Some Kind of Hero – Book Review

With its meticulous research into the history of the Bond film franchise and close attention to many of the franchise’s little known details, Some Kind of Hero is the ultimate nonfiction book for Bond fans. Authors Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury conducted over a hundred interviews with noteworthy participants in the Bond film saga, uncovered countless little known facts, shed light on many of the franchise’s unsung heroes, and poured years of research into a well-crafted epic tome. It’s a worthy addition to anyone’s library whether you’re a hard core Bond fan familiar with the franchise’s history or a casual fan looking to read and learn more about the Bond phenomenon.

The only thing that would have cemented this book as even more definitive would have been an interview with Sean Connery himself.  Rest assured, the authors landed interviewssean-connery_8814825-original-lightbox with every other Bond actor and then some. Connery, however, has become notoriously elusive in recent years. Although he has been seen a number of times in public, I imagine it would be a challenge to land an interview with him particularly if the sole topic was to be about Bond and not say Scottish independence.  The authors recount their efforts to get an interview with Connery in the Introduction and they did in fact come very close.  I suppose an in-depth interview with Connery relating his side of the story in regards to his experience as 007 might make for a book of its own.  Even without Connery’s participation, I think the authors did a fantastic job of informing the readers about many of Connery’s concerns and issues with the franchise as well as the producers without necessarily taking sides.

fleming_producers_gf

Ian Fleming with producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli

The personalities of Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman permeate this book.  In fact, I feel I have better sense of who those two individual men were as people than I did before reading it.  Each of these men whose names have become synonymous with the James Bond film franchise has an early chapter devoted to them before the main crux of the book continues with a chapter devoted to each Bond film.  As the narrative unfolds, the authors impart many subtle details and personality traits of each of these men along with the roles they took on as the partnership progressed.  There are quirky details like Saltzman’s unenthusiastic reaction to Paul McCartney’s condition that he be the one to perform the song he wrote for Live and Let Die when Saltzman would have preferred Thelma Houston.  Prior to that Cubby Broccoli described Ian Fleming’s disappointment at having had his meal pre-ordered for him at a restaurant in Turkey. The most fascinating chapter, however, is devoted to the ultimate breakup of their partnership after The Man with the Golden Gun.   The complex details concerning the dissolution of their partnership are explored in a chapter the authors call “Two Scorpions in a Bottle – Broccoli vs Saltzman.”  Here, we learn from Harry’s son Steven that film title designer Maurice Binder served as a “back-channel” between the two producers when they were most at odds.  We also learn a great deal more about the circumstances that led to Harry Saltzman being forced to sell his shares and controlling interests to United Artists.

Some Kind of Hero also gives us a very compelling look at some of the unsung heroes in the Bond franchise.  Of particular note is Johanna Harwood whose screenwriting contributions remain largely unrecognized within Bond fan circles.  The authors were

johanna harwood

Johanna Harwood

lucky enough to sit down for an interview with Harwood, who has not frequently spoken publicly about her role in the Bond saga.  She enters the story as Harry Saltzman’s assistant but her actual role was to write scripts. She described Saltzman’s personality at one point saying, “[His] big fault was that he was tactless. He was always rubbing people  up the wrong way because he was saying things, unkind things but he wasn’t actually unkind.  He never thought this might upset this person . . . He was an extraordinarily good salesman.  If he had one really big quality, I would say it was he could sell anything.  He could go off with an idea and sell it to anybody. What he couldn’t do later was develop the idea.”

Saltzman first tasked Harwood with writing synopses of all the Ian Fleming books and it would appear that Harwood did a considerable amount of work prior to Richard Maibaum coming on board submitting her own scripts and developing early adaptations of Fleming material.  She even wrote her own Bond short story called “Some Are Born Great.”  Harwood went on to receive screenwriting credits on Dr. No and From Russia with Love but her work on Goldfinger remains uncredited.  Although many of her contributions may have been changed by subsequent writers especially on From Russia with Love, the authors of Some Kind of Hero have done Bond fans a tremendous service by getting her story down and shedding light on the important role she played during the creative process of those early Bond films.  Harwood also co-wrote EON’s early non-Bond movie during the sixties called Call Me Bwana.

Also of note are some of stories the authors have uncovered which have garnered media attention over the past several months.  First there was the story of how Amy Winehouse might have done the theme song for Quantum of Solace were it not for her untimely death.  David Arnold had “sketched out” some musical ideas leaving the lyrics for Winehouse to complete.  The authors were also able to get Pierce Brosnan to unleash a few more details about his departure as Bond. Brosnan describes the phone call he received after his agent informed him that negotiations for him to star in his fifth Bond film had stopped.  Brosnan told the authors that he “was utterly shocked and just kicked to the kerb with the way it went down.”

some kind of hero 1

All in all Some Kind of Hero reads very swiftly despite its rather thick appearance.  Although the book clocks in at over 700 pages, the main narrative is actually just over 600 pages with the notes and index taking up the last 100 pages.  It could be read either from start to finish or one might decide to read chapter by chapter as you watch the films chronologically. I’m glad to have read it once all the way through, but I could easily see myself returning to Some Kind of Hero as I re-watch the Bond films re-reading each chapter that corresponds to whichever film I decide to put on.  I feel like this book tells the story about the key people involved in the Bond saga better than most books on the subject.  You get a real sense of the personalities involved, the various conflicts that ensued, and a rationale behind many of the decisions that were made.  Each chapter in the Bond saga is given its due and although it’s obviously way too vast to convey the entire scope of this book into one review, it’s safe to say that I believe most Bond fans would benefit from reading Some Kind of Hero regardless of how well-versed they believe themselves to be regarding the history.

Review by

Jack Lugo

jack with some kind of hero

 

 

 

 

 

I originally posted this review over at the James Bond Radio podcast website but I recreated the review here for your convenience. You can find the original review posted over at jamesbondradio.com here: http://jamesbondradio.com/some-kind-of-hero-book-review-by-jack-lugo/?utm_content=bufferdc0eb&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

Book Review: Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz

I spent a good part of last year reading all the Fleming Bond novels, and  I could honestly say that Anthony Horowitz has given us something quite special with Trigger Mortis. Not only has Horowitz written a thrilling original entry as a new Bond continuation novel, he’s also provided the readers with the closest experience I believe we will ever have to reading an actual new Bond novel by Ian Fleming.  In every sense, Trigger Mortis feels like a quintessential Bond story staying true to the original conception of the literary character created by Fleming in the early 1950s. The novel pays homage to Fleming’s literary style, which effectively captured the imagination of his readers with rich descriptions, sensuous details, concise narration, and thrilling sequences involving insurmountable challenges for 007 to navigate and overcome.

