“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, said by French critic Alphonse Karr, is one of my favourite sayings about literature. It is particularly apt for “James Bond”, a fictional character who is now more famous than his creator, Ian Fleming, ever was. In fact, if you read the original Fleming novels, “Bond” is a bit of an anti-hero, a gimlet-eyed, emotionally stunted, battle-scarred killer, devoted to Queen and Country against all odds. Fleming’s writing style, short, chiselled and plain, lent itself to his subjects and characters. It is pulp fiction, but very readable pulp fiction. And Bond has stayed the same, more or less, for more than sixty years. So, what happens when you take this character and make him live beyond the 1950s and 1960s, when what he was, and how he was portrayed were perfectly acceptable?
The more Bond changes, the more he stays the same
This was most likely Anthony Horowitz’s challenge when he was commissioned in 2015 by the estate of Ian Fleming to write Trigger Mortis. The opening chapter contains a reworked version of Murder on Wheels, which was written by Fleming for a television series which was never filmed, and never before published. The book is set in 1957 against the backdrop of the Space Race, and begins two weeks after the events of Goldfinger, which was first published in 1959.
The chapter incorporating Murder on Wheels has the trademarks of original Fleming, showing Fleming’s biases, tastes and love of gadgets as clearly as ever:
“The driver could have been a professor or a librarian. He had the look of someone who spent mcuh of his life indoors with pallid skin, nicotine-stained fingers and glasses that, over the years, had slowly sunk into his nose until they had become a permanent part of his face. His hair had thinned out, showing liver spots high up on his forehead. His name was Thomas Keller. Although he now carried an American passport, he had been born in Germany and still spoke his own language more fluently than that of his adopted country.” (e-book p. 8)
There – a perfect storm of offensive attitudes – negative depictions of academics, Germans and immigrants all in one paragraph!
Continuation Novel author No.7
Horowitz is one of a line of seven authors who have written “continuation novels” with the character “James Bond”. Each author made some changes, either changing the age of the character to fit him into a different era, or changing the character to modernize his personality, and then set the book in a later era.
In Fleming’s stories, James Bond is in his mid-to-late thirties, but does not age. In Moonraker, published in 1955, he admits to being eight years shy of mandatory retirement age from the “00” section, which is 45 years, which would mean he was 37 at the time. Thus, if he had aged, he would be over 100 years old now.
In 1967, four years after Fleming’s death, his literary executors, Glidrose Productions, approached the famous author Kingsley Amis and offered him £10,000 to write the first Bond continuation novel. The result was Colonel Sun, published in 1968 under the pen-name Robert Markham. (I wonder why he did that? Didn’t want people to know he had descended to that populist level?) But Amis kept Bond as he was.
Then, in 1981, John Gardner was approached by the Fleming estate to officially write the next Bond novel, and in total he wrote 14 original Bond novels and two novelizations of films. I bought and read all of them, honestly can’t remember any of them and thought they were not very good. Gardner stated that he wanted “to bring Mr. Bond into the 1980s”, and so he did, and it did not work, at least not for me.
After Gardner, Raymond Benson took over as Bond author in 1996, and he wrote six Bond novels, three novelizations and three short stories. He too, tried to modernize Bond. He said:
“In Bond novels and their ilk, the plot must threaten not only our hero but civilization as we know it. The icing on the cake is using exotic locales that ‘normal people’ only fantasize about visiting, and slipping in essential dollops of sex and violence to build interest.” (Raymond Benson on “James Bond”)
He puts it well. It’s just a shame that until then, the writers had got a fictional character mixed up with a real man. Fiction is fiction. It’s imaginary. Would I expect a nobleman in a historical novel set at the court of Henry VIII to act like a liberated man of today? Heck no. I’d expect him to have people’s heads chopped off and walk around in tight breeches and a codpiece.
As the Norwegian comedy series Norsemen illustrates so well, giving historical characters modern emotions and values makes for confusing but extremely funny situations. You want to have that man’s wife and farm? Well, leave the raping and pillaging for later. Have a polite conversation about your needs and their rights and the finer legal points, and then chop the fellow in half with your sword. Lengthwise. Argument done.
Benson’s novels were followed by Sebastian Faulks who was commissioned in 2008 to write the next official new Bond novel, called Devil May Care. Then Jeffrey Deaver took over in 2011, and unlike Faulks, he reinvented Bond again. And in 2013, it was William Boyd with the novel, Solo. And now it’s Anthony Horowitz. Many have tried to keep Bond as Fleming had had him (in his own words, “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened”), but somehow modernizing him. Like I said before, this kind of thing can end up being unintentionally amusing.
