Wednesday, June 15, 2011

BOOK BOND REVIEW: Deaver mixes a strong Bond cocktail with CARTE BLANCHE


The last James Bond novel was 2008's Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks. A celebration of the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth, Faulks elected to write the novel as a grand pastiche, imitating Ian Fleming's style and structure, and even going as far as placing on the title page that he was "writing as Ian Fleming." While this could be seen a tribute (and I thoroughly enjoyed the novel for what it was), one could not escape the feeling that Faulks treated the assignment as beneath him -- that James Bond was not worthy of being a true "Sebastian Faulks Novel".

Happily, this is NOT the case with Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche. Deaver, an international bestselling thriller author, has embraced the assignment full throttle and delivered a terrific James Bond novel that respects all the franchise elements (girls, guns, cars, locales), but is also very much "a Jeffrey Deaver novel." The mix works like a well shaken martini (sorry, couldn't resist). Deaver has not only created a book that, literally, moves James Bond into the 21st century (although it is not as radical a reboot as some expected), but he's also produced a thoroughly modern thriller that I think would sit comfortably among his other bestsellers even if the main character wasn't named James Bond.

Deaver's pacing is superb (I love the short chapters), his choice of locations are original and all new to the Bond universe (hard to believe it took Bond this long to make it to South Africa), and his action set-pieces have just the right Bondian flair without going overboard (the books have always managed this far better than the films). But what makes Carte Blanche so strong apart from the pacing and evocative prose, is Deaver's pantheon of fully developed supporting characters. His three Bond Girls are each unique, compelling and sexy without being clichés. Bond's dinner with Ophelia Maidenstone (great name) I found to be particularly enjoyable, with an edge of melancholy that recalls Fleming's Bond, who didn't always get the girl. Likewise, Bond's various partners in the intelligence agencies all have shading, complexities and subplots. And his main villain, Severan Hydt, is top notch and very much in the Bondian tradition of a bizarre obsessive. I've always felt the best Bond books (and films) are those in which 007 is increasingly immersed in the villain's world - a Heart of Darkness journey into danger, violence, and perverse revelations. This is very much the case in Carte Blanche.

My only complaint is that the Dubai section -- which features Bond's traditional ally Felix Leiter -- seems to miss somewhat. This despite the freshness of the location (another first for Bond) and some real tension whether Deaver is going to "reboot" Felix's tragic injuries. Deaver seems to overplay his hand here, mentioned the ticking clock threat so many times that it starts to become obvious that it will be anything except what he is saying. But this is the only time one of Deaver's famous twists didn't utterly surprise me. These twists, by the way, multiply exponentially as the book races toward it's climax, making this, this longest James Bond novel yet written, a real page-turner.

Conceptually, Carte Blanche reminds me most of the very first James Bond continuation novel, Colonel Sun, by Kingsley Amis. It's James Bond in the hands and voice of a major writer at the top of his game. But the plot reads most like a John Gardner Bond novel, with an emphasis on real-world spycraft and threats of double-cross. Crafting a reality-based spy novel while still delivering a James Bond adventure, with all it's formula conventions and expectations, is a not an easy thing to pull off. (Faulks stuck rigidly to the formula.)

With Carte Blanche, Jeffery Deaver has delivered what I feel is certainly one of the strongest James Bond continuation novels yet written. Yes, there will always be Fleming purists who will not accept any book by another author (just as there are movie fans who only accept Sean Connery in the role), and there is a contingent who bitterly resent an American taking over the Bond mantle (some cloak their prejudice behind snarky one-star reviews on Amazon). But for those of who are happy to read a new James Bond adventure from a top writer, Carte Blanche is a delight.

It's my hope that, like 007, "Jeffery Deaver Will Return."

16 comments:

  1. Fine review of a fine book. The best read in Bonds since By Royal Command.

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  2. Got the novel yesterday and loving every minute of it. Great review John!

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  3. Nice review fella.
    Simon.

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  4. Excellent review (not surprisingly here, of course).

