The first quarter of this book is Higson’s Young Bond short story “A Hard Man to Kill.” The rest of the book is an overview, reference, and companion guide to the Young Bond series with many illustrations and reproductions of documents referenced throughout the previous books. This book is definitely worth tracking down if you are a young Bond fan. I don’t think it is in print any longer but if you can find a used copy (which is how I got a hold of it), it’s well worth it.
“A Hard Man to Kill” begins with Young James and Aunt Charmian embarking on their return voyage to Europe from the Caribbean on the passenger ship The Colombie after the events of Hurricane Gold. They learn that the ship will also carry a dangerous prisoner being extradited to France named Caiboche. He was originally a French gangster who went on to join the French Foreign Legion during World War I rising through the ranks to eventually become a general. After the war, he became a warlord taking over parts of Algeria using men who were loyal to him committing war crimes that eventually earned him the name “the butcher of Aziz.” The French government finally prevailed in defeating Caiboche’s forces in Algeria but not before he escaped to South America. Eventually, the Cuban government decided to cooperate with France to capture Caiboche and extradite him to stand trial in France.
Of course, Young James finds himself in the middle of a dangerous plot when a group of conspirators try to free Caibosche and rescue him arranging an escape. Fortunately, Bond has two significantly helpful allies to help foil the plot. He has a chance reunion with Wilder Lawless, the girl who had helped save his life in Scotland during the events of Silverfin. She and her father were transporting horses across the Atlantic, and for the first time we see Bond handling the prospect of romance in a more mature fashion. Prior to getting ensnared in the villainous plot, the two seem to enjoy each other’s company and their banter is reminiscent of the kind of banter Bond would have with various women in the Fleming books.
Then, we also meet a young Rene Mathis who would go on to be an ally of the adult Bond in Casino Royale as a French operative. Here, Mathis is part of the Gendamerie Maritime in charge of guarding the prisoner Caibosche. When the conspirators begin their plot, take Wilder hostage, and Caibosche escapes, it’s Mathis who must help Bond providing cover with his gun and alerting the ship’s captain about the villains. There’s a very interesting exchange where young Mathis and young Bond discuss the prospect of firing a gun and the fear that they each have in having to pull the trigger. Even at this early stage, Bond is the braver of the two as he goes about rescuing Wilder from the villains unarmed hoping that Mathis would summon the courage to fire his weapon for the first time when called upon.
“A Hard Man to Kill” is a fast paced engaging short young Bond story that probably could have been expanded into a full length novel had Higson decided to do so. It’s full of suspense, adventure, danger, and even a Bond card playing scene that provides us a taste of what we’ll eventually see in Fleming’s adult Bond. The fictional details for the plot and characters are deftly woven within the historical framework of the time period in which it is set. It’s every bit worthy of being a Bond adventure and I highly recommend it.
I must also say that the rest of the book that acts as a series companion is also very worthwhile for anyone who is a fan of this series. It’s nice to have as a reference if you need to be reminded of an event or character from the previous books and the illustrations and reproductions within are of stellar quality. If you like Young Bond, you NEED to track down and get this book.