How is Trigger Mortis?
So how did Mr. Horowitz, the clever and prolific author of one of my favourite TV sleuths, “Mr. I-am-a-policeman Foyle”, do with this novel? I cannot say that it was unputdownable. But I read it, all of it, and I felt that the updated Bond was both true to the original and at the same time more “liberal” in his thinking than previous incarnations. Horowitz kept the most obvious features of both Bond and his world.
These elements include Bond’s personal habits and weaknesses, “Pussy Galore”, who briefly moves in with Bond – a scenario as unlikely as Hergé’s “Tintin” going on a date with a girl, Bond working for the British Secret Service, another female agent who plays tough but falls for Bond, a vicious, mad-as-a-March-Hare nemesis, dramatic settings, suspense, SMERSH, “M”, “Moneypenny”, torture, the world about to come to an end, and many quite thrilling escapes. Saying more would spoil the fun.
The first part of the book takes place on the racing circuit Nürburgring, and here Horowitz demonstrates his high level of attention to detail:
“‘My father died at Le Mans two years ago. He wasn’t even driving. He was there as a spectator, and it was just his bad luck to be sitting in the grandstand when Pierre Levegh and Lance Macklin had their collision at 125 mph. I’m sure you’ll have read about it in the papers and of course there were all those newsreels. The bonnet of Levegh’s Mercedes came off and sliced through the crowd, killing a whole row of spectators, one after the other.” (e-book, p. 50).
Indeed, that is exactly what happened. Petrol-heads would love this.
Most of the time, Bond is depicted as purely a man of the fifties, in the middle of the Space Race:
“Would the Russians engineer a crash, possibly involving the death of a champion driver, not to mention any number of innocent bystanders – simply to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet engineering? Bond had no doubt of it. It was just one more example of the utter cold-bloodedness and contempt that seemed to be built into the Slavic race.” (e-book, p. 35)
But later on, Horowitz depicts Bond as more modern, resisting the urge to jump on his fellow adventurer, but still an equal opportunity offender when it comes to his private thoughts:
“With her cropped hair, the slightly upturned nose and her skin so pale in the moonlight, she reminded Bond of a novice nun having her first night in a convent, terrified of the wandering hands of the mother superior. Part of him recoiled. He had never slept like this before, certainly not with a girl as attractive as Jeopardy Lane a few feet away. A naked, attractive girl, he reminded himself. And he could feel the brandy warming his stomach, reanimating him. He threw himself on the sofa and pulled the blanket up. It was fortunate he was so tired. Sleep came at once.” (e-book p. 122)
Horowitz’s incarnation of Bond was a success, because the Fleming estate commissioned him to write another novel, Forever and a Day, due out Nov. 6, 2018. Mark your diaries, dear readers.
The allure of fictional heroes
I have always been intrigued by why readers think fictional characters are real, and, that being the case, why authors feel the need to update them. I confess I am one of those readers who are obsessed by some characters – why else would I have shelves full of Bond fiction and non-fiction? It almost inevitably ends up with the readers, loyal and observant as they are, feeling betrayed. But the character of “James Bond” has been reinvented by so many, so often, and in so many media, that, like a peeled onion, the core Bond has been revealed to be missing. And probably was missing all along. The character is not exactly intellectual. So it really doesn’t matter what authors do to him. He was created simply to entertain.
I was trudging to the station the other day and was momentarily distracted by a large billboard of Daniel Craig in a watch advertisement. I stopped, briefly thought how beautiful his blue eyes looked (never mind if the idea of him in a suit in a pool was silly), took a photo, and walked on. I remembered in that moment that the actor was just one version of the character of Bond, and that these days Craig is looking rather puffy and pooped, and un-Bondish, being a new father. But see? The ad with “Bond” got my attention, like this book did, which is why I bought it.
It must be nice to write a novel for a captive audience that is simply slavering for anything James Bond that you come up with. The fan base ought to make up for the problems of it being a risky continuation novel.
I’d say Anthony Horowitz is an example of an accomplished, professional author. He has written so many books, screenplays and TV scripts that the mind boggles, not least because they highly successful works. These include: the Groosham Grange series of books; the Alex Rider books series, The Diamond Brothers books series, the Pentagram books series, The Power of Five (The Gatekeepers) books series, the Detective Daniel Hawthorne novels, Sherlock Holmes novels, numerous standalone novels, collections about mythical and fantastical creatures, graphic novels, and television shows including Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1991–2001) – 11 episodes; Midsomer Murders (1997–2000) – 6 episodes and Foyle’s War (2002–15) – 25 episodes.