Devil May Care

Author: Sebastian Faulks
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: 2008

Sebastian Faulks Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care was always going to be scrutinised quite thoroughly, especially as it was released with ‘Writing As Ian Fleming’ written on the cover. This met with quite a mixed reaction. Some believed it was a marketing tool to indicate that this story starts where Fleming left off in the sixties – which it does – ignoring all previous continuation authors. Others believed that to suggest the book was written as Fleming was the height of arrogance. And some said that it was purely a technical exercise for Faulks – attempting to write in Fleming’s style; in fact making the novel a pastiche of sorts.

I wasn’t sure if Devil May Care was going to get released down under. Many books get skipped over down here, and if they do get released in can be many months after the UK and US release dates. In fact though, it was released here in a large paperback version about a week after the rest of the world, but I wasn’t to know that, and so I ordered a copy from the UK.

For some reason my copy was held up and I didn’t receive it till a couple of weeks later (while waiting became very temped to double up and buy the Australian version, but common sense prevailed – unusual for me, I know!) But during that interim, a friend of mine had received both the novel and the unabridged audio book read by actor Jeremy Northam. While my friend was reading the book, he kindly lent me the audio book until my copy of the novel arrived.

Over the next few days we conversed about our respective progress through the book. His comments amounted to that Faulks was writing a pastiche. Now I didn’t get it. What did he mean? Were we reading/listening to the same story? From Jeremy Northam’s telling, I didn’t feel like the story was a pastiche at all. I though it was a solid, well written Bond story (with a few clumsy ‘sixties’ references – but I guess you’ve got to sell time and place).

By chapter four, I received my copy of the book and abandoned the slower audio book for the real thing. On the written page the story changed. No longer did I have Northam’s accents and theatrics to drag me into the story and along with the characters. I had to use my own ‘theatre of the mind’, and the situations within the novel began to revert to more familiar Bondian clichés. Don’t get me wrong here – I love the Bond formula, and am most forgiving of it flaws. But as I continued to read I felt that Faulks was simply ticking the boxes as he went along. I was beginning to see more of a pastiche than a forceful thriller.

Anyway, here’s a very brief overview of the plot. I will keep spoilers to a minimum so as not to ruin the enjoyment of this novel for those who are still to read it. The novel starts in Paris, and a French/Albanian drug trafficer is killer in a brutal fashion. Bond’s old friend René Mathis of the Deuxieme Bureau is assigned the case. Meanwhile a burnt out James Bond is on leave after the events in The Man With The Golden Gun. His break starts in Jamaica where he gets the tennis bug. During his rest period he plays quite a bit of tennis with a Jamaican named Wayland. Bond’s current flirtation with tennis is picked up later on in the book, where Bond plays a game with the villain of the piece.

After Jamaica, Bond heads to France and finally to Rome. Here he meets bored, affluent housewife Larissa Rossi. Bond is infatuated with the woman, but in an uncharacteristic mood he chooses not to bed her.

The next morning Bond receives a summons from M and returns to London (This is the old M – Sir Miles Merservy). Bond’s mission is to investigate Dr. Julius Gorner who is a pharmaceutical manufacturer. M believes his interest in pharmaceuticals extends far beyond headache tablets and may be one of the worlds largest heroin manufacturers and distributors. Bond is to attempt to get close and find out as much as possible.

Bond heads to Paris and checks into his hotel room. Much to his surprise waiting in his hotel room is Larissa Rossi – or rather Scarlett Papava – that’s her real name. It appears that when she was in Rome she was sizing him up for a job on the recommendation of Bond old pal, and ex-CIA operative Felix Leiter.

Scarlett’s sister, Poppy, is being held by Gorner and she wants Bond to free her. How’s that for a nice co-incidence! She wants Bond to investigate Gorner too, but she initiated contact with Bond before he had been assigned the mission.

But Scarlett proves useful and arranges for Bond to meet Gorner, socially of course, at a tennis club, where they play a not so friendly match. You see, Gorner doesn’t like to lose. So much so that he cheats by having the height of the centre court net raised and lowered slightly, depending on who is serving. Despite Gorner’s dishonorable tactics, Bond still manages to win the match, much to the Gorner’s chagrin. ‘Chagrin’ also happens to be Gorner’s oriental manservant – the man who secretly raised and lowered the net during the match.

After France, Bond traces Gorner’s activities to Tehran, and here he meets MI6’s ‘Man in Persia’, Darius Alizadeh. Now I may be wrong here, but it would appear that Mr. Faulks is a fan of Nick Cave, or at least the song The Wild Rose (which Cave sung with Kylie Minongue). In the song a girl named Eliza Day, is known as The Wild Rose. The flower motif is used extensively throughout the story. Gorner even explains to Bond, that the poppy’s correct name is Papaver sominferum. It’s only a small step from Pava to Papaver — therefore in the story we have female character called Scarlett Papava (= Scarlet Poppy) and Poppy Papava (= Poppy Poppy).

