Charlie Higson’s 3rd Young Bond book was a delight to read. It all takes place before Christmas 1933 after the events of book 2. When an Eton teacher suddenly goes missing leaving behind clues to his wherabouts in a mysterious letter for Bond’s messmate in the Crossword Society to solve, James Bond finds himself ensnared in another dangerous plot pitting him against 2 deadly henchmen, a traitor intent on supplying the Russians with a valuable tactical advantage, and a female Russian Colonel dubbed “The Grandmother.”
There’s a great amount of detail in this book about cryptography and ciphers as the schoolboys must solve elaborate puzzles in time to rescue Prof.Fairburn. Higson does a great job at keeping the material interesting and entertaining explaining how ciphers and binary code work as well as how and to what purpose they are used along with the thinking that goes behind solving and breaking the codes. This is obviously a precursor to the Intelligence work that would eventually go on in WWII, when cryptologists at Bletchley Park helped to solve the ENIGMA codes. Alan Turing makes an appearance here as a young student at Caimbridge, and the reason behind the kidnapping of Fairburn becomes intricately linked with some of the details we now know that had begun to take shape regarding the preliminary concept of computing machines and how they might be used to solve encrypted messages.
Bond begins the story recalling how the Head Master and his Classics teacher at Eton had visited him while still on holiday recovering from the previous adventure. They had wanted certain assurances from James that the truth about the the plot he foiled involving Mr. Haight’s alliance with Uggo Carnifex would be kept secret so as not to alarm the parents who sent their children to Eton. Bond was more than happy to oblige as he hadn’t looked forward to the unnecessary attention, but this meant that Mr. Haight would be remembered as a hero instead of the accomplice of a villainous foiled plot. Early on we see Young James question unpleasant realities such as this. He also promised the Head Master that he’d keep away from danger and adventure altogether, but Young James knew that that was an impossible promise to make. Before the end of the year, he’d find himself alongside his mate in his secret Eton Danger Society, Perry Mandeville, illegally driving off in the Bamford and Martin he’d inherited from his Uncle Max to London to solve clues left in Prof. Fairburn’s letter to his friend Pritpal. Higson writes,
“And now, at last, he was cut loose. Now he was doing what he loved best. He was facing danger. He was taking risks.
He was alive again”
Indeed, Young James seems to thrive on danger, and Higson explores some of the reasoning behind this in a way that helps us understand who James Bond is at this stage in his life.
“Perhaps he’d got involved in this crazy adventure to take his mind off the emptiness he always felt at this time of year when the dark days deepened his sense of loss.”
The events of the story happen to take place prior to Christmas, which is around the time that we imagine Young Bond would most likely be forced to deal with his sense of loss and despair at having been orphaned. Throughout the story, we see that Bond throws himself into extremely difficult and dangerous situations with a sense that perhaps he feels he has nothing to lose. This culminates at the end when he faces off against the female Russian Colonel. Does Bond have in it him to kill someone in cold blood? Of course, we as the reader know that he develops into a man with a “licence to kill” but here we get a glimpse into what might have driven him to such extremes as a young man. There’s a lot going on with Bond psychologically in this story that is really only hinted at, but it’s important enough that it would register with readers nonetheless. Higson handles all this very appropriately with a certain amount of restraint and subtlety but it’s all there.
The story does a good job at balancing some of the hefty concepts of codes and ciphers with suspenseful action sequences that put Bond’s physical and mental skills to the test. With some very well thought out nods to historical characters such as the aforementioned Alan Turing as well as gangster Dutch Schultz, I highly recommend this 3rd book in the series. Higson does an impressive job of blending together historical characters and events with all the thrilling elements of a James Bond adventure.