    To revisit a couple of points that have struck me, made here quite well. Early on after the UK publication, I saw comments here and there in the main about weak characterizations. Hard to imagine anyone who'd actually read the book coming to that conclusion; in fact, Jeffery Deaver is not only most skilled at fleshing out his players, but creative in doing so. One of the best.

    And there's the Ian Fleming thing. Oh, my. The parallel in my interest is the Rolex Submariner watch, a'la Sean Connery. Only then, when it was demonstrated that Fleming's intent was that James Bond wear an Explorer, along with further information we had on his dislike of weight and complications, including the diver's bezel, well, suddenly it's "what did Fleming know anyway?"

    Conversely (as I'm confident thebookbond.com knows as well as the best of anyone), Ian Fleming's collaborative, respectful partnership with William Plomer more than substantiates arguments that the creator of 007 would have envisioned and facilitated continuations even in his own lifetime, had the opportunity presented. Further to this, look to evidence in his relationship with Eon Productions, scripts and final products.

    No question in my mind that Jeffery Deaver is the best James Bond continuation author we've seen to date. I'd absolutely like to see him back for another after Carte Blanche. Thankfully, I've seen several interviews lately that indicate an increasing openness to that.

    As a practical matter, it's been 3 years since Devil May Care. Bond 23 comes out next year. So I think the timing would be right to both allow Mr Deaver his other interests and commitments, and to still deliver a next 007 thriller at a time consistent with demand cycles, all things considered.

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  5. Thanks for the comments, Dell. Well said. :)

    I also suspect not everyone who has passed judgment on the book has actually read it.

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  6. You took the words right out of my mouth here, John.

    Worse yet, it seems like some of the misconceptions have gone viral (I'm okay with RSS Feeds and linking to what others have written, but to grab something and simply regurgitate it as fact: And via major news outlets at that?). For example, several places have made it sound like James Bond runs around like a fellow barely out of his teens, Tweeting to Followers. Where does that come from?

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  7. I do feel as a Britain there is some credence behind those criticisms. Sometime it seems he tries too hard to get the British feel right and it seems really forced. Certain things like the Oakley sunglasses are so wrong. Bond is not a surfing dude. But apart from that your observation that it is similar to a John Gardner is right on the money and that is the problem I have with it.
    I went through several phases as I read it. Disliked the opening too Raymond Benson for me. Thought things really picked up back in London. The tone was just right, and like you loved Bond's dinner with Ophelia Maidenstone. Then for me it just nose-dived. As with most of these Bond continuations the basic plot and villain were weak. I have since again read From Russia With Love and I am sorry it just doesn't come close. Fleming really was a brilliant writer. Deaver's book has none of the passion and that real sense of place and the bizarre that Fleming is so great at.
    I believe Charlie Higson should have written an adult Bond. His last By Royal Command was superb.
    Mark A

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  8. So far I've only gotten my hands and eyes on the two-chapter excerpt, and not to overdo my praise, it did figuratively have my pulse racing. I agree with the reviewer that Jeffery Deaver IS the best Bond continuation novelist in the finest post-From Russia With Love tradition (when the poison made from the sex organs of Japanese globe fish mentioned in Dr. NO as intending to kill Bond at the end of FRWL, and Dr. NO himself marked the debut of the over-the-top villians and before-their-time gadgets). This novel has instant megaseller written all over it, a prime prospect for movie adaptation. I will be at Barnes & Nobles first thing in the morning, and if it ever is made into a movie, I'll be first in line at the premiere. I loved this review as much as I sure I'm going to love the other 400+ pages of the book itself.
    George Roache

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  9. MarkA: I certainly agree with you that Charlie Higson should write an adult continuation novel. I think he would knock it out of the park.

    George: I don't think I said in my review that I thought Deaver was the best continuation novelist. I like them all, and it's hard to compare when some have written just one book. Don't think I could name a "best."

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  10. Excellent review -- I haven't read the book yet, but can't wait, thanks to your endorsement.

    I think I may like DMC even more than you. It was terrifically misunderstood by Bond fans -- which is why despite massive sales and more press attention than the other Bond continuation novel, ever, it's referred to as a "disappointment" in all of those creepy fan forums that I can't bring myself to read anymore. (Always measure an irate poster's criticism by the quality of his "fan fiction.")

