Devil May Care

SEBASTIAN FAULKS

Were I, James Parker, to be approached by the estate of Ian Fleming and offered terms for the production of a new James Bond novel, one thing alone would be nonnegotiable. Money, dates, even storylines would be up for discussion, but on this single point no threat or incentive could move me: the book would have to be called The Black Daffodil.

Readers with a background in Flemingiana are already nodding sagely: they know what I?m talking about. They know that The Black Daffodil was the title of a slim volume of poems that Fleming published in 1928, as a very young man. He published it privately, and then — equally privately — he burned every single copy. His biographer Andrew Lycett speculates that it contained “romantic verse.” Whatever kind of verse it was, Fleming never wrote any more of it: his poetic ambition seems to have breathed its last on that drastic little bonfire. Is it too fanciful to imagine that certain other of his finer feelings also may have also gone up in smoke? That the philistine within him triumphed that day? And that, in the bitter ashes of The Black Daffodil, there stirred the cindery beginnings of his great revenge on literature — the lethal, black-haired nullity, 007 himself? I don?t think it is.

In any event, a second Black Daffodil is not imminent, because instead of asking me to write the new Bond novel, the Fleming estate asked Sebastian Faulks, and he?s called it Devil May Care. Faulks, an Englishman, is the bestselling author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, and while one doubts that he wrote his Bond book in strict accordance with the Fleming method — on a gold-plated typewriter between boozy dips in the Caribbean — he does a very handy impression of the Fleming style.

There was a knock at the door. Bond checked himself in the bathroom mirror. The comma of black hair, dampened by the shower, hung over his forehead. The scar on his cheek was less distinct than usual, thanks to the tanning effect of the Persian sun. His eyes were bloodshot from the salt water but retained, despite the spidery red traces, their cold, slightly cruel, sense of purpose.

A slash of hair, a scar — the description of Bond is calligraphic: strokes upon the void. (That “comma of black hair,” of course, is the Master?s own touch, repeated so often in the Bond novels that it acquires the intensity of a Homeric epithet.) As Kingsley Amis, who wrote his own Bond novel under the name Robert Markham, observed, Bond is “a depressive and a solitary.” Unadorned, but faithful also to the characteristic obsessions with technology, gastronomy, pitiless lovemaking, and branded goods, Faulks?s Fleming-prose captures this emptiness perfectly. Devil May Care is set in swinging 1967, and as the action begins we find Bond enduring a strange epoch of self-doubt, lounging around Rome and wondering if he should pack it all in. M has sent him on a recuperative sabbatical, and for weeks he?s been going to bed “no later than ten o?clock with only a paperback book and a powerful barbiturate for company.” But international espionage abhors a vacuum, and within a few pages 007 has been summoned back to London. “The party?s over,” snaps M. Somewhere between Paris and Tehran, something nasty is brewing; informants are having their tongues pulled out; sinister shipments are on the move. To be precise, there is a new archenemy in town.

On the spectrum of Bond villainy, Dr Julius Gorner, it must be said, is at the low-voltage end of things. He has an excellent henchman (the grisly Chagrin, relieved of human sympathies by a botched brain operation) and an excellent deformity (a monkey hand or main de singe, complete with hairy wrist and non-opposable thumb.) And his vendetta against the British Empire is a nice touch — at one point he instructs Chagrin to do to Bond “what the British did to the Kikuyu in the Mau-mau rebellion.” Personally, though, despite his great “arrogance” and oft-mentioned “purity of purpose”, he lacks fire. And he?s no visionary. Compared with the galactic hubris of Moonraker‘s Hugo Drax, for example, who wanted to restart the human race, Gorner?s evil master plan seems rather chaste: he intends merely to flood the United Kingdom with cheap heroin while jump-starting a nuclear war.

Also rather chaste in Devil May Care is Bond himself. Naturally, there is the usual lecherous banter with Moneypenny, and the woman of the hour — Scarlett Papava, a well-travelled investment banker with notable legs — does a lot of undressing at gunpoint (as does Bond, oddly). But consummation is long deferred, and there are no random conquests to keep us ticking over: Bond?s attention is focused monogamously, even piously, on Scarlett. “She pushed a strand of black hair behind her ear. Did she know that he was watching? Why else reveal the perfect pink shape of her ear, so delicate and exactly formed that it was all he could do not to lean across and kiss it?” One imagines the fastidious Faulks holding his nose with one hand as he types those lines with the other. Still, he?s getting the job done: such sentimentality is the flip side of the Fleming style, part of the dissociation that enables him to be so thrillingly cruel.

I?m spoiling nothing, I hope, when I tell you that Bond saves the day — a world in which Bond did not save the day would not be our world. But the real victor here is Sebastian Faulks: moving with sinuous urgency from set piece to set piece, handling clich? like a favorite sidearm, his Fleming-prose threads its way sure-footedly between homage and pastiche. Let?s be open to the possibility that it might be — to lift a line from U2 — even better than the real thing.