For this latest Bond novel commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications, Horowitz was given unprecedented access to unpublished story treatments by Ian Fleming. Before the success of the film franchise, Fleming had dabbled with the potential of letting Bond exist as a television series. Indeed, Casino Royale had been adapted in 1954 for the dramatic anthology series called Climax!, which aired on CBS who had paid him merely $1,000. This first incarnation of James Bond is hardly recognizable since the character was altered to be an American agent, “Jimmy Bond,” while it also discarded much of the source material that had resonated with readers of the novel.  In 1958, Fleming began writing treatments for a new NBC television pilot to be dubbed “Commander Jamaica” or “James Gunn: Secret Agent.” This had all occurred prior to EON buying the rights in 1962 to the James Bond books, and at the time the prospect of Bond transitioning from the page to the screen (large or small) had been plagued with a number of obstacles.  When the pilot for “Commander Jamaica” fell through, Fleming took his 28 page screen treatment for the project and converted it into the novel, Dr. No, released in 1958. Afterwards, Fleming wrote 6 more screen treatments or outlines for a potential television deal with CBS who had previously done Casino Royale. When this prospect also fell through, he used 3 of the treatments he’d written for his Bond short story collection, For Your Eyes Only, published in 1960. Among the treatments that Fleming left unused was one called “Murder on Wheels” about Bond entering the Grand Prix racing circuit to protect a well-known British racecar driver, Stirling Moss.  Horowitz decided to use this idea as the launching pad for his own original story and so we have Trigger Mortis inspired by original Fleming material written over 50 years ago.

Ian Fleming holds a copy of his short story collection, For Your Eyes Only

Ian Fleming holds a copy of his short story collection, For Your Eyes Only

Trigger Mortis takes place 2 weeks after the events of Fleming’s Goldfinger novel and finds Bond dealing with the aftermath of that adventure and specifically dealing with the prospect of a long term relationship with that novel’s Bond Girl, Pussy Galore. This wouldn’t be the first time that Bond had extended his relationship with a woman beyond their shared adventure. Bond had fallen in love with Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever where she had even moved into Bond’s flat by the end of the novel. That relationship had ended prior to the events of the subsequent novel From Russia With Love. This is the first time, however, that we get to see how a woman’s relationship with Bond might disintegrate after the thrill of their adventure together has concluded.  The novel begins with Pussy now installed in Bond’s apartment in London. Horowitz’s narration explains:

“He was already regretting it. Pussy needed him. But there was something in his make-up that didn’t want to be needed, that resented the very idea.  And the fact was that she was a fish out of water away from the streets of Harlem. Already the relationship was beginning to lose its appeal, like a favourite suit that has been worn one too many times.”

Fleming had typically avoided showing this side of Bond’s relationships with women but it’s something that readers had nonetheless surmised.  The way Bond may have dealt with relationships with women after the thrill had gone is given its due in this novel.  Here, Horowitz takes the opportunity to explore the psyche of Bond and delve into the elements of relationships that might make him increasingly inclined to shrug them off.  The appeal of his duty, which frequently brings him face to face with the prospect of death in every mission, allows Bond to operate in a field in which he is infinitely more comfortable despite the danger.  This is a theme that is on full display even after Bond meets his new companion, Jeopardy Lane.

Bond is initially assigned on a mission to protect race car driver Lancy Smith from a fatal SMERSH sabotage operation (Horowitz decided to change the name of the driver for logistical reasons). SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, ever eager to prove their superiority to the western powers had recruited a race car driver for the explicit purpose of causing an accident during the challenging Nürburgring Grand Prix motor cross race. Bond must assume the cover of a wealthy playboy race driver to engage in this race in order to protect Smith.  It is while on this mission that Bond uncovers a larger Soviet conspiracy involving the sabotaging of an American rocket launch along with the possible involvement of a wealthy Korean entrepreneur.

Stirling Moss, the popular British race driver Fleming had initially intended to included in “Murder on Wheels”

Stirling Moss, the popular British race driver Fleming had initially intended to included in “Murder on Wheels”

Horowitz does a fantastic job bringing the characters and setting to life. His literary style is quite reminiscent of Fleming, the dialogue appears to be spot on, and the narration that Fleming had often relied upon to get readers inside of Bond’s psyche is also quite faithfully recreated here. In every practical sense, this novel feels like you’re reading a Fleming Bond novel.  I don’t want to give too many details away, but I particularly like the background story Horowitz created for the main villain along with the unique and impersonal methods he chooses to inflict pain and death upon his enemies. There’s something weirdly sadistic about every Bond villain and I think Horowitz successfully captures that.  He understands that the villains quite often come from damaged personal histories and that there are many parallels to be drawn between heroes and villains.  Horowitz’s novel explores this quite a bit while also letting the reader know that Bond himself is aware of the thin line that separates his own humanity from that of a monster.  It’s a theme that has been explored a great deal in our contemporary popular culture, but I think many times it comes across very heavy handed.  In this case, I think Horowitz imbued Bond with enough self-awareness to provoke the reader without necessarily preaching very much or interfering with the fun and excitement inherent to the story.

The final act of the novel takes place in New York City subway system, and while I don’t want to give away the plot details involved in getting there, I found it fun to see Bond passing the same subway stations that I used to pass when I worked in Brooklyn.  Of course, I wasn’t desperately trying to save thousands of lives when I rode past those stations, but in my own way I was doing my part in a very different field of battle and confrontation called “Retail.” Much like Bond, I had a few trusted, loyal coworkers and friends to help me along on my mission, which may have involved encountering the occasional sadistic individual determined to inflict torment and pain whenever they didn’t get their way.  Such are the perils of working a 2nd job in a book store, which actually wasn’t all that bad.

I believe anyone who has enjoyed reading the Fleming novels will instantly take a liking to Horowitz’s book, and I highly recommend it.  More than anything though, I think Trigger Mortis reminded me of all the things that made me enjoy the Fleming Bond books.  Here you have a character with a license to kill, a hardened “blunt instrument” wielded by his government, and yet despite everything Bond never loses his humanity.  He’s the quintessential anti-hero who clings to a dangerous job in order to avoid facing real life. As readers, we read a Bond story to escape the rigmarole of our daily routines whereas Bond himself uses his job to escape the dreariness of normal life. When you look at it that way, it’s impossible to say whether or not the fictional character is indeed more blessed than those of us who live vicariously through him.

Watch Anthony Horowitz talk about Ian Fleming and Trigger Mortis here:

Writer’s note: I initially wrote this review for the James Bond Radio podcast website, but instead of just providing a link I thought it would be best to recreate my review for my blog since book reviews and Bond book reviews in particular are part of what I’ve done for some time now on this site.  If you want to visit the post at the JBR site, here’s the link:

http://jamesbondradio.com/book-review-trigger-mortis/

Book Review: My Gun is Quick by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane’s 2nd novel, My Gun is Quick, delivers an even tougher punch than its predecessor.  It’s at once grittier, seedier, and full of the kind of passion and brutality that can only exude from a Mike Hammer story.  The book begins oddly enough with Hammer taking on a rather meta perspective speaking to his reader directly:

“When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes on outside there?  Probably not.  You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened.  You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with details of someone else’s experiences. Fun, isn’t it?”