    DMC was meant to be an homage, not the start of some new continuation series, and should be enjoyed as such. You can tell that Faulks had a lot of fun writing his own tribute to Fleming, regaling us with Bond's disgust of "hippies," etc. As a book, it was no different to me than Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance" or Chabon's "The Final Solution:" The work of a good writer having fun with a genre. If Faulks had thought the project was somehow beneath him, he wouldn't have written it at all -- he sure didn't need the money.

    Nobody knows where Fleming would have taken Bond (But judging by how he always wrote against expectations in novels like FRWL, TSWLM and YOLT, it would have been someplace unexpected).

    Meanwhile, the film series seems to have forgotten the literary series, altogether, so there's no point worrying about any sort of continuity. I love reading different takes on Bond, ala Amis, Pearson, Faulks, etc., and now I look forward to Deaver's version -- even more so after reading your review...

    Jeff Hause

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  11. (I guess I should note that I like the series of Gardner, Benson, Higson, and Weinberg, too.)

    Aw, what can I say -- I love 'em all. That Fleming guy wasn't so bad, either...

    Jeff Hause

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  12. I too get the impression that certain people have provided reviews without even having read the book. It’s hard to fathom how some people can be so sad and pathetic. LOL. Ah well, that’s life I suppose.

    It’s nice to see many positive reviews. The trend I have noticed in such reviews however are that they tend to overlook the absence of Bond’s CORE personality. Just because Bond’s background history and interests remain intact it’s not enough to convince me that we are reading about the same man. Moreover, the fact that he exists in another period is irrelevant in terms of his essential personality except for affecting his chauvinism and racist tendencies. I don’t mind if these things are no longer there.

    This is all coming from someone who embraces the continuation books. I am not one of those people who refuses to pick up a non Fleming book or writes such books off just because the style is too different to that of the original creators. I really enjoyed Carte Blanch but it’s major demerit is that much of the time I don’t feel like I am reading about Bond. I am open to Deaver returning to write another because he is a talented man but I do feel he needs to get inside the character of Bond more. There’s no denying the fact that he requires greater fleshing out.

    Oh, to add something else to my earlier modest, casual collection of sentiments on the book, I loved the scene in and around the motel at the base of the rock face. Most suspenseful. Loved how Bond left his jacket hanging on the cliff face thereby fooling Dunne. The atmosphere in the motel and it’s decor reminded me of TSWLM.

    I think Charlie Higson and Samantha Weinberg should write an adult Bond book. I think they'd do a splendid job.

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  13. in all of those creepy fan forums that I can't bring myself to read anymore. (Always measure an irate poster's criticism by the quality of his "fan fiction.")

    You'll have to take my word for this but I really am standing and applauding this wonderful statement.

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  14. Finished last night and was underwhelmed. Bond is too much Sherlock Holmes and not enough Bond. Fleming's good guy were good and bad guys were bad. Here we once again enter the area of John Gardner's double and triple agents. Maybe more realistic but not Fleming. For continuation novels, I'll stick with Benson--only one to get it right yet.

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  15. I like most of Gardner's books and upon reading Carte Blanche I found it refreshing not to get another simplistic Fleming/Bensonsque plot.

    There was very little down time unfortunately. I loved reading in the earlier books about Bond sitting in some cafe, nursing an Americano or what have you while reflecting on certain topics to an admirable extent – what’s going on behind the closed doors of the town in which he is presently domiciled, the pedestrians, the contact he is meeting, his assignment... Such passages are unquestionably part of Bond’s literary universe. They allow the reader to really soak up the atmosphere and become more than acquainted with the character. Carte Blanche is just too faced paced in parts and lacks these facets. As I said, it’s a good book but we need to know a great deal more what is going on in Bond's head.

    Charlie Higson, John Pearson, Samantha Weinberg and Christopher Wood (who should come out of retirement ) should write an adult Bond book. I think they'd do a splendid job. Especially Wood and Pearson! I suspect IFP wish to recruit authors who are very much in the limelight however which is unfortunate to a point.

    JS.

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