...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Day 2714: JAMES BOND: Devil My Car


Let's begin on the COVER: Mr Sebastian Faulks writing as Mr Ian Fleming. Hmmm. Not actually willing to give up his own identity but wanting to claim the mantle of being Mr Ian (and the safety net of blaming him for anything… unsavoury!)

I'm not sure how the title goes with the story, either!

What he writes, though, is an entirely traditional adventure, with girls, guns, violence and a lunatic villain.

So, new James Bond, same as the old James Bond. Which you can take to mean "reassuringly familiar" or "a bit of a knock off" according to taste.

I realize that Mr Ian would toss in the odd reference to his back catalogue occasionally, usually in the opening chapter following up however we left our Mr James at the end of last time, but Mr Sebastian DOES seem desperate to include a reference to each and every one of the other twelve full-length James Bond novels.

He ends up with seemingly more continuity references and in-jokes than a Doctor Who New Adventure playing the "I bet I can refer to every Cyberman / Dalek / Doctor Who story ever" game. (See "Iceberg" by David "Cyberleader" Banks, "Retcon of the Daleks" by John "Not THAT one" Peel, or "Christmas on a Rational Planet" by Lawrence "Mad Larry" Miles" if you want to play!"). "I know drugs aren't as exciting as smuggling gold or diamonds," M interjects pointlessly at one point, while Mr James worries about his "B & B: bereavement and brainwashing" at another. (And that's four books off the list right there.)

The book is written as a period piece. Which would be weird anyway, because Mr Ian wrote CONTEMPORARY stories, ahead of their time in fact, with Mr James in the "jet set" doing things and going places mere mortals could not follow. But Mr Sebastian is terribly eager to try and put us in the time with the crassest possible infodump:

"What's in the news, May?" asks Mr James, at one point. "Ooh, those young people in the band have been arrested for taking drugs!" "The Beatles?" "No, the other lot".

"HELLO – IT'S 1967!" she may as well be shouting.

Assuming that "Devil My Car" HAD been published in that year, that would make it two years after the (posthumous) publication of "The Man With the Golden Gun" and one year after the final short story collection "Octopussy and the Living Daylights". And, perhaps MOST tellingly, one year BEFORE the REAL first post-Mr Ian James Bond novel, 1968's "Colonel Sun" by Mr Kingsley Shacklebolt writing as Robert Markham. Without any of this nonsense of SAYING he was "writing as Robert Markham".

Taking us further down the road to Austin Powers territory, Mr James is delayed by the hippies staging a sit-in on a zebra crossing and is shortly horrified (along with ME) to learn that M has taken up YOGA. Quite what this is supposed to signify, I have no fluffy idea, but fortunately it doesn't really have any bearing on the plot.

The story opens with a really horrible murder.

Now, Mr Ian's writing WAS violent (…and sexist and he was a terrible food snob, meaning he was a food snob and really not very good at it, as anyone who has read the prawn cocktail moment will know) but there was almost always a kind of fantasy panache to it that made is seem GAUDY rather than GROSS. "Live and Let Die"'s Eaten by Sharks actually happens 'off', but you might think of being dragged over the reef for the barracuda from the same book. It's so over-the-top that it's kind of harmless.

This violence isn't. It's just ICKY. And (again) seemingly has little to do with the rest of plot other than to act as a clue for Rene Mathis (yes, him from Casino Royale) so that he can identify the villain's henchman. Although Mr James actually gets told the same information by the baddie anyway. Nor is it particularly clear WHY the murder happens; it does not appear to be because the victim has tipped off SIS about the baddie's plan. It just seems like M thinks it would be a good idea to investigate him.

So, the BADDIE, the VILLAIN of the piece is Doctor Julius Gorner.

We know he is a villain because the very first time we see him, he is squishing a little doggie under the wheels of his big Mercedes. This is in one of those astonishingly contrived "Mr James has seen the baddie before he knows he will be the target… and can just TELL that he is EEEEEEVIL" moments.

Dr Gorner is accompanied by his villainous oriental henchman with the distinctive headwear and funny name, Oddjob… no hang on, actually it's Chagrin, who Mathis recognizes as a Vietnamese war-criminal (yes, 1967 – Vietnam is faux-topical, remember) with a penchant for mutilating children if they're being taught by missionaries.

But just in case THAT wasn't a big enough clue to his nature, Dr Gorner also has to have a PHYSICAL DEFORMITY. To go with Blofeld's funny earlobes, or Dr No's missing hands or, er, Sir Hugo Drax's red hair, Mr Julius has… a monkey's paw!

