Friday 11 September 2015

Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz - a review

The window display of Waterstones, Piccadilly, where Trigger Mortis was launched
The cover of Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks' James Bond novel (some might call it an extended pastiche), proclaimed that its author was writing as Ian Fleming. Anthony Horowitz, the author of the latest Bond adventure, Trigger Mortis, has gone one better. In incorporating original material by Ian Fleming, and carefully referencing the touchstones of James Bond's world, Horowitz has delivered the authentic voice of Bond's creator. It is as if the manuscript of a long lost Bond novel had been discovered in the bottom drawer of Fleming's writing desk at Goldeneye.

Trigger Mortis takes the reader back to 1957 and follows immediately from the final events of  Goldfinger. We left that adventure (spoiler alert) on Weathership Charlie off the Canadian coast; Bond, taking Pussy Galore with him, having ditched a Stratocruiser into the ocean, with Goldfinger lying dead on the floor of the plane. Back in London, Bond learns about a SMERSH plot to infiltrate the German Grand Prix and take Lancy Smith (a thinly-disguised Sterling Moss; Smith, like Moss, even drives a Vanwall) out of the race – permanently. This leads to an introduction to the mysterious Jeopardy Lane, the cold and brutal Jason Sin, and a larger, more terrifying plot with the Space Race at its core.

Anthony Horowitz began writing the book, unusually, with Chapter 3, as he weaved 'Murder on Wheels', an unmade television treatment by Ian Fleming, into the story. But it is chapters two and seven which are most infused with the spirit – and the words – of Ian Fleming. Some of the dialogue Fleming gave to Bond and M is repeated verbatim, and readers will have fun trying to identify Fleming's words among those of Horowitz (it's not easy, I can tell you). The seventh chapter, called 'Murder on Wheels', describes the race at the Nürburgring and Bond's attempt to foil SMERSH's plot. What a thrilling piece of writing, and one that rivals, or rather complements, Fleming's descriptions of Bond's other sporting ventures, skiing, scuba diving, driving, and the like.

Any book written today inevitably makes allowances for modern sensibilities, even if set in the past, but I'm glad to report that Bond retains his foibles. He smokes (though is perhaps not quite the seventy-a-day man he once was), drinks Martinis, has opinions about women's bottoms, and hasn't moderated his views about the Germans (to be fair, it is only twelve years since the end of the Second World War).

And naturally Bond remains very particular about his food (for instance distrusting food with French names if not served in France). Continuation authors have tended to make sure that Bond was well fed, and we do know what Bond eats in Trigger Mortis, but the food references this time are not intrusive. At one point Bond breaks the yolk of an egg, but we have no idea how it had been cooked. Horowitz knows when to veer away from the narrative for a Fleming-esque digression, and when get on with the story in order to, as Fleming once put it, “get the reader to turn over the page.”

Apart from Fleming's TV treatment, the novel that has most inspired Horowitz is Goldfinger. It is no secret that Trigger Mortis sees the return of Pussy Galore (lucky Bond's housekeeper, May, is away; I can't imagine her approving of Bond's house-guest), but there are nods to Goldfinger in other ways. Perhaps, though, it is the 1964 film that comes to mind more strongly with some of the episodes in the book, for instance a punishment involving gold paint, the means by which the chief villain, Jason Sin (a Korean, like Oddjob), is killed, and, before that, Jason Sin's asking Bond “Any last witticisms?” The line might have been in the first draft of dialogue given to Gert Frobe's Goldfinger before being redrafted into the classic, “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr Bond.”

Goldfinger apart, the plot involving rockets obviously recalls the novels of Moonraker and Dr No, and reading the denouement of Trigger Mortis, I was reminded even of the latter part of the film, Octopussy.    

These allusions to the other Bond books (and films) are great fun, of course, and give readers a wonderful sense of Bond's world, but at the same time, I wonder if Anthony Horowitz, like all continuation novelists before him, has played it too safe. Though his novels could well be described as formulaic, Ian Fleming was a great experimenter, and was not averse to playing with the structure of his novels. We can see that most clearly with From Russia, with Love and especially The Spy Who Loved Me. Could a continuation novelist today ever produce a Bond book in which Bond appears in the second or even last third of the book? Probably not (although The Moneypenny Diaries are closest in that vein, and could be considered experimental Bond novels).

This is a very minor point, however, because put simply Trigger Mortis is a triumph. The novel deserves a place alongside Ian Fleming's novels and, containing Fleming's own words and ideas, must be regarded as 'canon'. But the novel can also sit comfortably alongside modern thrillers; I was particularly reminded of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels in the passages set in American motels and diners as, over endless cups of coffee, Bond and his companion, Jeopardy Lane, piece together clues to the mystery of Jason Sin. 

Anthony Horowitz has achieved what some continuation novelists before him have struggled to do: write a continuation Bond thriller that is, well, thrilling. James Bond – and Ian Fleming – is back!

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