Hammer goes on to describe the typical reading experience as “life through a keyhole” describing his perspective reader as someone who is out of touch with what really happens in the world.  It’s a rather bold way to start a pulp novel by essentially telling your reader “you have no idea what really goes on out there.”  I have to admit that this drew me in further although I’m not sure how readers in the 1950s would have reacted to this. I was pleasantly surprised to see Spillane have Hammer start out the story this way.  It would have been easier and safer to just start off by getting into the plot, but Hammer has his reader take a moment to think about how they’re about to engage with this story.

Once the story begins we find Hammer stopping by a seedy all night diner for coffee after having resolved a case.  He befriends a red headed prostitute who we later learn was named Nancy.  She asks him to treat her to some coffee and they have a friendly conversation.   Although many still view these Hammer stories as a sexist and misogynist, the character is actually quite nonjudgmental of the prostitutes in this story and treats them with a lot more respect than one would expect of a man from that generation.  He develops genuine sympathy for Nancy and goes on to describe her:

“She wasn’t very pretty after all. She had been once, but there are those things that happen under the skin and are reflected in the eyes  and set of the mouth that take all the beauty out of a woman’s face. Yeah, at one time she must have been almost beautiful.  That wasn’t too long ago, either.”

She tells him, “Big Mugs like you never have to pay, mister.  With you it’s the woman who pays.”

Their friendly conversation is interrupted when a man, described by Hammer as a “greaseball,” accosts her forcing Hammer to get involve and dispatch him.  Once the threat is dealt with, Hammer tells us:

“I grinned at her again.  She was scared, in trouble, but still my friend.  I took out my wallet. “Do something for me, will you, Red?” I shoved three fifties in her hand.  “Get off this street. Tomorrow you go uptown and buy some decent clothes.  Then get a morning paper and hunt up a job.  This kind of stuff is murder.”  I don’t ever want anybody to look at me the way she did then. A look that belongs in church when you’re praying or getting married or something.”

The next day, Hammer finds out that Nancy died in an apparent hit and run, and he knows without a doubt that she had been murdered despite all the evidence pointing to an accident.  He enlists his friend on the Police Force, Pat Chambers, to help dig around and soon finds himself on the trail of a lethal crime ring with many powerful connections and many means to threaten whoever might get in their way.  Hammer fearlessly goes after them out of his sense of outrage with the way Nancy was treated and all that led her to where she ended up in her life.  There’s no subtle irony at play when he reminds the reader later on that this crime ring would be taken down because of the senseless killing of a prostitute.  We also find out that perhaps Nancy had been working out her own angle to usurp the system that actively oppressed her and other women.  A complicated blackmail plot emerges and Hammer finds himself employed by a wealthy client with a vested interest in the outcome of the case.

Along the way, Hammer befriends and actually falls in love with a reformed prostitute named Lola, who offers some background insight into how and why women at the time might have fallen prey to the prostitution racket.  She tells him:

“Maybe that’s why Nancy and I were so close . . . because there was some excuse for it. I was in love, Mike . . . terribly in love with a guy who was no damn good.  I could have had anybody I wanted, but no, I had to fall for a guy who was no damn good at all.  We were going to get married when he ran away with a two-bit bum who hung around all the saloons in town.  I was pretty disgusted, I guess. If that was all men wanted I figured on playing the game.  I played it pretty good, too. After that I had everything, but never fell for anybody.  . . . I had something men wanted, and they were willing to supply the overhead charges. It got so good that it wasn’t worth while playing one sucker at a time.   Then one day I met a smart girl who introduced me to the right people, and after that the dates were supplied and I made plenty of money, and had a lot of time to spend it in, too.  I had a name and phone number, and if they had the dough all they had to do was call.  That’s why they called us call-girls.  The suckers paid plenty, but they got what they wanted and were safe.  Then one day I got drunk and slipped up.  After that I wasn’t safe to be with any more and the suckers complained, and they took away my name and my phone number, so all I had left was to go on the town.  There’s always people looking for left-overs like me.”

Lola describes how contracting venereal disease set her on a path downward within the prostitution ring and it’s a really sad story. Instead of judging her, Hammer sympathizes with her and treats her with the same respect that he would any other woman.  Today, we live in a world that might cynically mock this scenario, but Spillane entreats us to look at these characters in a genuine and refreshing way without sugarcoating the harsh reality of their circumstances.  Hammer falls in love with Lola because he sees her as someone equal to him in her humanity despite her difficulty in seeing herself as his equal because of her past. This is not a fanciful Pygmalion trope that Spillane uses as an exploitive aspect of the narrative.  Instead, he authentically captures the essence of two people really falling in love by delving into this genuine relationship between Mike and Lola.  This aspect of the novel is actually even more compelling than the murder investigation part of the plot.  There’s plenty that gets revealed in their interactions and plenty of unavoidable heartbreak when it all comes to a bitter end.

If I had one complaint, it would be that it’s not very hard to figure out the twist to the story long before it arrives.  When you find out who the villains turn out to be it doesn’t really have that impact your looking for.  In the 1st book, it was easy enough to guess who the villain turned out to be, but the final confrontation scene left an indelible impression on me.  In this story, that doesn’t quite happen.  There are plenty of times when Hammer could have complicated things for the eventual villains had he been onto their scent before the reader; not to mention the fact that many unpleasant things happen to innocent people along the way, which could have been prevented.  Despite some plotting issues, I actually found myself enjoying this novel a bit more than I, the Jury.  It was fascinating to see Hammer fall in love and it’s great to read much of the passionate writing herein.

I highly recommend My Gun is Quick to any fan of the genre.  It’s a thrilling fast paced read with many poignant character moments.  I may be one of those readers that Hammer referred to at the beginning of the story decades removed from when it was written, but I’d like to believe that the impact these stories have are timeless and perhaps we can gleam a bit of insight into the time and place Spillane wrote about and find that that place sadly might just exist today.

Source.

  1.  Spillane, Mickey My Gun is Quick. Signet, 1950.

Book Review: I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane was indeed a master of his craft. I’ve read other renown authors from the noir / hard-boiled genre, but there’s something that just comes across as more visceral and hard hitting about Spillane’s writing. There’s nothing pretentious about his style but there’s an unspoken wisdom behind his words. I may have read Spillane a long time ago, but it’s one of those things where if you approach something later in life it leaves an entirely different impression on you.

While it’s not that hard to figure out who may have killed Mike Hammer’s friend Jack, it’s really Mike Hammer’s single-mindedness and his flawed yet likeable persona that draws us in. By exploring Hammer’s psyche and motivation through the 1st person narrative, Spillane gets a reader to not only understand him but also to sympathize and even perhaps condone his callous attitude towards life at least in part.

Originally released in 1947, this is a book that is authentically of its time in terms of some out dated attitudes(which is to be expected) but it’s also very easy for a reader to put himself in that setting and feel as if he’s right there in the room with Hammer. This book is a classic in every sense of the word. It’s almost a master class in hardboiled / noir writing, and it’s a book that I’d be happy to return to and re-read at some point. Spillane introduced us to the gritty world of Mike Hammer and his sassy assistant Velda in this debut novel and the result is one that will definitely strike a nerve. It feels like these characters are still alive today as you read this book.

Both the prose and the dialogue are so top rate throughout.  There’s plenty revealed about the nature of Hammer as well as the characters he finds himself dealing with. There’s just something about exchanges like this that just makes the writing come alive to the point that you feel you could almost sink your teeth into their thoughts and words.  When describing Charolette, a psychiatrist who had attended the party Jack gave before his demise, Hammer says:

“Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place, although I could see no strap marks of a restraining bra. Her legs were encased in sheer nylons and set in high heels, making her almost as tall as I was. Beautiful legs. They were strong looking, shapely…. “

Soon after we get to some very provactive dialogue:

I grinned at her. ‘You remind me of something.’

‘What?’

‘A way of torturing a guy.’

‘Oh, please, I can’t be that bad. Do I affect you like that? Torture you, I mean?’

‘No, not quite. But if you take a guy that hasn’t seen a woman in five years, let’s say, and chain him to a wall and let you walk past him the way you did just now – well, that would be torture. See what I’m getting at.”

Many writers have since tried to emulate Spillane’s prose and dialogue to varying degrees of success, but there’s just something that comes across as so authentic, raw, and pure here that it’s easy to lose yourself in the narrative.  To some readers what comes across may be nothing more than a macho fantasy, but for someone who enjoys the genre and all its elements its like reading poetry.  The book trascends the revenge angle that remains at the forefront of the plot and becomes a poignant character study of a flawed man, his desires, and the way he perceives the world around him and the people occupying that world.

The world Hammer occupies is a cold and vicious one.  It’s a gritty urban landscape where characters either survive or don’t survive and it’s a world that doesn’t stop and grieve for those who don’t.  Mike Hammer sees himself as the ultimate purveyor of justice.  As hinted from the title, he’s driven to dole out justice his way as judge, jurror, and executioner of cold-blooded killers.  It never occurs to him that he may indeed be making himself into the very kind of killer he wants to hunt down.  There are friendships such as the one he has with Pat Chambers, the lead police detective who uncharacteristically decides to share information with Mike Hammer despite Mike being a Private Detective.  He also has his loyal assistant Velda who not only works for im and has a crush on him, she also understands him and accepts him for who he is probably more than anyone else Mike Hammer knows. There are desirable women who he must either submit to or resist depending on the circumstances, and there are victims who he may or may not be in a position to protect from a vicious killer.

In way, it’s refreshing to read something so honest and compelling, which stands in contrast to the way most of these kinds of characters are made to function today.  Today, we impart our heroes with tortured souls.  Once they’ve crossed a certain line, they have consciences that dragged them down and make our heroes question their own methods and even their own identities.  Take Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy for instance.  In each film, the character feels a progressing burden of having to carry out the very justice that initially inspired him. Our heroes today like to dwell in the existential consequences of their very existence as heroes and purveyors of justice.  In contrast, Mike Hammer of this novel exists in a time when such meadering philosphical melancholy isn’t only uncharacteristic, it’s nonexistent.  Mike Hammer remains secure in who he is and never questions the nature of how he doles out his brand of justice.  He just does it and he does it stubbornly and unapologetically.

The ending will hit you like a ton a bricks not because of who turns out to be the killer but because of the way Hammer tells it. The interplay between dialogue and Spillane’s descriptions in those final moments will leave an indelible mark on a reader. It’s a remarkable dance that engages the reader via Spillane’s stark but elegant language. I highly recommend getting to know Mike Hammer, a shamus for the ages.

Book Review: The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Jeffrey Westhoff

With its Hitchcockian title and bountiful references to James Bond, Jeffrey Westhoff has written a fantastic YA spy thriller.  Having recently read all the books in the Young Bond series, I found all the references Westhoff makes to Bond quite fun as it feels like a book written with the Bond fan community in mind.  While anyone who enjoys the spy thriller genre will be pleased to read this book, the novel also stands on its own with its memorable characters, its present day European setting, and exciting chase and action sequences.

Westhoff’s protagonist, 15 year old Brian Parker from Wisconsin, seems like a kid I would have liked to have been friends with in High School.  While on a European tour school trip with his school, Brian finds himself embroiled in a real life espionage plot involving a corrupt CIA official, a physicist’s daughter, and a number of dangerous criminals hell bent on preventing Brian from sharing what he finds out about their scheme.   The story starts off innocently enough with Brian and his schoolmate chatting about their favorite fictional hero, Foster Blake, and playing a game of “Spot the Spy” in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Brian’s idolization of “Foster Blake” is easily identifiable as Westhoff’s thinly-veiled appreciation of the James Bond franchise. Most Bond fans will appreciate the comparisons Brian makes between the “Foster Blake” novels and the movies, which serves to highlight Westhoff’s appreciation of both the literary and cinematic incarnations of the Bond franchise.

Brian encounters the “grey” man he had earlier spotted as a potential spy while off to find a German edition of a Foster Blake novel to complete his collection. This time, however, the man is stooped over after having been stabbed by a suspicious man Brian had just passed emerging from the dying man’s direction.  The dying man’s cryptic final words serve as the impetus for Brian to summon all the knowledge and skill he’d gleamed from his love of Foster Blake and put it to use to evade capture on an adventure that takes him to so many different European locations it’s amazing Brian is even able to keep track of where he is. He also finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for at times because he’s such a spy buff. At one point Brian is told,

 “You see, that’s why you’re in this mess, Brian . . . Because you use words like rendezvous and case officer. If you were another kid who spent all his time playing with his Xbox, I could have handed you off to the State Department and let them baby-sit you . . . But you had to have read these spy thrillers written years before you were born . . . You had to know too much about the spy game.”

Soon, Brian learns that even after escaping that he can’t exactly go to the authorities for help because his kidnappers happen to also be watching his family home in Wisconsin.   With the very real threat to his family, he finds that the only thing to do is try everything he can to foil the villains. He finds himself getting chased by henchmen in Nice, Cannes, Toulose, the Pyrenees Mountains, Barcelona, and a military base in San Gregorio.  Along the way he meets up with Larissa, the French teenage daughter of the scientist whose coveted prototype weapon prompted the conspiracy Brian finds himself involved in.

