James Bond Radio: Interview with Dennis Calero – Casino Royale

I had the opportunity to interview artist and co-author Dennis Calero for James Bond Radio all about the recent Casino Royale Dynamite Comics graphic novel adaptation.  It was great to talk Bond with him and listen to his insights about the character and franchise.  It was also a treat to get an inside look into the creative process that went into the book.

Check out the YouTube link below.

 

Heads You Die Review

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Young James

Heads You Die is the 7th novel in the Young Bond series and the second book written by Steve Cole after Charlie Higson’s monumental first five novels in the series.  This book picks up right after Cole’s last offering, Shoot to Kill, where Bond thwarted a dangerous Hollywood blackmail scheme. James (about 14 or 15) and his new school friend Hugo, a 16-year-old boy afflicted with dwarfism, are now in Cuba staying with family friend of Aunt Charmain, Dr. Hardiman prior to embarking on their return trip to Europe.  We know from Fleming’s brief writing on Bond’s youth that Bond will eventually end up going to Fettes College in Edinburgh to complete his education, but Heads You Die has other plans in store for young Bond.  This is quite simply Steve Cole’s best Young Bond novel so far especially for those readers who may have been discouraged by the Hollywood setting of the previous book.  The Caribbean is prime Fleming territory and Cole knows this and utilizes it to optimum effect.

The plot is set in motion when Dr. Hardiman is harassed and then kidnapped by a dastardly villain named Scolopendra, a native of the island who has achieved wealth and power by acquiring a vast and comprehensive knowledge of the island’s botanical treasures.  He needs Dr. Hardiman to work on a mysterious secret project and uses his henchmen to intimidate anyone who stands in his way. James suffered through several encounters with the aptly named El Puňo so christened due to the fact that after the massive man lost his hand, he had a block of granite fixed on to his stump carved into the shape of a fist.

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In addition to Hugo, Bond works with a new set of allies.  Jagua is Scolopendra’s daughter

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Jagua

who has grown disgusted with her father’s cruel methods and Maritsa is Jagua’s best friend.  Jagua is probably the strongest female character of all the Young Bond books.  She’s fiercely rebellious and is able to handle multiple dangers to achieve her goals.  She’s actually very reminiscent of Judy Havelock from Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only short story. Their motivations are different of course but their determination and their strong wills are very much similar. Together the group figures out that the only way to rescue Hardiman and end Scolopendra’s mysteriously cruel secret project is to get some kind of leverage to use against Jagua’s father. A strong box on a sunken cruiser may hold the key to foiling Scolopendra’s plans, but first they must dive.   Here’s where Cole unleashes his inspiration from Fleming. The primitive diving equipment utilized by Jagua and Maritsa, who have grown accustomed to diving provides quite a challenge for young James. With a primitive diving helmet attached to hoses and bellows for air, Bond must dive deep down into the water to recover a mysterious strong box with Hugo pumping the bellows to provide air to the homemade helmet under water.  As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge to navigate, young James promptly discovers he isn’t alone and a thrilling underwater action sequence ensues.

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Scolopendra

Bond must also contend with the mysteriously veiled woman named La Velada who has Scolopendra under her spell much to Jagua’s contempt and decipher what to make of her connections to Russian Secret Police. Multple dangers are in store for Bond to contend with including many chases, being shot at by La Velada, and hiding while a murder takes place.  The following sequences gives us a glimpse at how Cole invests the readers in the psyche of Bond much like Fleming had done.

“ One thought kept spinning around in his head:  If La Velada’s bullet had hit me yesterday, I’d be a corpse on the floor myself. Now Scolopendra had executed a man, and she hadn’t even flinched; clearly they were two of a kind. James shuddered. To shoot a man dead in cold blood, at point-blank range . . .

I could never do that.

While demonstrating just the right amount of restraint, here Cole invests us in Bond’s youth and innocence in a way that foreshadows the man that James will become.  These experiences throughout the Young Bond novels are slowly shaping who James will be, but at this stage the concept of killing in cold blood is shocking to the young man and appropriately so. Clearly, Bond doesn’t know how any human being could possibly commit an act of brutality without remorse or any emotional effect whatsoever.  At the same time, Bond is constantly finding himself in dangerous situations in circumstances far beyond his control.  Take this quote from an earlier chapter:

“Heart hammering as he raced away, James knew that he would never get used to the thrill of danger.  That was its allure.  So much of life was routine and boring, but danger had no rules.  It happened anywhere, could take so many forms.

‘And it looks me up wherever I go,’ he muttered to himself.”

