You won’t often find me curled up on the sofa reading the latest chick lit, but when a quotation from a review on the back of a novel by Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’s Diary, claimed that the book was ‘a Bond-style romp,’ I was intrigued enough to acquire the book and start reading.
Olivia Joules in Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination (Picador, 2003) is a freelance journalist who writes for beauty magazines and the newspaper style supplements, but aspires to be a foreign reporter. When Olivia is sent to Miami for a face-cream launch, she meets a charming and mysterious man who claims to be a movie producer, but whom Olivia suspects to be an international terrorist. Despite the doubts of her colleagues, as well as her own, Olivia follows a trail that takes her to Los Angeles, Honduras, and Sudan, risking her life, as well as her career.
Inevitably, the book contains several nods and references to James Bond. In her hotel room in LA, Olivia dusts the numbers on the combination lock of the safe. ‘Like James Bond,’ she reflects, though ‘James Bond probably wouldn’t have actually given the numbers a silken, light reflecting sheen.’ (Olivia uses Angel Dust face-powder, rather than talcum powder, which Bond uses to dust the locks of his attaché case in From Russia With Love.)
Later, when realising that her room’s been bugged, Olivia makes a call to get the details of the Spy Shop on Sunset Boulevard (‘You know, spies? James Bond? Kiefer Sutherland?’), and eventually is kitted up with the latest gadgets, among them a bug detector, an invisible-ink pen, a tiny digital camera, and a ring with a mirror that allows Olivia to see behind her.
Back in London, Olivia is met by MI6 officers, and is taken seriously enough by MI6 to be taken on as an agent. On a boat on the Thames on her way to a safe house, Olivia’s heart was ‘leaping with excitement, the James Bond theme playing in her mind. She was a spy! She formed her fingers into a gun shape and whispered, “Kpow! Kpow!”.’ At the safe house, Olivia is introduced to Professor Widgett, a veteran spymaster and Arabist described by Scotland Yard’s liaison as ‘the James Bond of his day’.
While there is no Q-inspired character, Olivia is nevertheless equipped with some handy gadgets, cunningly sewn into clothing (the buttons on her shirt, for instance, are replaced by miniature circular saws) or disguised as the typical accoutrements of a handbag (such as a lipsalve that emits a powerful blinding flash). Interestingly, Olivia is also given a belt fashioned from gold coins ‘for buying her way out a mess’, recalling the straps of gold sovereigns hidden in Bond’s attaché case.
Apart from these obvious references to Bond, there are other aspects that are redolent of elements of Bond books, even if the similarities are coincidental. Olivia Joules is working for the Sunday Times, which is the paper for which Ian Fleming worked. There are shades of Vivienne Michel’s story from The Spy who Loved Me in Olivia’s own backstory. Fed up after a series of bad relationships while in her teens, she vows: ‘I’m not going to give a s*** about anything any more. I’m going to be a top journalist or an explorer and do something that matters.’ And like James Bond, Olivia is an orphan, her parents having died in a road accident when she was fourteen.
More generally, the book is as globe-trotting as any James Bond film, and, like Bond, Olivia is a keen and proficient scuba-diver. (And yes, there are sharks.)
I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Spotting the Bond references are fun, of course, but the book is also an entertaining page-turner. Gadgets, resourceful spies, witty one-liners, narrow escapes, urbane villains, cocktails and romantic entanglements – it's got the lot.