A reading of Devil May Care
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks
US edition, Doubleday
This is it—the centennial 007 novel by Sebastian Faulks, “writing as Ian Fleming,” as the book cover proclaims. Whether Faulks was writing in the style of Ian Fleming, or disguised with a custom-made Ian Fleming mask when he wrote the book, or had been possessed by the ghost of Fleming during the six weeks that he supposedly wrote the book, one thing is clear: the multi-million dollar marketing push for this novel proudly centers on the notion that Devil May Care was written by Sebastian Faulks, a man who usually writes as Sebastian Faulks, but who can now write a novel in the name of Ian Fleming! If that suspenseful twist isn’t enough to get people to rush to bookstores, then the high-powered marketing executives behind this novel were surely scratching their heads in puzzlement. Fortunately, there is the possibility that even the Horned One himself may care about this book, as asserted in the title. Set in 1967 as a continuation of Fleming’s last novel, The Man with The Golden Gun, Devil May Care is crafted as a serviceable tribute to Fleming, though it bogs down as a replica of previous Bond tales.
The problem from the outset is that there have been so many 007 movies and books, and reading Devil May Care forces us to remember things of Bondian past. The dominant impression one has is that Faulks watched one too many Bond films to prepare for this book and, moreover, the handlers of the Fleming literary estate had much to say about the old 007 formula. Adhering to their dictates, Faulks restricts himself by so much convention to the point of being trapped in too much familiarity. The pastiche becomes inevitable: here again we have exotic settings (Paris, the Shah’s Persia, Russia); an outrageous vehicle (the invincible Ekranoplan); the megalomaniacal villain who carries a deformed being, which is reflected in the usual physical oddity (a hairy monkey-like paw with a non-opposable thumb); and a sporting duel between Bond and villain—in this case, an extended tennis match (reminiscent of the golf game between Bond and Goldfinger), exquisitely written to suggest that Faulks is quite knowledgeable of the racket. The Bond/Moneypenny scene is straight from the novel Thunderball, emulating the flirtatious dialogue of the two characters. Faulks’ Bond learns that he's been signed up for deep breathing and relaxation exercises, and the banter begins:
Now compare that to Bond's line in Thunderball: “Now don't you start on me, Penny. Any more ticking-off from you and when I get out of this place [Shrublands] I'll give you such a spanking you'll have to do your typing off a block of Dunlopillo” (7).
And on it goes. There are attempts to bring something different, most notably in Bond’s characterization but it quickly resorts to familiar territory. At the start of the novel, he's going through a mid-life crisis—the Bond we meet is weary, and something of burned-out John Le Carré agent—and he deals with his existential state in 007-style, drifting through the best hotels and restaurants of several European capitals. Not much, though, is presented in terms of the character’s self-reflection, which abounds in the Fleming books. About all we get is when Faulks’ Bond stands before a mirror and has a flash of dark thoughts. (“ ‘You’re tired,’ he said out loud. ‘You’re played out. Finished.’ ”) When he gambles in Monte Carlo, he does it with boredom. When he broods, he remembers characters from the Fleming books to which Faulks inserts as obligatory references. The tiredness of the character is under-used and practically discarded when Faulks returns to all the familiar elements: the hair stuck in the doorway of the hotel bathroom to detect intruders; the Sea Island cotton shirts; the custom-built Bentley; the meticulous tastes in cigarettes and drinks. Even the plot has a feeling of déjà vu. The villain, Dr. Julius Gorner (who, mercifully, is not a relative of Dr. Julius No), operates a heroin base somewhere in Persia. His original goal was to turn England into a nation of addicts. Alas, the process proved slow, so Gorner decides to undertake the backup plan—a nuclear “accident” in the USSR for which Britain will be blamed. This is essentially a variation of the plot in the film Octopussy (in that film, the accident was set for a US air base in Berlin). “To cut a long story short,” Bond is told, “he [Gorner] hated England because he felt it had laughed at him, and he decided to devote his life to destroying it” (75).