A lover of early punk rock bands like the Ramones, it’s easy to see why Brian takes an instant liking to Larissa as she becomes a willing partner in his perilous endeavors.  The book becomes a lot more fun as it slows down to take advantage of its European setting with Larissa using the crypt at the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulose as a temporary hideout.  We also learn a little bit about the Comet Line, a trail in the Pyrenees Mountains where French Resistance fighters used to sneak Allied soldiers from France into Spain during WWII.  Larissa even bears a similar surname to the female organizer of the Comet Line, Andree de Jongh.

While it seems at times like Brian and Larissa are constantly running, hiding, escaping, or plotting to evade henchmen, I actually appreciate the few quiet times where the action slowed down and Larissa talked about her background and her interests.  If there’s any critique I have of the book is that I wish there was more time for these characters to just be safe long enough for them have more moments like they had in the Pyrenees before the villains caught up with them.  Too often the characters find that just as they thought they could rest easy for a time, the villains seem to miraculously spring out from nowhere once again re-igniting the tension and adrenaline rush for the characters.  I find that even with a story that hinges so much on chasing and action that the moments I often enjoy the most are when the characters have a chance to breathe a bit and talk freely without an immediate threat just around the bend.

I really enjoyed The Boy Who Knew Too Much and believe it to be a very impressive debut novel for Jeffrey Westhoff.  His love of spy thrillers shines brightly throughout this book.  I think young readers will like it, but I also believe that adult fans of spy thrillers will find that they share a certain kinship with Brian Parker.  It’s not clear whether or not this is a one-off story or if Westoff plans to continue it as a series.  I can certainly imagine how Brian Parker may find himself in a new set of dangerous circumstances where he might need to rely on his experience as a young spy again only next time he won’t need to recall the fictional adventures of “Foster Blake.”  He’ll have his own previous experience to draw upon.  Anyone who enjoyed the adventures of Young Bond as written by Charlie Higson should take note.  Brian Parker of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is a modern day Young Bond in training.

To purchase The Boy Who Knew Too Much:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

The nook and kindle version are currently $2.99 while the paperback is currently $14.95.

Source:

Westhoff, Jeffrey The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Intrigue Publishhing LLC, 2015.

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/

A Look at Double or Die by Charlie Higson

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.

A Look at Blood Fever by Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson’s 2nd Young Bond novel is a marvelous achievement that not only continues where SilverFin left off but also escalates the perils and hazards our young 13 year old hero must contend with challenging him to the very brink of his physical abilities.  The result is a thrilling adventure story worthy of Ian Fleming as Higson draws us in with exciting fast-paced sequences and transports us to a place filled with fascinating roots in ancient history.  For the first time we’re taken to a foreign location, Sardinia, where we encounter pirates, bandits, a secret society, and the sadism of a megalomaniacal villain intent on restoring the Roman Empire.

Set in 1933 to coincide with the Bond from the Ian Fleming novels, the story begins with a pre-title sequence where we witness hijacking and slaughter on the Mediterranean Sea when a pirate ship attacks and seizes The Siren, a ship belonging to the father of a young girl, Amy Goodenough, who we later learn is the sister of one of Bond’s fellow classmates at Eton. The pirate captain, a Hungarian named Zoltan, kills Amy’s father when he refuses to hand over a precious artifact considered a family heirloom. Amy’s attempt to avenge her father fails as she wounds Zoltan’s shoulder throwing her knife at him.  She and her tutor are taken hostage as the pirates kill the men and leave.  The question remains, however, how the pirates knew that Amy’s father would have that particular artifact in his possession since they seemed to know what they were looking for.

Back at Eton College, we catch up in with 13 year old James Bond who has joined a club comprised of schoolboys shirking the curfew called The Danger Society.  As the name suggests the club consists of boys who crave excitement and danger, but the main part of the club is simply getting to the meeting place as each boy must traverse a series of rooftops without being seen in order to get to the meeting.   If any boy is spotted they risk a “thrashing” or possible expulsion.  Bond brings one huge asset to the group, which is the Branson and Martin vehicle he inherited from his Uncle Max after the events of SilverFin.  His aunt Charmian, who makes a short cameo appearance in this novel, allowed James to keep the car near the school.  Only the boys in The Danger Society know about this, but when Mark Goodenough (Amy’s brother) learns of the fate of his father he has a mental breakdown and attempts to drive off with thoughts of suicide. James hops into the moving vehicle and talks Mark down in time but not before being spotted by one of the teachers, a Mr. Peter Haight who takes pity on young Mark and invites James along on a class trip to Sardinia over the summer holiday.

While still at Eton before the trip, James witnesses some suspicious activity by men speaking in Latin along with the presence of a new teacher that Bond instantly finds suspicious, a Mr. Cooper-ffrench, who takes offense when Bond’s Aunt Charmian questions the usefulness of the boys learning the dead language of Latin.

The Nuraghe de Santu Antine in Sardinia

The Nuraghe de Santu Antine in Sardinia

Once we get to Sardinia with Bond and the Eton College teachers Haight and Cooper-ffrench, we’re introduced to the incredible Nuraghe at San Antine, an ancient tower built between 1900 and 730 BCE by ancient Sardinians of the Nuragic Civilization. Built without mortar or anything binding the stones in place, the impressive structure consisting of a courtyard surrounded by a main tower and two smaller towers stands only by the virtue of the weight of the stones.   Along with Bond we learn a good deal about the history of the region, the culture, and its violent history of bandits.  It’s here where we see a first a attempt on Bond’s life as he experiences vertigo at the top of the tower.  Was he drugged or was he about to be pushed? Bond, sensing all is not right decides to leave the class trip to visit his elder cousin on his maternal side, Victor, who lives with a surrealist painter, an artist named Poliponi, on a sprawling beachfront property in Sardinia.  There he meets a young Italian boy named Mauro descended from a long line of bandits, and the adventure ensues after a strange visit from a Count Uggo Carnifex, a man obsessed with the history of the Roman Empire, who acts as if he were Julius Ceasar himself while hoarding stolen art and artifacts taken by the pirates under his command. We soon learn that Count Uggo is holding Amy Goodenough prisoner in his vast palazzo where he leads a secret society dedicated to the restoration of the Roman Empire.

The story organically weaves its adventure adding depth to the characters, especially that of Zoltan, in refreshing ways that I hadn’t anticipated as I read along.  While Count Uggo remains a megalomaniac throughout, it was surprising to find Higson adding layers of character depth and development to a character like Zoltan who begins the book as a repulsive murderer only to become somewhat sympathetic towards the end despite his deeds to the point where even Amy begins to see him as a multilayered person and not just the murderer of her father. I really like what Higson does with this character and there are a few subtle lines of dialogue from Zoltan that actually resonate with the adult Bond we know from the novels. While Zoltan never fully becomes a clear cut ally, he’s easily the most fascinating and interesting supporting character in the novel. Much of what Bond learns about how to defeat the villain and rescue Amy transpires during his interactions with him. Despite Zoltan’s vulgarity he is an immensely perceptive character who acknowledges the twisted fate he shares with Amy after killing her father.

