Friday, 4 October 2013

A review of William Boyd's Solo

Ian Fleming said that the recipe for a bestseller was to “get the reader to turn over the page”. Early book sales notwithstanding, on this basis, William Boyd's own James Bond novel, Solo, has succeeded. It is a fast-paced adventure, by turns exciting, surprising, reassuring, and sobering, that at times takes Bond, and the reader well out of their comfort zones.

The story begins at the Dorchester hotel in London. Bond is in reflective mood as he celebrates his 45th birthday alone and recalls a dream which explores his wartime service (an ingenious nod to Bond's creator). Later returning to the office, M briefs him on the civil war in the fictional West African country of Zanzarim, sending Bond there with the vague mission to end the conflict. In Zanzarim, Bond meets his contact, the beautiful Blessing, and encounters the horribly disfigured and very dangerous mercenary, Kobus Breed. Events ultimately lead him to Washington on a solo mission of revenge. There he meets with an old friend as he pursues his unauthorised mission and attempts to make sense of events.

James Bond is his familiar self, and Boyd has peppered the books with the usual Bondian traits and foibles. Bond consumes scrambled eggs, wears shoes without laces, refuses offers of tea, smokes incessantly, and is always in reach of a drink. To be honest, the 'Bondisms' become a little distracting, as the narrative pauses yet again to describe Bond's latest meal or the clothes he wears. Certainly, Fleming indulged in such descriptions, but Bond's traits emerged gradually over the course of twelve novels. Not even Fleming described every meal of Bond's in detail. It is a trap that is evidently all too easy for continuation novelists to fall into, but a degree of restraint is important, and makes the difference between classic Bond and pastiche.

Still, this is of minor concern, as William Boyd impresses in other areas, in particular his convincing descriptions of Zanzarim. Boyd's knowledge and affection for West Africa is evident, and his portrait of the fictional landscape will have readers almost reaching for the atlas. The late 1960s is also effectively evoked with references to the moon landing, the Vietnam war, mini skirts and cinema releases. And with Solo being his fourth espionage novel, Boyd knows his spy lore. Readers might recognise Bond's rule that “if it looks like a coincidence then it probably isn't” from Boyd's earlier work (Restless, if memory serves).

We can trace some tropes or memes further back. Boyd lifts the idea that one vomits after being struck on the head from Fleming ('Risico'), who in turn borrowed it from Raymond Chandler. And despite Boyd's assurance, given at the recent Boyd on Bond event at the Southbank Centre, that Solo contained no traces of the cinematic Bond, inevitably elements of the film series have crept in – a quip or two that could have been uttered by Sean Connery's Bond (or even Roger Moore's), Bond's relationship with Moneypenny, and a Q-like character, for example.

Solo is shaped by all the essential Bondian ingredients, and still allows Boyd to assert his own voice. But even with the exotic African location, the familiar faces, and Bond doing what he does best, my thoughts kept returning to Bond's role in the Second World War. Boyd's writing here is at its most Fleming-esque, and I wanted to read more. Is there scope for a full-length wartime-set Bond adventure? I really hope so. Indeed, any author tackling it might find it a more rewarding proposition than penning a straight continuation novel, being less constrained by the habits and peculiarities of the older, weary 007. The adventures of Young(er) Bond? I'd definitely read those.

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