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Sebastian Faulks Channels Ian Fleming:
Devil May Care: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review



Saturday, May 31, 2008

Devil May Care
Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming

Reviewed by ASH Smyth

In the build-up to publication, I confess I had begun to find the moniker “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming” really quite annoying. It just seemed a pointless non-pretence, a double-the-publicity gimmick. But I have had to eat my words: Faulks has indeed produced 295 pages, unfalteringly, as though he were Ian Fleming. Their styles are indistinguishable. What’s more, Devil May Care is a good thriller on its own merits: a doubly masterful achievement.

For those of you misdirected by several decades of wayward Bond movies, here’s a reminder of the recent Bond back story — the real one — up to Octopussy and the Living Daylights. Bond’s wife is dead (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Bond himself has been almost-fatally poisoned (You Only Live Twice), brainwashed and sent to kill M (The Man With the Golden Gun), and then dispatched on some minor clean-up operations (Octopussy, & co.) while basically on “sabbatical,” pending medical and psychiatric evaluation.

It is now 1967, a time of great social and political upheaval in the wake of what will turn out to have been the most heated years of the Cold War. Stalingrad is still Stalingrad, you can still fly (and write songs about) BOAC and Britain’s Secret Service is still, officially, a secret. But the “summer of love” is in bloom, London is full of hippies, the French and British are suffering almighty end-of-Empire hangovers and the heroin trade is about to explode.

And into this chaos steps the suitably preposterous Dr. Julius Gorner, an evil “master-of-all-trades” bent on washing away the last vestiges of British power and influence with a tidal wave of opiates (and worse).

Fleming himself could not have created a more obnoxious, bullied-at-school super-villain, whose name alone encapsulates just that right mix of snotty classical education and Dickensian snarling deformity. And Gorner has a particular beef with Britain — “all that dreary stuff about cricket and fair play and tea-time” — so much so that he fought for “both” sides in the war (Germany and Russia, that is) as the only viable method of retaliation. Yet he talks in that clipped, “Good luck, Tommy,” Pathé-newsreel kind of voice adopted everywhere by people who claim to despise Britishness but still hang on to their old college scarves.

In Dr. Julius Gorner, though, Faulks has given Bond a serious adversary. Not only is he in league with the Soviets, he has all the latest impressive weaponry, a massive bad-guy lair and a zombie-labor drugs plant in the Persian desert (cue lots of exotic travel). He has a brutal Vietnamese sidekick, Chagrin, a Communist zealot and post-op psycho from some Russian neuro-butchery lab. And, naturally (or not), he has a main de singe — one oversized and hairy hand.

All of which puts him square up against James Bond, the epitome of all that is fading in post-war Britain, the stalwart and unflinching defender of the realm.

Despite some early feints from Faulks, nothing about Bond has changed. His love of the good life is unabated. Caffeine, nicotine and eggs are still seemingly the staples of his diet. On duty, he is the same much-needed, superlative agent, unmatched even in the double-O section (always an ‘O’, note; never a zero). He kills sparingly; he disapproves of gadgets; he is spurred on, against all odds, by thoughts of “the Service” and of beautiful women.

And he has the old crew in support, reliable characters all: Moneypenny, M (for Male), Major Boothroyd, the armourer, Felix Leiter, René Mathis, and MI6’s Persian station chief, Darius (but of course!) Alizadeh, "a kindred spirit, someone who was prepared to risk his life not for money but for the thrill of the game."

Then there’s the girl. She’s … the girl.

Faulks splices together enough historical factlets to anchor Bond to his time with sufficiently modern (and usefully generic) themes to make Devil May Care readable in the 21st century: Air America’s operations in Laos line up beside the opium problem originating in Helmand, and Philby’s defection to the Soviets beside the racial fallout in the suburbs of Western Europe, or the American view that the British aren’t pulling their weight.

Most engagingly, Faulks has Fleming’s voice down pat. That unadorned journalistic prose; the hyperbolic descriptions of Bond's world, and his enemies and the hotels he sleeps in; the assumption that one’s readers could read French indicative of a more general authorial hauteur (when Leiter doesn’t know where Tehran is, I could just imagine Fleming muttering Ambrose Bierce’s line “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”); the meticulous and show-offish technical detail; and Bond, sardonic, non-PC, and ever ready to identify a villain by the tone of his skin or the cut of his suit.

With some adroit tongue-in-cheek, Faulks manages to make this all seem perfectly relaxed and natural (not to say original). He knows he is on sacred turf, too. But he uses it to his advantage, adopting the useful material (“work had never taken [Bond] to the Middle East …”) and holding at arm’s length some of Fleming’s less desirable habits, like the lamely playboy-ish witticisms that Fleming couldn’t always keep to himself. Somehow, Faulks manages the seemingly impossible trick of making it clear that the author is aware without the narrative voice sounding too knowing.

If pushed for a snark, I have one. Two actually. First, the book is rouged to the point of overkill. The continuous references to the color of lipstick, lettering on chopsticks, office décor, poppies and, obviously, blood — they all make sense, but should have been confined to the cover. Second — and related — the names: Rossi, Scarlett, Poppy, Papava. Turns out the papaver somniferum is the opium poppy. I wouldn’t normally mention it; only Faulks specifically said he intended to cut the aspects which were “too silly — the silly names.”

When Faulks submitted his finished manuscript, Barbara Broccoli, the head of Eon (the Bond film company) gave it a once-over and was astonished: “If you told me you’d found this in Ian’s desk drawer,” she told him, “I’d have believed you.”

Too true. Like Fleming’s originals, Devil May Care has no pretension to being a major work of literature; nonetheless, from the fights to the fine dining, the bad guy tirades to the romantic chitchat, it is a very good book. More importantly, though, it is unquestionably a great Bond. Screenwriters of Die Another Day, take note: This is how you pay homage to an iconic character and his creator.



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