Monday, 6 June 2011

Carte Blanche - a review

Times have changed. During the tenure of continuation authors John Gardner and Raymond Benson, James Bond adventures were published with short print-runs and to little fanfare (good news for those who purchased the first editions, which are now worth a lot of money). Now the publication of a Bond novel is an international media event. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008) had the works, and so too has Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche. Its launch was accompanied by a glamorous Bond girl, a straight-from-the-factory Bentley, and a team of abseiling marines. Sebastian Faulks seemed somewhat embarrassed by the publicity surrounding his book launch, but Deaver had no such feelings, and by all accounts, he was as excited at the end of the project as he was the moment he was commissioned to write the book. And it shows in the writing, for Carte Blanche is a novel written by a master of the thriller, and now a master of all things Bondian.

Like most of Ian Fleming's adventures, Carte Blanche opens in the thick of the action, in Serbia. Bond, a veteran of Afghanistan and now working for M and the Overseas Development Group, an ultra-secret government outfit that sits a fraction outside the law, is trying to stop a train loaded with extremely hazardous materials from being derailed. This is, of course, just small part of something much bigger. Bond is chasing down a lead in a plot to detonate an unknown device at an unknown location and at an unknown time. The trail takes Bond to South Africa via Dubai and to the villain with the curious name of Severan Hydt, who, when not planning world terrorism, runs a global waste processing and recycling operation.

Jeffery Deaver is not writing as Ian Fleming – descriptions of dead people would not be out of place in his more usual CSI-style crime novels – but he recalls enough aspects of Fleming's works to give the novel an authentic tone. The villain, for instance, is reminiscent of Hugo Drax or Dr No, and he devises a scheme that might have Goldfinger on to his lawyers about breach of copyright. James Bond routinely takes a hot shower, followed by a cold one, and, as in Casino Royale, takes 'ridiculous pleasure' in food and drink. Such details are finely woven into the story and Deaver avoids turning the book into a checklist of Bondian clichés. Just one duff note: Bond shows too much interest in team sports. Very uncharacteristic.

As Fleming was wont to do, Deaver peppers Carte Blanche with technical detail, snippets of interesting, but not strictly relevant, information, and references to popular culture. Some of these will seem in a few decades time as incomprehensible as Bond's 'Golden K' in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but that is perhaps no bad thing. Most of the cultural references, though, will be incomprehensible now to anyone outside Britain. Deaver squeezes in references to London Olympic mascots Mandeville and Wenlock, Asda supermarket, and even the Two Ronnies. Deaver has certainly done his research. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler reviewing Diamonds are Forever, the remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an American.

Like all thrillers, the book relies on coincidences bordering on implausibility in order to move the plot along. Meetings are engineered and alliances are made with few problems, while Bond's state-of-the-art phone, packed with apps to enable him to eavesdrop on the villains, or track their movements, makes his job seem, well, a little too easy. Nevertheless, Deaver smooths over such concerns with the rapid pace of his story telling and sustains tension throughout.

Jeffery Deaver has said that his Bond is Fleming's Bond. That is true enough, but Carte Blanche is dated ACR – after Casino Royale (2008). If the novel was ever brought to the screen (and, admittedly, that is unlikely), Daniel Craig has his name stamped all over it.

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