Now, rather famously, whenever Mr Cubby Broccoli thought that his business partner and co-producer Mr Harry Saltzman was having a stupid idea he would remind him of one of his dooziest.

"DOCTOR NO… IS A MONKEY!" Mr Cubby would bellow.

Not that I am saying that this is a bad idea… except that it IS a bad idea.

It is also Mr Julius's ACHILLES' HEEL… even though it's his HAND. Any reference to it makes him go into one. Gosh, can you see where THAT might be going?

Anyhoo, Dr Gorner has a grudge against Britain. This turns out to be TRUE even though the Bond Girl – Miss Scarlet, I kid you not – actually makes it up. But we don't actually now WHY he has this grudge – because she made up the story about her father being an Oxford don who tried to be nice about "the hand" and instead deeply shamed Gorner too.

Still, this means he wants to destroy Great Britain and is shipping in tonnes of DRUGS in order to corrupt our YOUTH. Except that's all too boring, so he's going to fake a British nuclear attack on Russia and get the Reds to nuke London for him.

(He also extemporizes a plan to undermine British stiff upper lips by buying a national newspaper – the Times maybe – and driving the whole British Press downmarket by introducing cheap pornography to the breakfast table… a plan that (a) seems even MORE long-winded than the drugs thing and (b) appears to be no more than a gratuitous dig at Mr Roger Stavro Moredick, owner of, cheap porn rag the Scum and, er, the Times. This, though, would ALSO have been too boring and so is ditched for Operation Where-Did-Those-Nukes-Come-From.)

Yes, where DID those nukes come from: Dr Gorner just claims to have obtained them because "there is a market for such things". Oh, well I bet SPECTRE are just KICKING themselves for going to all that bother over the hijacked V-bomber with the plastic-surgery pilot.

What this all adds up to is something that is TRYING to be the sort of James Bond book that Mr Ian would have written IF he had been sat down by Mr Harry and Mr Cubby and, given the plot of their next movie, told to work round it. See "Thunderball" again.

Much as I hate to say it, it's really not very ORIGINAL. In fact, there are much more original ideas in the James Bond books of Mr John Gardner.

That's not to say that the writing is at all BAD. Almost in spite of itself, the book manages a really rather decent patch (ironically AFTER the whole movie-like plot has been finished) with Mr James and Miss Scarlet escaping across Russia. Actually, I suspect that might be because that bit slips into Le Carré pastiche. Anyway it's rather good. And in fairness, a lot of the main body of the story is set in pre-Revolutionary Iran aka Persia and manages to capture the real exotic travelogue feel of Mr Ian's writing while writing about a place that he didn't know i.e. wasn't the Caribbean.

But as far as PLOT goes, as distinct from NARRATIVE, it's all as obvious as the nose on my face. And you've got to admit, that's PRETTY obvious. Step one: Mr James meets villain in social contest – tennis this time, rather than golf or cards (no, it doesn't seem very James Bond, does it); villain tries to cheat but is beaten anyway. Step two: Mr James tracks villain to exotic location, and "sacrificial lamb" character gets killed. Step three: Mr James discovers minor clue to villain's plan but is captured and generally put through the wringer. Step four: villain's plan goes tits up through actually no real doings of Mr James, though Bond escapes in the crossfire. Step five: villain hunts down Mr James for revenge… this too goes tits up.

Even the GOLLY twist ending is totally telegraphed from almost chapter one.

There are also some rather glaring GAPS (or maybe I MISSED some bits). Since Mr James never gets to TELL anyone what Dr Gorner's plot actually IS, it's not entirely clear why the secret service decides to act. For reasons that will be clear to anyone who's read the book, it's not entirely obvious how Miss Scarlet's sister Poppy is able to provide Mr James with the vital insider-knowledge clue that puts him on to Dr Gorner's special hover-plane. And a lot of what Dr Gorner does is based on the assumption that he has a spy inside the secret service… but no one is actually unmasked. Well, no, let me put that another way, someone IS unmasked as a traitor – and in best Mr Ian bigoted-style it's the GAY character – but he couldn't possibly be the SIS spy because he's not SIS. So who is?

Still, I am SURE that the magic-makers of EON will fix all of that when they come to turn it into a MOVIE.
Mr Simon's song game reminded me to get daddy to write up my review of this book, even though I finished it AGES ago. He is MUCH kinder to this book than I have been. Happy Fluffy Birthday, Mr Simon!

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