A Look at Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole

In 2013 Ian Fleming Publications decided to continue its Young Bond series, which had been dormant since Charlie Higson’s By Royal Command published in 2008. Higson had moved on with his own new YA series called The Enemy and a new author was needed to continue the series, which had yielded 5 novels under Charlie Higson.   Steve Cole, who had established a children’s series named Astrosaurs, was selected to take the helm, and in 2014 Random House released his first Young Bond book, Shoot to Kill.

Taking place shortly after the events of Higson’s By Royal Command, Shoot to Kill finds a 14 year old James Bond ensnared in a treacherous blackmail plot after he and his friends discover a film reel they weren’t supposed to see.  This latest adventure weaves a tale of Hollywood moguls, Chicago gangsters, and the Los Angeles underworld of the 1930s.

After being removed from Eton, it’s decided that James would go to Fettes College in the fall, but since Aunt Charmian had business in Mexico, however, James would stay at Dartington Hall for the summer, a progressive co-ed school where students do not wear uniforms and none of the rigid rules and tradition James had detested at Eton are observed.  James soon gets wind of an extraordinary trip to Los Angeles arranged for him as well as a few select students.  Film Mogul Anton Koestler apparently wishes to establish several educational academies throughout the world and had arranged for several students from Dartington Hall to visit his Los Angeles Allworld Academy for testing, research, and comparative educational purposes.  In this once in a lifetime experience, the students would travel by zeppelin to Los Angeles and have exclusive access to Koestler’s Allworld Studios in exchange for participating in the educational research.  Gillian de Vries, the Director of Education at Dartington Hall, informs James that he was selected for the trip to see how his Eton education would measure up against a more progressive schooling method.  The trip seems to be the opportunity of a lifetime, but danger is insidiously lurking and James soon learns that nothing about this trip is what it appears to be.

James befriends his fellow student-passengers before the trip.  Hugo is a brash 16 year old student afflicted with dwarfism; Dan is the nephew of Koestler’s new screenwriter whose father owns a chain of cinemas, and Boudicca Pryce is a bright outgoing 16 year old girl who has an interest in mechanics and prefers to be called “Boody.”  The tight knit group belongs to a film club at the school where Dan is able to borrow or in this case steal film reels from his father’s theaters obtaining access to the projectionist booth.  Oftentimes Dan gets hold of uncensored discarded film reels and screens them for his club.  On the night before they were scheduled to leave, a very disturbing film reel depicting real life violence gets screened and the group looks to James for guidance.  James then finds himself precariously chased and threatened over this film reel and hopes that the trip to Los Angeles would provide some sort of respite from the chaos, but needless to say that’s just the beginning.

promotional images for Shoot to Kill

promotional images for Shoot to Kill

I very much enjoyed Shoot to Kill, and while Steve Cole’s writing style is very different from Charlie Higson’s, it does actually suit this story given its setting.  I think some of the negative criticism of this book is based on comparisons to the Higson books. Higson’s writing style is a lot closer to Fleming’s than Steve Cole’s and that becomes apparent from the very beginning.  Cole’s writing in this book is more reminiscent of the noir or hard-boiled crime writers.  At times his sentences are rather lean and stark yet crisp and direct whereas Higson’s writing paid more homage to Fleming’s use of language and sensuous detail.   I happen to enjoy noir fiction a great deal so Steve Cole’s stylistic approach is one that I have always thought would be interesting for someone writing a Bond story.  Fleming was an admirer of Raymond Chandler and other writers who were his contemporaries within the noir / hard-boiled / pulp genre.  He regarded these stories as literary art in a time when many of the writers in that genre were not well-respected in literary circles.  The Bond novels themselves were not very well-liked by the high-brow literary elite so I imagine Fleming felt a sense of comradery with these authors.   For an author to take this kind of approach to Young Bond instead of trying to emulate Charlie Higson’s approach was quite a bold and inspired move although the last third of the book appears to be written in a more traditional style.

There were a couple of moments when I’m not sure if Steve Cole went too far with his stylistic approach. For instance, I can’t imagine young James Bond using the term “coppers” to refer to the police.  I think it’s certainly a term you would hear for that time period especially spoken by period gangsters and their ilk, but it might be stretch to have Bond himself say it as a normal pattern of his speech.

There’s plenty of action and suspense throughout the book.  Bond goes from one dangerous chase to another quite often, but my favorite moments are somethings that happen in between chases.  There’s an instance where Bond crashes a lavish A-List Hollywood party that I think was superbly written and I actually wish had lasted a bit longer.   Cole does a good job depicting the chases and the conflicts James encounters all while leaving just enough intrigue so that you don’t get the full scope of the plot until you’re close to the end.  There are a number of sequences in this book that could very well be cinematic given its setting.  The sequences on the zeppelin were a lot of fun to read, and I think that overall Steve Cole did a fantastic job even if there were times when I missed Charlie Higson.

One of the reasons I miss Charlie Higson is because Higson does a better job at incorporating intriguing historical facts into each of his books regarding the setting and the time period.  In Silver Fin you learn a lot of the little things about what life must have been like for Eton students in the 1930s.  In Blood Fever, you learn about Sardinia and the Nuraghe de San Antine.  Double or Die provides a substantial introduction to ciphers and decryption of codes. Hurricane Gold is set against the backdrop of Mexico and contains references to ancient Mayan culture. By Royal Command places James in a spy thriller prior to the breakout of World War II and does a good job showing the status of the countries involved.  In Shoot to Kill, Cole puts James in Hollywood in the 1930s but other than the party he crashes, I felt like there could have been more historical references to the actual time and setting. I was waiting for a reference to the Hayes Code and the restrictions that censorship started to impose on the studios at the time. It would have been interesting for James to explore the differences in the films that were made pre-Code as opposed to the films that came out after and how some filmmakers found ways to subvert the Hayes code. While the chase scenes were well written and very exciting, I would have liked some of those educational moments that Higson provided so well in his books and it could have perhaps provided a little balance to some of the more fantastical elements that emerge from the blackmail plot.

As far as I can tell, the plan is for Cole to remain on board with Young Bond for a new series of books likely covering the time Bond spends at Fettes College, which would be interesting to see if Cole adjusts his stylistic approach once Bond is back in Scotland.  I look forward to what Steve Cole has in store for Young Bond and I definitely would recommend Shoot to Kill to anyone interested in the series provided that they’ve read the Higson books first.  I enjoyed Cole’s take on Young Bond.  It may be different from Higson, but it was still very thrilling and engaging to read.

As of now, the book is only available as an ebook in the US, but I managed to get a hold of an import copy from the UK.

IMG_20150619_171935761   IMG_20150619_171908911

Sources:

1. Cole, Steve Shoot to Kill. Random House, 2014

2. http://www.youngbond.com/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Bond

4. Interview with Steve Cole: http://jamesbondradio.com/podcast-31-young-bond-shoot-kill-steve-cole-interview/

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