Note the italicized emphasis on the word “never.” Danger is something he would “never” get used to, but he still relished the thrill of it.   For now, in James’s psyche the dangerous situations are not thrills that are sought after but when he happens to come across said danger he enjoys it on some level because he contrasts it with “boring” and “routine” regular life.  It should therefore come as no surprise that the adult Bond would subscribe to a life that guarantees danger with every mission perhaps to relive the same childhood thrill.

Heads You Die is a fantastic novel and I look forward to Steve Cole’s 3rd book, Strike Lightning due out in September where we will finally see how Bond settles into life at Fettes College.  While I don’t blame anyone for missing Charlie Higson, Heads You Die has convinced me that Steve Cole has put Young Bond on the right course.  Not only is able to deliver thrilling action sequences for young james, he also delivers on building upon the character we’ve gotten to know in the previous books.  I highly recommend this latest book and I have no doubt that Strike Lightning will continue to provide the kind of suspense and thrills to exceed our expectations as Bond fans.

  • As a side note, I highly recommend acquiring the limited edition hardcover of Heads You Die available only as an import if you live in the US. Cole provides his insights about where he drew his inspiration for the diving sequences with a notable selection from Fleming’s short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity.”  He also provides a deleted / altered scene from his book for context, which gives the lucky reader a brief glimpse at the creative process involved in writing a Young Bond book.

review by Jack Lugo

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How Stephen King’s JFK Novel Echoes Fleming’s Least Known Bond Novel

Proof that Bond follows me everywhere: I decided to take a little break from reading all things Bond so a while ago I began reading Stephen King’s time travel novel 11/22/63 about a school teacher who ends up going through a portal that takes him to 1958. I wanted to read the book before watching the miniseries on Hulu which deviates a bit from the original novel (fans of King’s novel IT will find the return of few key characters). The owner of the diner where the portal resides implores Jake, the protagonist, to live in the past long enough to thwart the Kennedy assasination (hence the title). So, I’m  about 600+ pages along (the book is about 853pgs long) and I come across this paragraph:
“… at five that afternoon I was sitting across from the Greyhound terminal on South Polk Street, near the intersection of Highway 77 and the still-new fourlane I-20. I was reading (or pretending to read) the latest James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me.”
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Richard Chopping’s dust jacket for The Spy Who Loved Me

Jake then goes on to describe Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrival in Dallas in 1963. It just goes to show that Bond seems to pop up in places where I least expect it, in this case it turned out to be a direct reference to literary Bond. I was initially surprised that King didn’t go for From Russia with Love, which had been published a few years earlier but received a very considerable boost after endorsement from Kennedy. Spy was first published in the UK on April 16th 1962 with Viking Books publishing the US edition on April 11th 1962. In the timeframe of the novel King’s protagonist was actually just a few months shy of the US publication of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which was published on April 1st in the UK by Jonathan Cape while the US edition was held up until August of 1963 once Fleming switched his US publisher to New American Library after leaving Viking Press who published the US editions of the previous Bond books.

Strangely enough, The Spy Who Loved Me is probably the least renown or regarded Bond book in the Fleming series.  I wrote about this over at my own blog some time ago.  It was written from the perspective of a 23 year old Canadian woman in the first person.   Vivienne Michel recounts the story of her life and her woeful relationships with men for about two thirds of the book before James Bond even shows up.  It’s a Bond novel where the focal point is not about espionage or even about Bond at all. It’s about the story of a young woman who had been treated horribly by men her whole life and how such a woman finds herself in the precarious circumstances to be in need of a heroic man like Bond.  Bond eventually arrives and through wit, cunning, and physicality saves her from being brutally raped and killed by gangsters at a secluded hotel.
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Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Fleming’s novel and King’s novel.  For one thing, on a very basic level there’s this switching of narratives going on in both stories.  Both are told from the 1st person perspectives of their protagonists although King’s protagonist is a young male teacher.  Both books, however, set up expectations for the readers only to divert the reader away from what a reader thought he was getting when he picked up the book.  In 1962, most readers picked up the latest James Bond novel expecting yet another spy thriller.  SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld had just been introduced in the previous book Thunderball, but that novel has its own sordid history.  The word “Spy” is even in the title so a reader who just picked up the