We also get a proper Bond torture sequence for the first time reminiscent of the Goldfinger torture scene with lasers in the movie or with a circular saw in the Fleming novel.  Count Uggo unleashes upon Bond what he claims to be the “deadliest animal in the world”: the mosquito.  Bond is tied to the ground with leather straps and sprayed with perfume to attract the insects to bite him all over his body without giving Bond the ability to swat them away. Higson paints a very compelling picture of Bond enduring extreme discomfort as hordes of mosquitos zero in on his flesh.  With the help of a local Italian young girl named Vendetta (the girl was named that for a reason), Bond escapes to join the local bandits who wish to do away Count Uggo.  Bond must risk his life once again secretly making his way back to Uggo’s palazzo to rescue Amy Goodenough before it’s too late.

With some references to Fleming’s Thunderball and You Only Live Twice sprinkled throughout, Blood Fever gives the reader a thrilling adventure  putting Young Bond in real danger and demonstrating how Bond’s perseverance, courage, and bravery took hold long before he became 007.  This new adventure in the life of a young schoolboy provides a perfectly thrilling escape for adults and young readers alike. I must say that I’m immensely impressed with just how brilliantly Charlie Higson pulls this off.  With Blood Fever and its remote setting of Sardinia, Higson brings to life a world and an adventure that could have very well have been dreamt up by Ian Fleming himself.

A Look at Silverfin by Charlie Higson

Having just finished reading all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, I decided to dive into Charlie Higson’s YA Young Bond series.  I must admit to being a bit skeptical when I was first made aware of the series years ago.  I imagined that the series would have little to do with Fleming’s creation and that it would no doubt update the setting to appeal to young readers and present an overall weaker irrelevant version of the character to cash-in on the franchise – sort of a James Bond meets Harry Potter marketing ploy.  It wasn’t until I heard Bond experts and super fans on the James Bond Radio podcast rave about the series that I became determined to check it out.  After reading the first book, Silverfin, I’m tremendously glad to have started reading this series because it has far exceeded my expectations.

First off, Charlie Higson sets the series in the 1930s making it a prequel to the literary James Bond created by Ian Fleming.  Fleming left very few details about Bond’s childhood in his novels.  The only time where we get a glimpse of Bond as a young man is towards the end of You Only Live Twice when Bond is presumed dead in Japan and we are presented with an obituary written by M. and Mary Goodnight published in The Times.

“When he was eleven years of age, both of his parents were killed in a climbing accident in the Aiguilles Rogues above Chamonix, and the youth came under the guardianship of an aunt, since deceased, Miss Charmian Bond, and went to live with her at the quaintly-named hamlet of Pett Bottom near Canterbury in Kent. . . . his aunt, who must have been a most erudite and accomplished lady, completed his education for an English public school, and, at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he passed satisfactorily into Eton, for which College he had been entered at birth by his father.”1.

M. elaborates a bit more describing how Bond only lasted “two halves” at Eton when his aunt was forced to remove him due to some “alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.” This sequence in You Only Live Twice is really the only time when Fleming expounds on James Bond as a youth. I can’t imagine that Fleming had ever foreseen the possibility of readers wanting to know more about Bond as a young man.  After all, he was in the business of writing spy thrillers and had even gone as far as saying that his books “are not meant for schoolboys.” (CBC Interview, 1964 -5.)

Silverfin, published in 2005

Silverfin, published in 2005

41 years after the death of Ian Fleming, Charlie Higson was granted the rights to pen the first James Bond Young Adult novel by Ian Fleming Publications.  Deciding to remain true to the Fleming depiction of the character, Higson’s novel takes place in 1933 as a 13 year old James Bond begins his first half at Eton College.    The book begins with a sequence depicting the disappearance of a young boy in Scotland who decided to trespass onto a private estate to go fishing.  It becomes clear that eventually Bond will become embroiled in this mystery, but first we get to know him as he learns his way around Eton becoming friends with his roommates and quickly making enemies with an older American boy, George Hellebore, son of the influential arms dealer Lord Randolph Hellebore.

The first portion of the book deals with Bond getting accustomed to Eton and dealing with typical freshman run-ins with older students. He specifically tries his best to avoid the older athletic George Hellebore until Randolph Hellebore introduces a new tri-athlete competition designed with his son’s skillset in mind. We discover that Bond has a penchant for long-distance running, and after receiving encouragement from one of his instructors he decides to enter the competition with the goal in mind of winning only the running portion of the competition.  The rest of the competition comprises of shooting and swimming, and while Bond performs respectably in both those segments, it’s the final long distance run where the competition comes to a head despite the fact that Bond no longer stands a chance in the overall standings.  Bond catches George cheating via short cuts along the path forcing Bond to muster all his strength and stamina to keep up trying to win the game fairly. After doubling back to confer with his fellow competitors far behind along the race, Bond uses the same short cuts George had used to catch up and wins the race much to the consternation of George and his father.

The story then picks up while Bond goes off on Easter Holiday to visit his aunt Charmian and his uncle Max Bond in Scotland. On the train ride, he meets Red Kelly, the cousin of the boy who disappeared at the beginning of the novel.  Together the two boys discover that it is indeed Lord Randolph Hellebore who owns massive property where Red Kelly’s cousin disappeared and they set about sneaking onto the property at Loch Silverfin and into the intimidating Scottish castle.  Along the way they receive help from a pony-riding young girl, Wilder Lawless, and an American Pinkerton Detective there to investigate the disappearance of Lord Hellebore’s brother.

We get tasteful glimpses of Bond’s past as we see Bond recall the occasion when his aunt Charmian told him of the death of his parents and we also get some background about each of his parents with his father having joined the Royal Navy becoming captain of his own battleship during WWI while his mother had come from a wealthy Swiss Family. She often stayed behind with young James while her husband travelled abroad on business, but the two of them would vacation together during various times leaving James with relatives including Andrew Bond’s sister, Charmian, who would go on to raise him once the climbing accident claimed the life of his parents.   Charmian is a fascinating and immensely astute character.  She makes a very strong impression on James and we learn that James ultimately picks up some of her attitudes and predilections such as her preference for coffee over tea going as far as to say, “Tea? Good God, no.  It’s mud. How the British ever built an empire drinking the filthy stuff is beyond me.” It’s of little coincidence that she drives James in her Bentley, a vehicle that we imagine James ultimately inherits.

Aunt Charmian depicted in the graphic novel release of Silverfin, 2008.

Aunt Charmian depicted in the graphic novel release of Silverfin, 2008.

Speaking of driving, it is during this Easter Holiday in Scotland where his Uncle Max teaches young Bond to drive using not just any vehicle but a Bramford and Martin, which would ultimately become the company that manufactures the Aston Martin.  Uncle Max proves to be another fascinating character.  He’s the sickly brother of Andrew Bond, and in his final days with his nephew he confesses to young James his past life as a spy during WWI having to escape his German captors breaking his leg in the process.   He tells young James, “Nobody can hold a Bond forever.”  James ultimately channels his Uncle Max when faced with danger later on in the story.

Uncle Max from the Silverfin graphic novel release in 2008

Uncle Max from the Silverfin graphic novel release in 2008

The story unfolds with Bond’s capture by Hellebore in the castle as the elder Hellebore turns out to be a megalomaniac engaged in genetic experiments that bare some resemblance to those that the Nazis would infamously attempt years later.  There’s an interesting turn of events with the young George Hellebore becoming more than the two-dimensional character he started out as in the beginning of the book.  With Young George defying his father and becoming Bond’s ally the story leaves us with an exciting intense climax with Bond stubbornly insisting on completing the goal of destroying Hellebore’s laboratory despite some opportunities to give up and call the authorities.

While the story requires some suspension of disbelief, it’s still very engaging and not outside what one might imagine Fleming himself might have concocted had he delved into this area of Bond’s life.   I highly recommend Silverfin to Bond fans, particularly Bond fans who have read the Fleming books.  It really does compliment the literary canon for Fleming’s Bond complete with enough subtle references and foreshadowing to the adult Bond for those of us who’ve read the books without necessarily becoming too esoteric for anyone who hasn’t read them.  I’m not sure how much an actual teen reader would appreciate it, but I have to imagine they would need some background details filled for them if they are only casually familiar with Bond as a film franchise. There are some callbacks to the cinematic franchise as young Bond is keen on saying the iconic catchprase “Bond, James Bond” combined with a scene where Bond is strapped onto a table in a villain’s lair, but it’s the subtle way that Higson reminds us of Fleming’s Bond that is the true draw. Indeed, the elusive castle as the villain’s lair is one Bond encounters again in You Only Live Twice when Blofeld uses utilizes an ancient Japanese castle for fiendish purposes.

I suppose it might have drawn more readership had the setting been skewed towards a young version of say Daniel Craig’s Bond growing up in the 80’s but the decision to make this series a prequel to Fleming’s literary character truly makes this a fantastic and resounding reading experience for those of us who appreciate Fleming’s books.  It’s a worthy addition to the official literary canon of James Bond and worthwhile for any Bond fan to check out.

Sources:

  1. Fleming, Ian You Only Live Twice. Jonathan Cape, 1964
  2. Higson, Charlie Silverfin. Puffin Books, 2005
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SilverFin
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Bond
  5. Ian Fleming CBC Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKtO34YNcFw

You Only Live Twice: Ian Fleming Concludes the Blofeld Trilogy

You Only Live Twice takes place a mere 8 to 9 months after the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which saw Bond get married only to have his bride, Tracy, killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt while driving on the road to their honeymoon.  Bond has now become a despondent reckless shadow of his former self having mucked up the last two assignments given to him in the interim and M. is at a complete loss as to what to do with his best agent, 007.  M. discusses his concern for Bond with his friend Sir James Molony, a neurologist, admitting that he has even contemplated removing Bond from the Double-0 Section altogether.  Molony suggests that M. should give Bond another chance at an “impossible” mission to see if the agent might return to form if he were put into a situation that tested his resolve.  The reasoning behind this being that a fairly challenging mission might inspire Bond once again with the will to live.  “Nothing like death or glory to take a man out of himself,” Sir James Molony tells M.  It is with that in mind that M. briefs Bond in his office, and instead of a reprimand Bond receives a promotion and diplomatic mission to Japan to convince the head of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka, to share secret intelligence that Japan has gathered about the Russians, which the Americans have refused to share with the British government.

This would be the final book released within Ian Fleming’s lifetime, and the final book that saw Fleming complete his intense revision and editing process, a process that was denied for the subsequent posthumously released Fleming Bond books.   Written primarily in January and February of 1963 at Fleming’s Goldeneye estate in Jamaica where Fleming perennially wrote the Bond books, You Only Live Twice features a Bond who is far from the top of his game and a guarded admission from the characters pertaining to Britain’s loss of status amongst the superpowers while the United States and the Soviet Union were engulfed in the Cold War. For the first time, there is a sense of mistrust between the British and American government, which apparently stemmed from events that had unfolded around the time Fleming began writing the novel.   The British government had recently been embarrassed when 4 MI6 agents had been exposed as defectors to the Soviet Union with suspicions of a fifth defector still active within MI6.

Ian and Ann Fleming, 1963

Ian and Ann Fleming, 1963

One also gets the sense that Bond’s increasingly failing health parallels Fleming’s own physical deterioration.  With the Thunderball plagiarism trial looming later in the year, the dark mood of the novel is said to reflect Fleming’s own dark mood at the time of its writing.  Later that year, Fleming would visit the set of EON’s production of its 2nd Bond film, From Russia with Love, which would be the final Bond film that Fleming would get to witness.

Ian Fleming on the set of From Russia with Love, 1963

Ian Fleming on the set of From Russia with Love, 1963

Also that year, Fleming would release his nonfiction book Thrilling Cities, a travelogue of various cities he had encountered including his visits to Tokyo, which inspired him to set You Only Love Twice in Japan.   It was during these visits that Fleming befriended journalist Richard Hughes, who he decided to base the character of the Austrailian agent Dikko Henderson on as well as Japanese writer Tiger Saito, who was the basis for Tiger Tanaka.

Ian Fleming's nonfiction book, Thrilling Cities

Ian Fleming’s nonfiction book, Thrilling Cities

It’s Dikko Henderson who first teaches Bond about the Japanese concept of “On,” a feudal Japanese traditional obligation taken on in return for previous favors.  It’s morally and ethically central to traditional Japanese values for “On” to be repaid in some way shape or form, and that is how Bond decides to approach Tiger Tanaka by appealing to the “On” Tiger feels for the British government due to his education at Oxford while spying on Britain.  Combined with his resentment of the increasing Westernization of Japan due to American involvement, Tiger seems keen to help Bond provided that a sense of honor is maintained on both sides.

Prior to the end of the war, Tiger had been training to be a kamikaze pilot, but he had been denied the opportunity to complete his mission once the war had ended.  Tiger maintains strong ties to his traditional Japanese values, and he sees the opportunity to help Bond as a way of instructing and integrating Bond into Japanese culture.  To accomplish this, he tasks Bond with completing a favor of his asking (an “On” if you will).   Bond would be required to go undercover as a Japanese coal miner after facial alterations to appear Asian and after doing so he wants Bond to kill a foreigner named Dr. Shatterhand, who had fortified himself in an ancient Japanese castle with permission from the government to do botanical research.  Once it was discovered that Dr. Shatterhand had imported a multitude of poisonous vegetation, piranha, and snakes for this research, the grounds of the castle had become a popular attraction for Japanese citizens to commit honorable suicide, a “Garden of Death.”   After one of his own investigators disappeared and was presumed killed, Tiger decided that Dr. Shatterhand must be murdered and that Bond should be the one to do it in exchange for sharing the Russian Intelligence with the British government.

