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For this latest Bond novel commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications, Horowitz was given unprecedented access to unpublished story treatments by Ian Fleming.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: 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 By Royal Command by Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson’s final Young Bond book, By Royal Command, is a masterpiece worthy of Ian Fleming himself.  I say this with no hint of hyperbole or exaggeration.  While the Young Bond series has impressed me overall, this final installment from Higson is most reminiscent of the best of the Fleming books as it contains several passages that reminded me of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia with Love.  Higson has done a brilliant job throughout most of the books, which serve as prequels to Fleming’s literary James Bond character.  The events of the series take place from 1933-1934 and chronicle the period of Bond’s life that had only been given a brief mention in the cannon of Ian Fleming.  In Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, M. wrote an obituary for The Times believing Bond to be dead. Here he writes:

“ …at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he [James Bond] passed satisfactorily into Eton, for which College he had been entered at his birth by his father. It must be admitted that his career at Eton was brief and undistinguished and, after only two halves, as a result, it pains me to record, of some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids, his aunt was requested to remove him. She managed to obtain his transfer to Fettes, his father’s old school.”

By Royal Command weaves the tale of what really happened to conclude young James’ time at Eton and suffice it to say Higson gives us a spy thriller that not only elaborates on Fleming’s passage but also shows us James’ induction into the secret world of spies in the years leading up to World War II, a world that is described to him as a “shadow war.”

The story begins in early 1934 just after James returns from his Caribbean adventure in Hurricane Gold and the short story “A Hard Man to Kill.” James is now 14 and is eager to return to his normal life as a school boy but first he joins some of his classmates on a field trip to Kitzbuhel in Austria where he learns how to ski.  His roommate for the trip, Miles, is a talkative pretentious type who thinks he knows everything.  When Miles puts himself in danger by drinking on the slopes and getting lost on the mountain, James risks his own life to save him.  The ordeal ends with James being praised as a hero but all is not right afterwards.  There is a man who persists on following him, a suspicious encounter with a German dignitary in the hospital who fears that someone is trying to kill his “cousin Jurgen,” and a dangerous conspiracy brewing back at his school at Eton.

Thickening the plot is the aforementioned boys’ maid, Roan Power, only a few years older than the boys who James takes an instant liking to as well as the new school bully Theo Bentinck, who learns quickly that while he can’t intimidate James he could still make him suffer by taking his anger out on James’ friends making school life nearly impossible.  The book changes gears for each of its three acts.  There are layers of mystery that I don’t want to spoil here for anyone who wants to read the book.  James gets his first full taste of what his future life as a spy will be like including all the players involved in this “shadow war.”  He encounters Hitler Youth, Soviet spies, a communist conspiracy to kill the King, and has his own induction into the British Secret Service and what they do to stem these various plots.  Higson weaves an intricately complicated yet fascinating world for young Bond to navigate and all of it is very well- researched and very relevant to the history of the time period of this story.

Roan Power

Roan Power

Roan Power is probably the most fascinating female character within Higson’s Young Bond series.  She’s very reminiscent of the femme fatale, very dangerous, and yet very sympathetic.  James is blinded by his love for her, and even though she presents a danger to him it’s also evident that she feels something for James.   It’s this kind of paradox of women both luring James towards danger while also genuinely caring about him that gets explored in the Fleming books as well as in the Bond movies.  She tells Bond at one point,

“You’re a blunt object, aren’t you, darling? Oh, I’m not saying you haven’t any hidden depth.  Because I know there’s a lot going on beyond that cool surface of yours.  You’re a lot more grown-up and interesting than most boys your age.  But you’d still rather take on the world with your fists than with your brain, or with your heart.  You’ve got to learn to use your heart, because, if you don’t, it’ll become weak.  And a weak heart is easily broken.  If someone wants to hurt you badly they’ll aim their arrows at that heart of yours.”

In interviews, Ian Fleming would often refer to Bond as a “blunt instrument.” Interestingly enough Fleming himself was removed from Eton at age 17 by his mother who chose to send young Ian to a “crammer” (a specialized school) to prepare him for a Military College, where he failed to gain a commission after less than a year.  It’s fascinating that when choosing a background for Bond’s youth that Fleming should choose Eton as well as a premature removal from the school as part of Bond’s makeup.  It further cements the prevailing notion that Fleming looked to his own life for the inspiration behind James Bond.  What Charlie Higson has done with his Young Bond series is to not only fill in the boyhood details of Fleming’s fictional creation but also tie in some of the cultural and historical events and themes that one imagines would have had an impact on Fleming himself as a young man.

