Book Review: Carte Blanche

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Carte Blanche

Jeffery Deaver (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99, * £15.99)

The invitation by the Fleming estate to write a ‘new’ James Bond novel is nothing if not a summons to put your head above the parapet. The problem is that, as a modern cultural figure, 007 is about as hard to kill in life as he is in the pages of the novels and the scenes of the films. With the exception of The Queen herself, Her Majesty’s most violent secret servant has outlived everything since his creation: most significantly the twilight of Empire in which he was formed, the Communist bloc he was pledged to overthrow.  

Ian Fleming may have died almost 50 years ago, and the cinema may have appropriated his character, but the books keep on coming. This latest, after Sebastian Faulks’s period pastiche Devil May Care, sees Bond working for a British black ops outfit in the here and now of rendition squads and the terror threat from Afghanistan, with extra topicality lent by the recycling business that is the legitimate front for a villain with suitably sinister necrophile tendencies.

For this excursion, Bond finds himself in the hands of American thriller writer Jeffery Deaver. Mr Deaver is an accomplished and highly successful author of about 30 suspense novels; nevertheless, he approaches the task with care. Perhaps fearing he will trigger an ejector mechanism if he strays too far from the blueprint of Fleming’s books, he is careful to refer to the original Bond early on.

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On page five, for instance, we get the unruly cow-lick of hair-‘a comma of loose strands’-and the facial scar. Soon after, there are mentions of the devoted Scottish housekeeper; the typical Bond breakfast of Blue Mountain coffee and scrambled eggs; M’s eye colour ‘he wore a grey suit that perfectly matched his eyes’-and, even in this age of non-smoking offices, M’s cheroots. But this Bond is not totally unreconstructed: he decides not to seduce a woman because she has just ended a long relationship; on another occasion, after disarming an assailant, he says he will get him to a doctor.

There are times when the detail is laid on a bit too thick. I love Bentleys, but the passage detailing the performance of the car reads like a chunk of undigested catalogue text. And, on the subject of Bentleys, although the author is not strictly wrong when he talks of the Bentley Brothers, it’s more likely he means the Bentley Boys, the amateur gentlemen racers of the 1920s.  

These are only minor cavils, but they highlight the difficulty of following Fleming. Fleming was steeped in the milieu he describes. A romantic, snobbish, early-20th-century Old Etonian with a strong nostalgia for Britain’s Imperial past, he is best summed up in the Cecil Beaton portrait of him leaning back, raising a cigarette holder to his lips, a row of decanters visible behind. By contrast, Mr Deaver’s website lists folk singer as among his occupations before becoming
a bestselling crime novelist.

However, the novel burns on at a cracking pace, with Bond flitting from the Balkans, to Britain, to the Persian Gulf and finally to South Africa. There is gunplay and tradecraft aplenty, a fair bit of wine drinking, a little sex and not enough about clothes (Bond wears a Canali suit and a surprisingly small Rolex, but switches to a Breitling when undercover). And, in a nod to the convention we love in the films, the villain’s lair is engulfed in an explosion. The result: a well-crafted, page-turning homage by a confident and accomplished hand.