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alternate cover for The Spy Who Loved Me, Penguin Edition

book as a literary Bond fan would have undoubtedly expected a new spy thriller.  Instead, readers were treated to a personal narrative about a young woman struggling for independence and respect in her relationships with men in a time where most women were not afforded the same regard as men especially when it came to how they were expected to conduct their personal and professional lives.  Needless to say, this may have been a bit ahead of its time for mainstream readers in the early 1960s. In Stephen King’s book, you have a story about time travel with one of the most infamous days in United States history as the title.  Readers might expect an in depth analysis of the assassination and the historical figures involved.  Well, 600 pages in and the reader spends more time with Jake teaching in a suburban High School romancing the young librarian he was set up with rather than tracking Oswald or Kennedy or engaging in any activity that might alter the timeline.  The book is more about the personal journey than the historical event that triggered the novel.  King does indeed deliver on some things that readers who began reading this book for the historical fiction involved, but it’s not nearly as much as I expected.  Strangely enough I actually find myself enjoying the parts of the story that are completely about the fictional characters more than the instances where the novel returns to the apparent business at hand preventing the assassination.

In one instance, Jake is supposed to be tracking Oswald’s movements when an emergency happens in a crucial moment.  As Jake often reiterates in this novel, “the past is obdurate.  It doesn’t want to be changed.”  Jake is supposed to see if Oswald either acted alone or if he was part of a larger conspiracy.  One way to determine this is by tracking Oswald’s movements during his previous unsuccessful assassination attempt on General Walker who had been widely criticized for supporting racist policies. Jake determines that if he follows Oswald and he attempts to assassinate Walker alone then he most certainly must have acted alone on the fateful day in question.  So, Jake is about to leave his apartment when he gets a phone call and it’s the deranged ex-husband of Jake’s love interest, Sadie.  Jake hadn’t expected to meet Sadie before going into the past so he had no idea that her ex-husband was going to try to kill her on the very pivotal day that would have set the stage for his mission to save JFK. Of course, Jake opts to abandon his plans to follow Oswald in order to save Sadie. If this sounds a bit familiar it’s probably because in a way it’s a little similar to how Bond encounters and saves Vivienne Michel in Fleming’s novel.  Of course, Bond wasn’t a time traveller but he was a man who came to the rescue of a woman in need, a woman at the mercy of dangerous men.  Rather than being of the mindset of having more important fish to fry (if you recall SPECTRE and Blofeld are active threats at this point in the literary Bond timeline), Bond decides that saving Vivienne is the most urgent thing to do at that moment in time.
Sadie’s own history with men even parallels Vivienne’s to some degree because while Vivienne’s life hadn’t been threatened by her former lovers we learn about in the first two thirds of the novel, she had certainly suffered through abusive relationships.  In King’s book, Sadie recounts her husband’s suppressive attitudes towards sex to the degreee that he put a broom in between them on the bed and only allowed her to sexually gratify him with her hand instead of engaging in any kind of affectionate behavior. Indeed, Sadie could have easily arrived in the Texas town of Jodie with the same mindset that Vivienne used to open the start of The Spy Who Loved Me. Reading Vivienne’s words after learning about King’s character in his book almost feels like the two characters are echoes of each other.
“I was running away.  I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from drabness, fustiness, snobbery, the claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, although I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race. In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”
Although I haven’t had a chance to properly dive into the Fleming letters in The Man with Golden Typewriter just yet, for this occasion I decided to peruse what I could find regarding The Spy Who Loved Me.  Here’s what I found. In a letter dated April 18th, 1962, Fleming replies to a Mrs Florence Taylor from Ford’s Book Stores,Ltd who wrote back a rather negative review of the novel after receiving an advance copy.  In her letter she described the novel as “a great disappointment” and went on to say that “I do hope that this is not a new trend in your style of writing.
Ian Fleming replies with grace and decorum:
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” It was really very kind of you to have taken the trouble to write to me and I was touched by your affection for James Bond.
The point is that if one is writing about a serial character one’s public comes to want more or less the same book over and over again, and it was really to stretch my writing muscles that I tried to write like a twenty-three year old girl and put forward a view of James Bond at the other end of the gun barrel so to speak.
But this is a unique experiment and I have just completed the next Bond book, I think the longest yet [he doesn’t say this but he’s referring to OHMSS], in which he appears from the first page to the last.
Again with many thanks for the kindly thought behind your letter.”
The very next letter to Michael Howard of Jonathan Cape further illustrates Fleming going into a rather defensive mode about The Spy Who Loved me to the point of declining a 2nd print run for the novel and for the book to be witheld from the Pan editions.  Clearly, Fleming felt that his experimental approach to this Bond book failed to resonate with readers the way he had hoped. Of course, the next novel would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which resulted in a resounding return to form, but I still wonder what other Fleming books might have been like if his experiment with The Spy Who Loved Me worked.  The possibilities would have been limitless at least for the few more Bond novels that remained to be written before Fleming’s life was cut short in August of 1964.
All those purist out there who think Bond stories must all conform to Fleming’s blueprint should also realized that even Fleming himself was open to experimentation with his books.  As for the similarities between Stephen King’s novel and Fleming’s disavowed Bond book, perhaps they are merely coincidental, but even if they are it’s impossible to deny that certain echoes exists within common story threads.  Whether we choose to see them or not, these echoes are out there for us to find if we want to, not just as they pertain to Bond but as they pertain to life in general.  Anyhow, I just found it rather strange that while I had embarked on a rather decisive non-Bond reading experience, it all came back to Bond in the end.
I initially published this piece on the James Bond Radio Podcast site but I have recreated the piece here for your convenience.
Sources:
1. King, Stephen 11/22/63. Scribner, 2011
2. Fleming, Ian The Spy Who Loved Me. Jonathan Cape, 1962
3. Fleming, Fergus The Man with the Golden Typewriter. Bloomsbury USA, 2015

