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Book review: <i>Devil May Care</i> by Sebastian Faulks, 'writing as Ian Fleming'

the cover of the book

If this was a car, it would be a grey 1933 Bentley convertible with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (installed against the advice of MI5 mechanics), NO machine guns and NO freaking ejector seats (though there could well be a bottle of single malt in the glove box).


Pretty unimaginative. Over a blood red, (vaguely) Bond-title-sequence-ish silhouette, GIANT shouty white text hits us with the title, author's name, author's other name, AND a redundant quotation from the book. Can't decide if it wants to be modern or stylishly dated, and succeeds at neither.


The world's most recognisable spy is back! Back in the fucking early Cold War where he belongs, that is. Yes, Faulks approaches Fleming with more than enough smarts to pick up where the astonishingly unhealthy old codger left off, which puts Bond smack at the start of the swinging sixties. Not that Bond is wearing a kaftan and smoking a doobie, of course. In fact he's just been called back half-way through non-negotiable leave to take on a brand new mission protecting the status quo slash free world. Some creepy Argie called Garner is funnelling drugs from the middle east into the UK, with the stated intention of bringing the latter to its knees. Oh, and he's collaborating with the GOD DAMNED Russians. Oh, and wouldn't you know it, a curvy lady whom our hero declined to seduce (!) on holiday has just popped up in London, knowing more than she ought and demanding that Bond help her rescue her twin sister from Garner's greasy drug-pushing clutches. Before you can say "grappling cable disguised as an ordinary Rolex," we're off, chaps!

The good

Faulks does a very fine Fleming impersonation - or "pastiche", as the First Tuesday Book Club would have it. What they didn't mention is that the sense of anachronism is a huge part of what makes the original Bond books so much fun. Yes, Fleming had a journalist's eye for detail and a nicely nasty knack for the kind of British people that British people like to forget built the Empire in the first place. At least for me, all the girls and the guns (neither of which Fleming understood) are less enjoyable than the Cold War minutiae, the half-century old MI5 tradecraft, the unintentionally amusing fashions, the hilariously dated technology, the off-handedly virulent racism, and of course, at the very core of everything the real James Bond ever represented: The creaking, wretched, long-disgraced idea of masculinity. To Fleming it meant a short, lonely life of relationship-free sexual encounters while he drank, smoked, and ate himself to death through a mask of affected machismo like some sort of urbanised Hemingway cartoon. The character of Bond has the excuse that de-masking can be fatal, but this merely makes one wonder whether the author or his creation were most pitiable.

And, yet, I like the original Bonds. They combine the best aspects of the best film Bonds (Connery, Craig) with all the fascinating, involving period elements (which, if the producers had any balls, would've accompanied their latest attempt to re-invent the character - if we're going to go back the start of his career, and use the first Bond novel to do it, why not take us back to socio-political situation that birthed the character too?). Faulks, to his credit, is not afraid to do it, and in fact wallows in the decision to delightful effect. The food, the drinks, the fashions, the cars, the guns, the political incorrectness and smouldering Soviets all garnish the story effectively, and Faulks even allows himself one Dr. Evil-ism when Gardner contemplates destroying England by taking over the mighty British press and disseminating the most degrading, small-minded, misogynist crap he can get away with. It's funny, but Faulks is better than that. He also nails Fleming's sense of detail - careful sketches of characters, a focus on the grim and the gaudy - but, most impressively, he reanimates the particular combination of virile arrogance and the faint melancholy of solitude which was Fleming's tone. Even if Faulks is slumming it, we still get to enjoy an author doing something well, and even, dare I say it, enjoying himself alongside us.

Any fan of Fleming's books can't go wrong with this, frankly - even if you favour the originals you'll have a good time making up your mind. If you just like the movies, I'd still recommend this as a spy thriller, because (along with the Fleming originals) it has a particular style nobody else shares, certainly not the hacky Robert-Gardner-et-al franchise cash-in books plopped out since Fleming's demise. Devil May Care was written as a one-off tribute to Fleming on the 50th anniversary of his death or some such, which makes it a must-have for Bond fans who also like decent writing.

The bad

It's one thing to put Bond in his rightful historical place and enjoy the odd snigger at his datedness, but it's another thing entirely to make him thick. Fleming's vanity may have given Bond the author's every weakness, but stupidity wasn't one of them. Fleming's Bond is a calculating, dead-hearted bastard who happens to work for our side, not the flukey old lounge lizard of the movies (as David Bowker points out, in the fantastic From Stockport With Love, at the end of the film of From Russia With Love, Bond beats up the Russian superman - in the book, he pretends to be dead, then kills his opponent with a Q-brand suitcase, luck and fair play be damned). OK, so I've let Faulks' Bond off the hook for the identical-twins stuff, losing half a game of tennis to a brazen cheat, the possibility that a CIA agent in the sixties might not have heard of Iraq, and am generously filing the plot's similarities to Goldfinger under "H" for "Homage." But would ANY Bond, after breaking into a dockyard warehouse in the middle of the night, being discovered, and escaping by the skin of his teeth, REALLY return immediately, by the same route, to the same place, bringing only a civilian woman who can barely hold a gun as backup?

In short, you probably don't mind if Bond doesn't act like Pierce Brosnan, but if he doesn't act like a human being instead you may find yourself getting annoyed.

On the other hand, this is a retro/homage spy thriller set in a vanished world with a main character whose own films refer to him as a relic of the cold war, so it's hard to get too upset, particularly when both the audience and author get such a kick out of the setting. Devil May Care might even rope in a few non-Bond fans, given the slightly post-modern nature of the writing - the reader can at least now safely laugh at the horrendously un-PC elements without worrying that the author sincerely endorsed them.

Look, I had fun with this, more than I was expecting, in fact, particularly after the literary pabulum the franchise has been pumping out since Fleming died. There are some great sequences (including a surprisingly un-Rambo trip through Soviet Russia), better characterisation than Bond deserves, and Faulks even throws in an extra surprise at the end to make up for the fairly obvious one he drags out beforehand. It's silly, but it's BOND, and between the author's credentials and the appropriateness of the setting, it could never, even at its worst, hope to approach the bloated, trick-underpants crapularity of "View To A Kill" or "Tomorrow Never Dies".

What I have learnt

That they really, REALLY ought to have had the balls to set Casino Royale in the era it belonged. They didn't even need modern technology for the plot - poker, parkour, the climax, they all would have worked without it. If you're going to pretend the audience doesn't know who James Bond is, then start at the start, dammit!

In short

Title: Devil May Care
Author: Sebastian Faulks
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0307387875
Year published: 2009
Pages: 278
Genre(s): Fiction, Thriller
Review Type: