Given the debt the James Bond novels owe to American pulp-fiction and detective fiction – Ian Fleming acknowledged the influence of the masters of the genre, notably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – it was only a matter of time before James Bond would find himself in the world of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Steve Cole's first Young Bond novel, Shoot to Kill, takes Bond to 1930s Hollywood in an adventure packed with the sort of danger and excitement that would put even the hardest-boiled of detectives through their paces
In Shoot to Kill, James Bond is between schools, at least those we knew about from his obituary in You Only Live Twice. Having been expelled from Eton, he has a year to wait before being sent to Fettes. In the meantime, his aunt has put him into Dartington Hall, a progressive school that might have suited Bond's rebellious nature, except that Bond is through with adventure and is trying his best to avoid trouble. A can of film containing footage of someone being beaten up soon puts paid to that, however, and he soon finds himself dodging bullets fired by people attempting to retrieve the film. The ultimate school trip – a flight to Hollywood on an airship – gives Bond little chance to relax, as danger follows him all the way to Los Angeles. James Bond finds that it is down to him to save fellow pupils, not to mention himself, from a maniacal Hollywood producer whose plan for making films brings a new terrifying meaning to method acting.
Steve Cole's novel is a superb and thrilling page-turner, full of the sort of ingredients we expect from a Bond novel. Readers familiar with the older Bond will have the added pleasure of spotting the nods to Ian Fleming's novels. Among those I noticed are allusions to the Ama divers of You Only Live Twice and Hoagy Carmichael, whom the adult Bond is described as resembling. The title of the first chapter lifts the title of the first paperback edition of Casino Royale published in the US. I was also reminded by passages in the novel of Bond's reminiscences in On Her Majesty's Secret Service of his childhood, and his reflections at the beginning of Goldfinger of the nature of death. There is even a reference to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (not including the use of Boudicca as a character name, which, as with the use of Caractacus in Fleming's children's book, is taken from the history of early Roman Britain). It is in this novel that Bond has a character-forming experience (“I could get a taste for cocktails”) and is introduced to judo (we know from his obituary that he founded a judo class at Fettes). In addition, the staples of the Bond novel – a loquacious villain and descriptions of food consumed – are present and correct.
Steve Cole has met the challenge of bringing us Fleming's character while retaining his own voice and style with considerable success. The task is made all the more difficult by the fact that Steve Cole is writing historical fiction (Ian Fleming, of course, was not), and inevitably there is the occasional anachronistic phrase (“a big ask”, “get over it”, “paramedic”). But this is not my main concern. In places, I admit Shoot to Kill was very gritty and a little tough to read. Some of the scenes could have come from the pages of Lee Child's Jack Reacher series. Such violence and persistent threat stretches the plausibility of the Young Bond novels (and others like them, for example the Alex Rider series). With six adventures under his belt, and with three more still to come, I am beginning to worry about Young Bond's psychological and physical health. How many more near-death experiences can a teenager take? Fortunately, under Steve Cole's care, Young Bond is in good hands.