Devil May Care
by Sebastian Faulks
Published by Doubleday
278 pages, 2008
Still On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
“Come in, 007,” said M. “It’s good to see you back.”
So reads the back of the dust jacket of Devil May Care, the new 007 adventure by British novelist Sebastian Faulks, noted author of Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and last year’s Engleby. The front of the jacket adds, beneath Faulks’ name, “writing as Ian Fleming.”
Really? Was Shirley MacLaine sitting beside Faulks, channeling the late Mr. Fleming as the author typed? Hmm.
Anyway, the point is that British secret agent James Bond is indeed back, and reading about his exploits again is great fun. Faulks has crafted a crisp locomotive of a thriller, a master class not so much in how to emulate another author but how to strip away everything from a complex story except the relatively few details that make its heart beat. I wonder, post-read, if Devil May Care were an actual person, would it survive the rigors of its own heart -- ever anxious, tightly plotted and populated with violent, sometimes merciless characters?
Devil May Care is a terrific resurrection. Ignoring the last, oh, 43 years, the novel picks up, more or less, a short while after the action of Fleming’s final 007 novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965). Not only do the movies not exist, but neither do the couple of dozen novels written by Kingsley Amis (using the name Robert Markham), John Gardner and Raymond Benson, each of which pitted Bond against villains large and threatening, in time zones both in the near and far distance. Here, Faulks doesn’t bother with any of that because it’s simply not in this universe. Instead, he provides any number of nods, both subtle and blatant, to Fleming’s works, mentioning names and places and brands that the average Bond aficionado will recognize with love. I’m tempted to say this is Faulks’ way of placing this Bond -- his Bond -- in proper context with Fleming’s. But then I go back to that dust jacket conceit: “writing as Ian Fleming.” This isn’t Faulks’ Bond, we’re meant to think, but Fleming’s.
Well, there’s no doubt that this 007 knows his way around a gun, a gambling table and a villain’s lair. But this Bond is off the sauce. He’s also, from the look of things, off the broads: His main squeeze in this adventure -- Scarlett Papava -- isn’t really squeezed until the last few pages.
So is this Fleming’s Bond? He feels ... different. Yeah, his abstinences make sense, but I don’t know that the reasons hold much water. I want Bond to drink suavely. I want him to bed every girl who merely glances his way. That’s kinda what I read these books for: that’s part of the signature fantasy. Besides, laying off the booze and not laying the girl sound more like the P.C. ’00s than the kiss-kiss-bang-bang mid-’60s.
That aside, this is a damned adventurous adventure. Bond battles a pharmaceutical magnate named Julius Gorner (hell, even that sounds like the ’00s ... a pharmaceutical magnate), nearly perishes thanks to a brutal henchman unforgettably named Chagrin, and engages in one highly cinematic set piece after another. And all of this is written the way anyone would if they loved the original books, which, clearly, Faulks does. That’s one of the reasons I like this new novel: it’s an homage, but it’s also a continuation. Sure, I have some questions (see above), but reading a Bond novel is very much about simply getting on the ride. Questions? Who cares? Who has time?
The key point here is that Bond is back in action, in the form we all loved in the first place. He’s tough, pissed off, travels to exotic locales, flirts shamelessly and has no bones about popping whoever gets in his way.
And to add to the fun, Faulks points up the kind of detail Fleming did so expertly, highlighting the particulars of Bond’s food choices, his mod cons and more. To me, this is the stuff that places him in time as well as in caste. The fastidious details meant more to Fleming -- and Bond -- than they did to his readers. Agent 007 isn’t at all the tuxedo-clad man about town the movies have created. He’s a soldier, a battering ram; the brand names mean so much to him because he could never have them if he weren’t who he is or doing the job he does, if he didn’t live on the Queen’s dime. Anyway, Faulks has sprinkled this kind of thing throughout Devil May Care, and that alone allows it to live wonderfully and appropriately in Fleming’s world.
Devil May Care isn’t a Bond for today’s world, but he’s most certainly a Bond for today’s readers. This is taut, smart, playful stuff that’s rich with twists and cliffhangers -- and the best and biggest one is whether or not we’ll be treated to another. | July 2008
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.