I must admit, I enjoyed the second half of story quite a bit, and in the end I would say that this is a passable effort. As mentioned above, I enjoy Northam’s telling of the story more than reading the book. Northam acts as a buffer between me and the written word, taking the emphasis off the clichéd passages. What I mean here is the ‘Bondian’ clichés rather than lazy, unoriginal writing type of clichés. For example, if you were to ask me to write a Bond style parody, I would include the ‘sea island cotton shirts’, ‘comma of dark hair’ and possibly ‘a thin cruel mouth’. And while I appreciate that these are elements that Fleming used in describing Bond at some point in his novels, they have now been milked so mercilessly by every Bond parody, that including them in a Bond novel — even an official one — is courting danger. It unconsciously turns the book into parody. But I must say in all fairness to Faulks, he tried not to walk into those traps.

As a comparison it is interesting to note that Faulks doesn’t really attempt to describe Bond until page 144 (in the Penguin UK Harcover).

“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.”

Whereas, John Gardner in License Renewed, released in 1981, described Bond’s appearance on page 21 — note here, that Bond didn’t appear in the first chapter. From the Jonathan Cape UK Hardcover:

“She stared in space for a moment, her head filled with the after-image of the man who had just entered M’s inner sanctum: the bronzed good-looking face, with rather dark eyebrows above the wide, level blue eyes; the three-inch scar which just showed down his right cheek; the long, very straight nose, and the fine, though cruel mouth. Minute flecks of grey had just started to show in the dark hair, which still retained its boyish black comma above the right eye.”

And when Raymond Benson took over writing duties, in his first novel Zero Minus Ten, released in 1997, he chose to get the description out of the way as soon as possible, appearing on page 4 of teh Coronet UK paperback:

“His short black hair had just a hint of grey at the temples, was parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick comma fell down over his right eyebrow. There was a faint three-inch scar on his right cheek. The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip, below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth.”

I guess it is hard work being a Bond novelist. And with each passing year it gets harder. Fans like myself can slowly pull apart every word they write and compare it to the master — which is not really fair. The final washup is this. It’s great to have Bond back in a literary form, and although the book isn’t as good as I may have wished for, it certainly is entertaining. Sebastian Faulks was always walking a very thin tightrope. We Bond fans (like any pop-culture property with a huge fan base) are a tough audience to play to. We know the best. We know the worst. And we expect any person taking on the mantle to know it as well. At times, I wasn’t sure if Faulks did. For example, even the villain’s name ‘Dr. Julius Gorner’ – did Faulks realise that a previous Bond villain was Dr. Julius No. I am sure he had heard of Dr. No, but was he aware of the character’s christian name? If so, it seems a bit contrived to have two Dr. Julius villains. Small quibbles, I know! But these little nagging things coloured by perception when reading.

But isn’t great just to be able to hold a new Bond book?

7 Comments Posted in Books and Comics
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  1. I absolutely hated this book. I wish I didn’t; I really wanted to like it, but Faulks and the publisher did their best even before it was released to make that impossible: Faulks demonstrated in interview after interview that he had no respect for Fleming or Bond and that the whole thing was a lark to him (can you believe it? he seemed to be saying between winks, a serious author like me writing James Bond?), and the publishers pulled that reprehenisble “writing as Ian Fleming” stunt. Even so, I still welcomed any new Bond book, and went into it hoping for the best. While I found the pastiche elements mostly cringe-worthy, they weren’t what bothered me most. What bothered me most was that Bond never DOES anything the entire book! The story would play out exactly the same if he weren’t involved. He’s merely a tourist passing through these events; he’s not proactive even once. Fleming, for example, would have had him out-cheat Gorner at tennis; Faulks keeps him utterly in the dark while someone else sorts out the mess for him. I’ve definitely grown to like the book even less over time; there are so many places that Faulks dropped the ball that it really irks me! Maybe I should try that audio version and might like it better…

  2. Thanks Tanner. All valid points…I stayed away from the Faulks publicity as I didn’t want to spoil the book (I am like that with the films too…as they get closer I stop going to the ‘news’ sites so it won’t be spoiled for me). So I missed most of his snide remarks. I was going to mention that Bond had already been to Russia, but a friend told me I was nit-picking there. I was glad to see someone else picked it up. Also your theory about no correction/revision rings true – there were passages towards the end where Faulks appeared to get his train stations wrong (or he forgot which city he had placed Bond in). Cheers D.

  3. I know what you mean about this book, I tried to read this and I gave up by the first 80 pages. I found it a bit sterile and disengaging. Maybe it was too much aimed at a mass market commercial audience so you might use a minimum personality in the writing in order not to alienate anyone least of all possible sponsors of the Bond franchise? I didn’t mind charlotte grey though. 2 other small points: 1) Know what you mean about the drafts piling up 2) Graham Greene was always so much better than Fleming.

  4. Did you watch The Human Factor on ABC 2 the other week?

  5. No, I have the book and the review is sitting as a draft. Was it any good? Sadly the only TV I watch and it’s a sad list is NCIS, SGU, Burn Notice, Chuck, playschool, The Soup and to my eternal shame Las Vegas plus the odd movie on Fox Classics (but it seems to be the same movies over and over). ABC2 is in an odd spot for the Foxtel, just like SBS2 so I rarely stop there.

  6. Despite an excellent cast, the film was pretty dreary. I fell asleep.

  7. The book is slow, but I think it probably refelcts the lack of excitement of being a spy. There’s an article in the about recruiting in Glasgow to be an agent, however you do still get the impression public school boys and civil servant mentality runs the services and no amount of diversification will change that at the management levels.

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