The title of By Royal Command is derived from a brief encounter Young James had outside of Windsor Great Park after hiding in a tree from a perceived threat from the man who was following him.  He sees two little girls playing badminton “on a large well-kept lawn.”  The older of the two girls who was about 8 years old asked young James to retrieve the shuttlecock which had gotten stuck in the branches.  James happily obliges and politely leaves.  He later learns that the two girls were the royal princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.   He later also meets their uncle, Edward who was the Prince of Wales at the time along with his girlfriend Wallis Simpson, who would later prove to be the reason for Edward VIII abdicating the throne allowing for Elizabeth’s father George VI to succeed him as the King.  The young princess Elizabeth that Bond meets outside the park would become Elizabeth II, who would of course become the reigning Queen during Bond’s tenure as a double-o agent.

At one point when James is introduced to the British Secret Service, he is told

“When you are young . . .  the world seems so simple and straightforward.  There is right and there is wrong.  In the cowboy films the goodies wear the white hats and the baddies wear black.  As you get older you realise the world is not so simple.  There are men in grey hats.”

James then replies, “And what colour hat do you want me to wear, sir?”

That exchange exemplifies some of what Charlie Higson has achieved in this Young Bond series and particularly in his final Young Bond novel.  He shows us James’ transition from seeing the world as a young boy to seeing the world as a man.  The saga of James Bond’s time as an Eton school boy and how it all comes to an end informs us about the experiences that shaped Bond into the fictional man that Fleming created after the war. It’s also a well-crafted look into some of the larger and important historical events that shaped the world in the years leading up to World War II.  Higson does an extraordinary job weaving the history of the time organically into the story and none of it feels forced.  I highly recommend the series not just for anyone interested in James Bond but for anyone who loves history and enjoys a good historically based adventure story.

Though this is Charlie Higson’s final Young Bond book, Ian Fleming Publications recently partnered with author Steve Cole to continue the Young Bond saga.  Cole’s book Shoot to Kill takes place after the events of By Royal Command and was released in the UK in 2014 and is available only as an ebook in the US as of this writing.

Sources

  1. Higson, Charlie By Royal Command. Puffin Books, 2008.
  2. http://www.spectator.co.uk/spectator-life/spectator-life-culture/9472462/from-fettes-with-love/
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Fleming
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_Royal_Command
  5. http://www.youngbond.com/

A Look at Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier and “A Hard Man to Kill” by Charlie Higson

The first quarter of this book is Higson’s Young Bond short story “A Hard Man to Kill.” The rest of the book is an overview, reference, and companion guide to the Young Bond series with many illustrations and reproductions of documents referenced throughout the previous books. This book is definitely worth tracking down if you are a young Bond fan. I don’t think it is in print any longer but if you can find a used copy (which is how I got a hold of it), it’s well worth it.

“A Hard Man to Kill” begins with Young James and Aunt Charmian embarking on their return voyage to Europe from the Caribbean on the passenger ship The Colombie after the events of Hurricane Gold. They learn that the ship will also carry a dangerous prisoner being extradited to France named Caiboche. He was originally a French gangster who went on to join the French Foreign Legion during World War I rising through the ranks to eventually become a general. After the war, he became a warlord taking over parts of Algeria using men who were loyal to him committing war crimes that eventually earned him the name “the butcher of Aziz.” The French government finally prevailed in defeating Caiboche’s forces in Algeria but not before he escaped to South America. Eventually, the Cuban government decided to cooperate with France to capture Caiboche and extradite him to stand trial in France.

Of course, Young James finds himself in the middle of a dangerous plot when a group of conspirators try to free Caibosche and rescue him arranging an escape. Fortunately, Bond has two significantly helpful allies to help foil the plot. He has a chance reunion with Wilder Lawless, the girl who had helped save his life in Scotland during the events of Silverfin. She and her father were transporting horses across the Atlantic, and for the first time we see Bond handling the prospect of romance in a more mature fashion. Prior to getting ensnared in the villainous plot, the two seem to enjoy each other’s company and their banter is reminiscent of the kind of banter Bond would have with various women in the Fleming books.

Then, we also meet a young Rene Mathis who would go on to be an ally of the adult Bond in Casino Royale as a French operative. Here, Mathis is part of the Gendamerie Maritime in charge of guarding the prisoner Caibosche. When the conspirators begin their plot, take Wilder hostage, and Caibosche escapes, it’s Mathis who must help Bond providing cover with his gun and alerting the ship’s captain about the villains. There’s a very interesting exchange where young Mathis and young Bond discuss the prospect of firing a gun and the fear that they each have in having to pull the trigger. Even at this early stage, Bond is the braver of the two as he goes about rescuing Wilder from the villains unarmed hoping that Mathis would summon the courage to fire his weapon for the first time when called upon.