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/

A Brief Look at Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

In 1968, Glidrose Publications (Fleming’s publisher) commissioned Kingsley Amis to write the first Bond continuation novel after Ian Fleming’s death. At the time, Glidrose could not obtain the copyright to the Bond character and it was determined that a new novel would help them obtain that copyright. Kingsley Amis used the pseudonym “Robert Markham” to publish his Bond novel and came up with an intriguing tale of espionage taking Bond to Greece and the Aegean Islands.

The plot of the story itself is excellent. M. is kidnapped by Colonel Sun’s henchmen in a Chinese scheme to implicate Britain in the bombing of a Communist secret conference on one of the Aegean islets. Bond goes on a rescue mission to find M. and receives help from the beautiful Ariadne, a Greek communist sympathizer and agent for the GRU as well as Litsas, a Greek WWII Resistance fighter who is convinced to help the mission by the promise of capturing and executing Col. Sun’s collaborator Von Richter, an ex Nazi known as “The Butcher of Kapoudzona.”

The novel certainly has enough elements in it to entice any Bond fan, but it still pales in comparison to the Fleming books in terms of execution. I found Amis’s style a bit wordy and laborious especially in the early chapters. There’s a lot of unnecessary expositional dialogue that could have been made a bit tighter or at least would have been made tighter by Fleming if he wrote it. Fleming’s prose reads a lot more smoothly than Amis and when there isn’t any action going on the book gets a bit bogged down. When the action does come, however, Amis’ language awakens and all his stylistic flourishes make those segments quite exciting to read.

Colonel Sun himself may be perhaps the most sadistic literary Bond villain yet. The 3rd act torture scene of Bond is one of the most thrilling of the series and that’s saying a lot considering how much Fleming subjected Bond to torture and near death.

I didn’t enjoy Colonel Sun as much as the Fleming books, but there’s a lot that Amis does get right and the climatic 3rd act of the book is reason enough for any Bond fan to read it. I just wish the earlier chapters between the kidnapping of M. and Bond’s confrontation with the enemies weren’t so arduous to get through.

My apologies for the brief nature of this review.  I may revisit this review and make it a bit more thorough in the future but for now I just wanted to put my initial thoughts out there on the book.

If you want a more detailed review of this book, I recommend you check out my favorite James Bond podcast, James Bond Radio.  A while back ago they did a thorough review of this book.  You can check it out here:

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 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

Raymond Benson’s “Blast from the Past”

After wrapping up my reading of all 14 of the Ian Fleming James Bond books, I was about to move on with my plan to start reading Charlie Higson’s highly regarded YA Young Bond series when I stopped myself remembering what I had heard about Raymond Benson’s short story, “A Blast from the Past.”  Raymond Benson was the officially sanctioned Bond continuation author from 1997-2003.  I’m interested in reading his work at some point, but “Blast from the Past” was a piece I felt I had to read now as it is the only official continuation Bond story that picks up the loose threads from Fleming’s penultimate novel, You Only Live Twice, which I have recently read.

