Thursday, 7 June 2018

Reflections on Forever and a Day

This piece contains spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, do so now!

I’ve just finished reading the latest James Bond novel, Forever and a Day, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Author Anthony Horowitz knows his Bond and his own love for the character comes through on every page. Anthony Horowitz has given us an exciting, fast-paced thriller that conjures up the world of Fleming’s Bond in rich detail. Original material by Ian Fleming helps, and for this novel, Horowitz has incorporated a treatment of a story called 'Russian Roulette', set in the casino of Monte Carlo. Such is the skill of Horowitz that without reference to Fleming’s text, it is almost impossible to tell where Horowitz’s words stop and those of Fleming begin.

As was announced before publication, the novel is a prequel, taking us to events before Casino Royale. We find out how James Bond earned his licence to kill and was inducted into the double-0 section and learn about the origin of some of the traits for which he has become familiar. Bond’s principal mission is to investigate the death of his predecessor, from whom Bond has assumed the 007 code. Bond’s investigation takes him to the French Riviera and the criminal underbelly of Marseille. There he meets Jean-Paul Scipio, an enormous, corpulent gangster, the mysterious Madame Sixtine, an expert blackjack player with ambiguous loyalties, Reade Griffith, a CIA agent (not Felix Leiter), and a wealthy American businessman called Irwin Wolfe, who is used to getting what he wants.

The basis of the plot is heroin, and this is good solid Fleming territory. He did like his crime-based plots, and he had an involvement in the film The Poppy Is Also A Flower, which revolves around opium smuggling. 

The book is a page-turner. Perhaps in places it Is too rapid a read. Some of the tight spots in which Bond finds himself (the chapter 'The Acid Test' is a nail-biter) are resolved quickly. I would also have welcomed more Fleming-style digressions. 

Anthony Horowitz gives Bond fans several Easter eggs, and it is fun to spot these. And some of the cultural nods appear to go beyond Bond. In the chapter ‘Bad Medicine’, Sixtine bleeds Bond to remove the heroin from his blood. ‘All she wanted was the contents of one arm’; a reference, perhaps, to the classic Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘The Blood Donor’ (‘A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!’)? The villains’ plot itself could be viewed as one massive Easter egg. Wolfe explains:
‘What I am providing might be called the greatest loss-leader of all time. Although I have paid Scipio a fair market price for his product [heroin], I am going to pretty much give it away… I intend to create a nation [in this case the USA] of heroin-addicts, Mr Bond, a million future customers for Mr Scipio. ’
Reading this, it’s inevitable that those familiar with the films will think of Live and Let Die. The plot is more or less identical to Mr Big’s. Come to think of it, Forever and a Day has a literal Mr Big in the character of Scipio. 

There’s one aspect that bothers me. Throughout the book, James Bond is referred to as an assassin or is described in terms that equate to the role of an assassin. As I’ve argued before, I think this is a misreading of the character. Bond’s licence to kill doesn’t make him an assassin; it is a recognition that he has had to kill in cold blood in the course of his duties. A subtle difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless. Killing isn’t Bond’s primary role. In any case, we're told in Goldfinger that Bond doesn't like killing people, but when he has to do it, he does so out of duty and his sense of professionalism. Not quite the ideal candidate for the role of assassin. At M’s briefings, Bond isn’t given a photograph of a target and told to kill him or her. True, in the short story, ‘For Your Eyes Only’, M sends Bond effectively on a private mission to kill the killers of the Havelocks, friends of M. This is a difficult decision for M, and he doesn’t like making it, which underlines the rarity of such an order. It’s a little disturbing, then, returning to Forever and a Day, M appears to have few scruples when he sanctions a kill at the end of the book (the denouement is terrific, incidentally).

I won’t say much about how Bond discovers Morland cigarettes or martinis shaken, not stirred, but I’m not entirely convinced by the explanations, and would have preferred these to have already been established. After all, the debate about whether martinis should be shaken, not stirred is one that has been raging at least since 1948. It's more plausible that Bond would have been aware of the debate and formed an opinion of his own.

I love the descriptions of the food in the novel. Anthony Horowitz strikes the perfect balance. Readers expect Bond to consume copious amounts of eggs, among other things, but it can be overdone, pushing the descriptions into pastiche. Horowitz, however, has got it right. That said, I would question the unsalted butter, and where was the bouillabaisse, the regional speciality mentioned in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

But I’m being pedantic. Forever and a Day is a wonderful Bond novel and, along with its predecessor, Trigger Mortis, the closest thing we have to a new Ian Fleming book. With three more Fleming treatments left, I really hope Anthony Horowitz is asked to pick up his fountain pen again and go for the hat-trick. Where else can Bond go? My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is to look at the allusions to adventures in the novels that have never been expanded – the missions between the missions. Or how about a war-time adventure? Anthony, over to you!

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