“A Hard Man to Kill” is a fast paced engaging short young Bond story that probably could have been expanded into a full length novel had Higson decided to do so. It’s full of suspense, adventure, danger, and even a Bond card playing scene that provides us a taste of what we’ll eventually see in Fleming’s adult Bond. The fictional details for the plot and characters are deftly woven within the historical framework of the time period in which it is set. It’s every bit worthy of being a Bond adventure and I highly recommend it.

I must also say that the rest of the book that acts as a series companion is also very worthwhile for anyone who is a fan of this series. It’s nice to have as a reference if you need to be reminded of an event or character from the previous books and the illustrations and reproductions within are of stellar quality. If you like Young Bond, you NEED to track down and get this book.

Mr. Merriot's  report to Aunt Charmian about Bond's first half at Eton

Mr. Merriot’s report to Aunt Charmian about Bond’s first half at Eton

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A Look at Hurricane Gold by Charlie Higson

As much as I enjoyed the first 3 books in the Young Bond series, I found this 4th book disappointing. It does improve a great deal towards the end but I found that the story dragged quite a bit for the 1st 2/3rds of the book. The biggest problem I have with it is with the character of Precious, the lead female character and meant to be sort of a prototypical “Bond-girl”. The story takes place shortly after the events of Double or Die with Bond on a trip to Mexico with his Aunt Charmain after the Xmas Holidays. It’s decided that it’s in Bond’s best interest to prolong his return to Eton and remain in Mexico so that he could fully recover from the previous ordeal / adventure. Aunt Charmain decides she wants to go off on her own private Mayan ruins expedition and decides to leave young James with a family friend, Jack Stone, the pilot who will fly her to her remote location. It’s here where the story gets a bit frustrating because right away we are introduced to Jack Stone’s daughter Precious, who is made out to be extremely unlikeable and behaves as the stereotypical rich spoiled brat we’ve seen countless times and it comes across here as very annoying for both James and the reader. If Charlie Higson had made the character a bit more likeable in the beginning of the book then it might have been an easier story to get through but as soon as we meet her we see her treat the wait staff horribly and pull a nasty trick on young James while vying for her father’s affection. Then, Precious undergoes an enormous and very implausible transformation whereby she becomes a strong-willed heroine summoning up the strength to help save young James’ life pulling him out of the water on several occassions and lifting James with one hand as they tried to traverse a log full of army ants in the villain’s obstacle course towards the end of the book. Of course by this point, the character has become humbled due to the circumstances of having been kidnapped and held hostage, but the entire transformation this character undergoes just felt forced and took me out of the book.

The overall plot presents the reader with certain shades of both Dr.No and Live and Let Die. I just wish the execution and the character development of Precious were handled a bit better. It’s not a bad story at all. If you’re willing to overlook the mishandling of the Precious character the overall adventure is actually quite entertaining. Young James spends most of the story either captured or fleeing from a small group of gangsters led by Mrs. Glass who invaded the Stone house to get their hands on secret American naval documents that Stone had smuggled onto his plane. Their plan was to steal the naval documents and sell them to the highest bidder but things go awry when the plans aren’t in the house and they’re forced to take Precious and her little brother JJ hostage. Young James manages to follow along and fool them into thinking he’s a Mexican pickpocket in order to join their gang hoping to save Precious and her brother when the opportunity presents itself, but of course James’ plan doesn’t go so smoothly and he ends up getting pursued and captured several points in the story. The highlights include Young James learning jiu jitsu from one of the gang members, a Japanese man named Sakata, who had thrown in with Mrs. Glass but who proves to be the most honorable of the gangsters when he decides to help get the injured younger child JJ to safety. The backstories of the gangsters are actually very well done and Mrs. Glass’ backstory is fascinating and includes a nod to Legs Diamond.

The final third of the book is really where the novel picks up. James and Precious find themselves on a private island set up as a haven for criminals and run by El Hurrican, who basically provides this safe haven with the condition that no one who enters the island is allowed to leave. Of course, the criminals think they’ve got it made when they get there but once they run out of money, El Hurrican forces them into slave labor. The only way off the island is to run a dangerous obstacle course called La Avenida de Muerte with each stage in the course set up as a tribute to various Mayan gods. Both Precious and young James decide to run the course and this sequence does make for a thrilling read. It’s just that I had a hard time believing the necessary transformation Precious had to undergo before she could run the course along with James.

Overall, I’d have to say this was the weakest Young Bond book I’ve read so far, but my disappointment is only there because the previous books had impressed me so much that I’ve set such an impossibly high standard for these books. It’s worth the read if you’re willing to overlook the flaws I mentioned, but the first 3 books are so amazingly brilliant that I’ve decided to give Charlie Higson a pass for the elements I didn’t like in Hurricane Gold. I still look forward to the next books in the series.

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

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/