Benson’s standalone story seems to take place outside of the continuity of even his own work.  It seems to have been one of the first things he wrote after obtaining the literary Bond baton from Glidrose Publications. I’m not sure if it was released before or after Benson’s first novel, 1997’s Zero Minus Ten.  It was originally published in the 1997 January issue of Playboy Magazine, and it’s the only continuation Bond story I know of to be considered a direct sequel to one of Fleming’s novels.

blast from the past 2

The story takes place many years after the events of You Only Live Twice.  Bond had conceived a child with Kissy Suzuki whom had live with for a brief time while he had amnesia following his final confrontation with Blofeld. During that time, Kissy had kept his identity a secret because she loved him and wanted to continue her life together with him. Once Bond expressed his desire to find out more about his past by going to Vladivostok, however, Kissy refused to stand in Bond’s way.  We eventually find out that the Soviets subsequently captured and brainwash him to become their agent at the beginning of The Man with the Golden Gun. Before the end of You Only Live Twice, however, Kissy had become pregnant with Bond’s child although she declines to tell this to Bond before he leaves her.

Benson’s story picks up with Bond receiving an urgent message from James Suzuki, now an adult working for a Japanese bank in New York City. The message implores his father to come to New York, and Bond senses that his son is in danger. We learn that Bond eventually found out about his son and we get the impression that there were occasional visits between he and his son but that Bond had not been awfully present in James Suzuki’s life. Kissy had previously died of ovarian cancer, and James Suzuki seems to have settled into a life in NYC as a bank employee.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to see Bond interact with his son as we soon find that James Suzuki had been murdered, poisoned by a puncture wound to one of his arms.

Bond teams up with an SIS agent Cheryl Haven to find out who is responsible for his son’s murder.   He soon notices the constant reappearance of a suspicious homeless woman, who disappears into a car after a bomb had gone off in the safe deposit box they had been investigating at the bank where James Suzuki had been employed.  Bond and Cheryl Haven give chase, and we eventually get to the warehouse. The chase through the streets of Manhattan is one of the highlights of this short story.  Benson brilliantly executes the thrilling sequence making it instantly memorable. Once Bond is captured, we find that the homeless woman had been none other than Irma Bunt, who Bond believed had perished in the fire.  She wears prosthetic makeup over one side of her face to disguise the burning scars that had been left from the explosion that Bond had originally setoff prior to escaping from Blofeld’s castle.

We learn that Irma Bunt survived the explosion with her own case of amnesia, which is the one part of the story that seems a bit far-fetched since we now have two characters suffering from amnesia over the same events. Once Bunt recovered her memory, she set about seeking revenge for what happened to her as well as for Bond’s killing of Blofeld.

The climax of the story was very thrilling.  Bunt decides to give Bond a shave with a blade dipped in fugu poison, the same poison she used to kill his son.  Luckily enough for Bond, Cheryl Haven comes to his rescue and a fight ensues with Bunt’s henchmen. Bunt hides in amongst a room full of disused mannequin parts as the warehouse she had been using had been formerly used by Macy’s.  A firefight ensues with Bunt injuring Bond but Bond luckily shoots Bunt dealing her the final deathblow.

Bond ends the story in the hospital reflecting on the fact that he now had revenge not only for his son but for the death of Tracy, his wife who Bunt and Blofeld had killed at the end of On Her majesty’s Secret Service.  He decides to cherish the revenge rather than linger on the fact that he lost a son that he hardly had known, which seems in character for Bond.  The final scene where Cheryl climbs into the hospital bed next to him offering her breast to him after asking if he was hungry came across slightly gratuitous.  It wouldn’t have necessarily been out of character for something like that to happen in a Bond story, but seeing as how Bond just lost his son I doubt Fleming would have ended the story in such a way since Fleming really did have Bond struggle with devastating losses such as the loss of Tracy by actually grieving and going through bouts of depression.

Overall, the story was highly entertaining for a quick read.  There were times where I felt Benson had missed opportunities to embellish his language with phrases that Fleming might have used as the piece does feel written by an American rather than a British writer.  I have a feeling Benson remedies this in his novels, and I’ve read that the story had to be cut significantly to meet with Playboy’s space requirements.  I look forward to reading more of Benson’s Bond work, but first I’ve decided to tackle Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series.  As a brief diversion and a continuation of the loose threads of You Only Live Twice, “Blast from the Past” is a fun, thrilling, and quick read. I highly recommend it to anyone who has read You Only Live Twice as it offers up a plausible conclusion to the events of that novel.

Source.

1. Benson, Raymond “A Blast from the Past” (originally published in the January 1997 issue of Playboy Magazine).  It has been included in the following publication

Benson, Raymond James Bond: The Union Trilogy: Three 007 Novels. Pegasus, 2008.

2. You can listen to a fascinating interview with Raymond Benson on the James Bond Radio podcast here: http://jamesbondradio.com/raymond-benson-interview-jbr-episode-11/

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