And who tells him? Well, that would be Scarlett Papava, the novel’s Bond girl. She offers an element of chivalry for Bond to act upon: the plot thickens when she urges Bond to rescue her twin sister, Poppy, who just happens to be Gorner's drug slave. This twin sister motif harks back to the Jill Masterson/Tilly Masterson scenario in Goldfinger (in that novel, Tilly Masterson seeks revenge on Mr. Auric for spray-painting sister Jill’s body to the point of suffocation). At least we can be thankful that Poppy’s name derives from a somewhat witty source: papaver somniferum is the Latin for the opium poppy.
It all leads to the countdown of that nuclear attack, and of course the world can only depend on one man to save it. You can guess the rest of the story, right up to the last lines, which promises a voracious amount of sex. Again, Faulks is faithful to the template—the world domination scheme, evil assassins (with pliers to rip out tongues and chopsticks to impale eardrums) and the celebration of luxurious living (stuffed quails with rose petals complimented by an exquisite Château Batailley '45) are all present. He at least has the courage to set the story mostly in de Galle’s Paris in the late 60s, thereby pushing aside the continuation novels by Gardner and Benson during the '80s and '90s. Not surprisingly, the quality of the prose is a vast improvement over the first-grade reading primer offered by the Benson books. The story is told by a confident storyteller. But it’s Faulks the storyteller, not Fleming.
Which takes us back to the billing of “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming.” About the only thing in the prose that comes close to Fleming’s style is the taut, sparse journalistic narrative. Other than that, the Fleming voice is absent. The narrative movement is also a bit slow for a thriller, and there are some shoddy moments that defy logic. (For example, I found myself questioning whether two people could jump out of a plummeting jet and survive using only one parachute.) Still, Faulks never loses sight of one of the major elements of Bondian fiction: put enough blunders for the hero to stumble into—hopeless situations from which he could miraculously escape. It happens repeatedly in Devil May Care during action that unfolds in London, Rome, Tehran, Moscow, and Paris. Through it all, Bond eludes gunfire from assassins on motorcycles, nearly drowns twice, is beaten hard by various goons, and undertakes a vicious gun battle on a plane loaded with nuclear weapons. The result is the work of a pro that confidently recaptures the spirit of the Bondian adventure.
In the end, Devil May Care isn't a bad book. It's an enjoyable romp. If the endeavor gives the impression of a lack of passion—of Faulks regarding the project as beneath him and not taking it seriously—then at the very least it delivers a strong sense of workman-like craft. It works as your average Bond thriller and no worse than a lot of things, such as getting a paper cut from high gloss photo paper or watching an old episode of Who's The Boss? Nevertheless, its fundamental flaw is what the novel set out to do but could never be—a work by Ian Fleming. The bottom line: only Fleming could churn out an Ian Fleming Bond novel. For he was Bond’s creator, and his personality and unique way of looking at the world could only come from him. It was Fleming who smoked 70 cigarettes a day, who wore the dark-blue worsted suits, and drank straight vodka. The original Bond books were pure instinct, an extension of the personality of Fleming himself, and they remain unique in a way that Devil May Care or any other continuation novel cannot ever achieve. There was no reason to parody or emulate or replicate the essence of Ian Fleming. The handlers of his literary estate, Ian Fleming Publications, made the cardinal mistake of not allowing Faulks to write in his own voice. Snagging Faulks, a distinguished writer, from the outset was a brilliant turn.
Here was the chance to re-brand the James Bond literary franchise as something of higher quality than the pulp essence that has plagued it over the years. They should not have stifled the author’s personality. They should have encouraged him to write as he would usually write—to write with his own uniqueness, to tell the story his way. By all means, use Fleming’s characterization of Bond, but why does it all have to be done according to the old Bondian formula? Why not take Fleming’s characterization and let the continuation writer use it in context to his own style of writing? That would have been a bolder, innovative approach. As it is, the decision-makers at Ian Fleming Publications missed a once-in-a lifetime chance to offer something profound that, at the same time, paid homage to Fleming’s work. "One tribute, one centenary, one book," Faulks announced on the day his novel was unveiled in London, confirming that this is a one-off endeavor. And we wonder where the literary franchise will go from here on. Bound by so much convention, poor old 007 is trapped in so much baggage. Escape, it seems for Mr. Bond, is quite impossible.