Once Tanaka begins to describe Dr. Shatterhand and his “ugly wife,” it becomes obvious to the reader that this must be Blofeld and Irma Bunt, but for some reason this doesn’t register with Bond despite Dr. Shatterhand’s Swiss background, which would have been Blofeld’s previous stronghold location from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  I suppose one could put this all down to Bond not being himself and still grieving, but I found it hard to believe that Bond couldn’t put two and two together until he was given a photo of Dr. Shatterhand and his wife just before going off on the mission.

Much of the book focuses on Tiger teaching Bond about Japanese culture and history and how to act in certain situations.  There’s some very interesting material in these passages, but Bond rarely gets to use his cover despite having his appearance altered.   Some readers might find the first two thirds of book frustrating for this reason, but I found it enlightening and entertaining.  When Tiger teaches Bond about the poetry of Matsuo Basho, he encourages Bond to come up with a haiku of his own and it is from Bond’s attempt that Fleming derives the title of this novel:

“You only live twice:

Once when you are born

And once when you look death in the face”

Tiger praises Bond’s attempt despite his failure to adhere to the 5-7-5 haiku structure.  In addition to this, Tiger sees to it that Bond receives training in the art of ninjutsu giving Bond a new identity as a deaf and mute Japanese coal miner.  He also introduces Bond to a remote Japanese island comprised of Ama (pearl) divers, where Bond could stay with a Japanese family until he’s ready to set out and swim towards Shatterhand’s castle.  It is there that he meets Kissy Suzuki, a talented Ama diver who chose to leave behind a possible Hollywood career after briefly flirting with becoming a film star.  Since Kissy is proficient in English, it’s decided that Bond should stay with her and her parents.  Kissy and Bond grow close and one could tell that there’s an attraction developing prior to Bond going off to confront Blofeld.

Once Bond penetrates the castle and the Garden of Death, he gets captured by Blofeld and submitted to the potential torture by having to sit over a volcanic geyser set to go off every 15 minutes.  Once Bond admits who he is, he is taken to another room where Blofeld intends to kill him with a samurai sword.  Instead, Bond grabs a nearby stave and fights Blofeld to the death eventually choking him.  Bond escapes via a warning balloon back to the sea where Kissy rescues him.  Unfortunately, Bond now has amnesia and because Kissy loves him she decides to keep his identity a secret so that they may live out their lives together.

It is towards the end of the novel that we get biographical details about Bond prior to his becoming 007. Once Bond is presumed dead, M. writes an obituary for The Times.  We learn the names of his parents, Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix, who were killed when Bond was 11 years old in a climbing accident in the Aiguilles.  Bond then came under the guardianship of his aunt Charmian, who helped educate him until he enrolled into Eton College, an English boarding school near Windsor, where he lasted only “two halves” until he was forced to leave due to “some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.” He completed his education at Fettes College in Edinburgh until he was 17 when he lied about his age to enlist in the Ministry of Defence where he served as a lieutenant during the war eventually promoted to the rank of Commander by the war’s end.  It is during this obituary written by M. that Fleming breaks the 4th wall admitting that “a series of popular books came to be written around him [Bond] by a personal friend and former colleague….If the quality of these books, or their degree of veracity, had been any higher, the author would certainly have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.”  Fleming had once before tried experimenting with metafiction in the now expunged prologue to The Spy Who Loved Me when he tells the reader that Vivienne Michel’s story appeared at his writing desk as is and that the following is her account.   In You Only Live Twice, Fleming went further implicating his presence within the context of the actual fiction.  The comic book adaptation of the novel that appeared in the Daily Express from 1965-1966 features the actual covers of Fleming’s books during this segment of the story where we see Bond’s obituary.

Bond's obituary from the You Only Live Twice film adaptation, 1967

Bond’s obituary from the You Only Live Twice film adaptation, 1967

The novel ends rather curiously with Kissy curing Bond’s impotence by mixing toad oil into his food and becoming pregnant just as Bond latches on to a newspaper printing with mention of the Russian city, Vladivostok.  He tells Kissy that he must go there to see if he can recover his memory and leaves before Kissy could tell him of her pregnancy.  The issue of Bond having a child has never been developed any further neither in the Fleming cannon nor in any of the film adaptations.  The only other follow up to this occurs in continuation author Raymond Benson’s short story, “Blast from the Past,” which occurs outside of the continuity of the other Bond continuation novels.

This off-putting ending tends to sour the novel for most people, but I rather like that Fleming had decided to leave loose ends in this book rather than rely on a convenient ending where everything gets tied up neatly.  I think it reflects the dark wistful mood of the novel where Bond had been challenged to re-examine his thoughts on death, revenge, and honor.

Tiger’s instruction throughout the first third of the novel really serves to enlighten Bond to rethink much of the values he had taken for granted with his Western upbringing, particularly the notion of suicide and honorable death. Tiger informs Bond earlier on about the practice of seppuku, considered an honorable form of suicide where the person slashes their belly from left to right and then upwards towards the breastbone.   Before going off on his mission, Tiger offers him what could only be a cyanide pill in the event of capture to avoid torture, but Bond refuses invoking his poem saying that he would rather choose to “look death in the face.”  Once Bond goes off to the castle on his mission of revenge he takes much of his Japanese instruction to heart.  He could have informed Tiger of Blofeld’s true identity to get reinforcements or have Blofeld arrested in a raid, but he chose to keep Blofeld’s identity a secret so that he could satisfy his own revenge or die trying.   For these reasons, You Only Live Twice stands as one of Fleming’s darker Bond works and I think a pleasantly tidy ending with Bond returning to London unscathed would not have worked.  Bond needed to sacrifice part of himself to complete his mission, and the reader could sense that before Bond even approaches Blofeld’s castle.  Even though Bond physically survives the ordeal, the person he was died in that final confrontation with Blofeld therefore ending the novel with Bond as an amnesiac seems oddly appropriate.  It is only because Kissy loves him enough to save him and care for him that Bond makes a recovery.

Ian Fleming YOLT

You Only Live Twice may not be Fleming’s best Bond novel, but it’s an important Bond novel nevertheless. Not only do we get Bond’s final confrontation with Blofeld, we also get to see Bond challenge some of the very values he had taken for granted throughout the entire series.

Sources:

  1. Fleming, Ian You Only Live Twice. Jonathan Cape, 1964
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Only_Live_Twice_%28novel%29
  3. http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/You_Only_Live_Twice_%28novel%29
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_Five