aside, Deaver’s characterisation is poor; main ‘henchman’ Niall Dunne (aka ‘the Irishman’) is disappointingly dull, while three Bond girls (Ophelia Maidenstone, Bheka Jordaan and Felicity Willing) pop in and out of the narrative, all failing to match the vivid memories of heroines of the past such as Domino or Tracy. Fleming staples M, Mary Goodnight, Bill Tanner, Felix Leiter and René Mathis are all provided with muted and in some cases unnecessary cameos, while a galaxy of other characters, including allies such as Yusuf Nasad (a CIA contact in Dubai), Gregory Lamb (head of station in Cape Town) and Percy Osborne-Smith (an MI5 operative assigned to work with Bond) are too sketchily or crudely drawn to make an substantial impact. In short, Deaver fails to extract any emotional impact from any of the characters that surround Bond in the novel.

As well as sub-standard characterisation, Deaver’s plotting is also a disappointment. Having established a fair amount of mystery and tension early on, he goes on to initiate a series of twists, turns and red herrings that are increasingly implausible in their over-contrivance. For example, the revelation of a ‘surprise’ villain near the end of the novel is unconvincing while a feeble trick where we are led to believe a character is dead only for them to soon be revealed as alive is repeated twice! Such narrative trickery quickly becomes tiresome and is reminiscent of John Gardner at his worst. A sub-plot about Bond’s parents is also clumsily and unconvincingly shoe-horned into the narrative; barely given any time to breathe, it seems to exist only in order to provide a possible continuing story arc for future Bond novels.

Largely due to his journalistic training, Fleming was able to seamlessly integrate his learning, research and eye for absurd or interesting detail into his writing with elegance and élan. It’s another skill that Deaver struggles to match; the extent of his research is admirable, and on the details of the intelligence community and “tradecraft” his writing possesses a pleasing authenticity, but when it comes to local ‘colour’ his style begins to feel more forced and the locales of Dubai and Cape Town are not illuminated in the vivid way that Fleming might have achieved. Deaver’s failings are most apparent in the deluge of references to modern-day British life and culture that he inserts into the novel. Although admirably accurate, they come across as a forced and heavy-handed attempt on the author’s part to prove that an American can master the British context and idiom, rather than acting as a seamless part of the narrative; so it is that we are subjected to a wealth of cricket and rugby references along with name-checks for, among others, Kate Winslet, the Harry Potter novels, Top Gear, Radio 2 and Radio 4, The Two Ronnies, Waitrose, The Times, The Guardian, I Claudius, Guy Ritchie and Boots the chemist!

With some neat turns of phrase and humorous touches, Deaver’s prose is always better than functional, but when he aspires to a higher or more meaningful tone the results are often clumsy (witness, for example, the typically portentous sentence: “Evil, James Bond had learnt, can be tirelessly patient”). Frustratingly, Deaver shows that he is capable of more elevated and effective prose, most notably in the final two pages of the novel, the best passage of the entire book, which in its downbeat, melancholic tone echoes the final chapter of Fleming’s MOONRAKER and the final paragraph of THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN without being overly derivative of either.

In a recent interview Deaver spoke of the importance, and difficulty, of keeping both his own fan base and Fleming fans “happy” and in truth he probably does neither; CARTE BLANCHE is a relatively entertaining thriller that blends generic elements of Deaver and Fleming into a readable but resolutely unmemorable 432 pages. As such it’s a typical example of modern ‘franchise’ fiction and whether or not I, or other Bond fans, believe it is ‘good’ probably misses the point. The fact is, the character of James Bond remains a huge money-spinner for Ian Fleming Publications and that is why it won’t be the last Bond novel; in the final analysis, money and pragmatism talk - whether us purists like it or not!

Photographs from the CARTE BLANCHE launch at St. Pancras International Station ©MARK MAWSTON


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CARTE BLANCHE reviewed by Jon Auty