Sunday 19 June 2011

James Bond's Desert Island Discs

Ian Fleming was the ‘castaway’ on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs on the 5th August 1963. In it, Fleming, like all guests since the programme’s inception in 1942, was asked which eight records, along with a book and luxury item, he would have if alone on a desert island. The BBC recently placed the archives from the programme online, and though the recording of Fleming’s appearance is not available, his choice of music, luxury item and book are listed. Anyone listening in 1963 who had also read the Bond novels would have had an inkling about some of Fleming’s music choices.

James Bond would be hard-pressed to come up with eight records, as he is not much of a music aficionado. He knows the song ‘Belly-lick’ and the rude words to go with it (The Man with the Golden Gun, chapter 10), and is vaguely familiar with the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor ('The Living Daylights'). One of his discs, though, might be ‘La Vie en Rose’, which he recognises being played on an electric guitar in the casino’s nightclub at Royale-les-Eaux (Casino Royale, chapter 14). The tune was also Ian Fleming’s choice. The version by Edith Piaf was his third disc.

There is also music in The Spy who Loved Me, although any thoughts about it are those of the novel's heroine, Vivienne Michel, rather than James Bond. She is alone in the Dreamy Pines Motel and has the radio on for company. She hears the Ink Spot's 'Someone Rockin' my Dream Boat'. Vivienne knows the song, and it prompts her to recall a past relationship, which ultimately leads her to the motel in the Adirondacks. Fleming was a fan of the Ink Spots. The popular vocal group of the 1930s and 1940s features in his Desert Island Discs, though the record he chooses is 'If I didn't Care'. Later, Vivienne hears some Dixieland jazz. Fleming would have approved. Joe 'Fingers' Carr, a Jazz pianist, was Fleming's eighth artist, and his piece, 'The Darktown Strutters Ball', the 'castaway's favourite'.

Ian Fleming's luxury item was a typewriter (a luxury also chosen by Bond scriptwriter George MacDonald Fraser), while his chosen book was Tolstoy's War and Peace. What might James Bond's luxury and book have been? I expect the two items would have been related – a pack of cards accompanied by Scarne on Cards, or perhaps a set of golf clubs and Ben Hogan's Modern Fundamentals of Golf.

Monday 13 June 2011

James Bond: licensed to travel

Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche places James Bond in Serbia, then after briefly returning him to England, takes him to Dubai, followed by South Africa. Travel and exotic destinations was part of Ian Fleming's original novels, and Deaver follows the tradition. Deaver has said that the Bond of his novel is Fleming's Bond, and while I agree with this, in the case of exotic travel, he seems to have been influenced to a larger extent by the films.

One measure of the difference is the number of countries that feature in a book or film (though not necessarily visited by Bond). Let's examine the full-length novels first. Excluding England, the action of Casino Royale (1953) is set in just one country, France. In Live and Let Die (1954), it is two countries – the USA and Jamaica. In Moonraker (1955), no countries are featured, as the narrative is set entirely in England. No more than three countries ever feature in a Bond novel (unless one counts the incidental states that Bond travels through on the Orient Express in From Russia, with Love (1957)). Taken together, the average count of featured countries in a Bond novel is 1.83.

Turning to the films, Dr No, released in 1962, is
principally set in one country, Jamaica, and in this regard matches the novel. The next three films also match their respective novels. However, You Only Live Twice (1967) diverges from this pattern, as three countries are shown, compared with one in the novel. The film with the highest count is Diamonds are Forever (1971), with six, although a number of these are shown fairly fleetingly. Overall, the average count per film is 3.36.

There is another interesting observation to make. Looking at the chart showing the count of locations by film, there is a trend for a gradual increase in the count over time. The later films generally feature more countries than the earlier ones. This trend, or selection pressure, may be driven by the idea that Bond films must be globetrotting and show lots of exotic places. And with each film, that idea, or meme, is reinforced, which in turn pushes the number of countries upwards.

We see, then, that Carte Blanche's count of three countries is closer to the film average than that of the novels. A review of Carte Blanche in Private Eye (no. 1290) claimed that the James Bond of public imagination is that of the films. In terms of locations and travel, the filmic Bond is Deaver's Bond too.

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 clich├ęs. 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.