Friday, October 11, 2013

BOOK BOND REVIEW: SOLO is the thinking man's OO7

Let's start by talking about the James Bond movies.

Bond movies can be stupid. Gloriously, magnificently, stupid. This is not a criticism. Stupid can be fun. Stupid sells! But in recent years we've seen that Bond movies can also be smart. With the arrival of Daniel Craig, we now have Bond movies rooted as much in character as formula action. And it's amazing how well that has worked out. How many billions has Skyfall made so far?

The James Bond continuation novels, which have run concurrently with the films for most of Bond's post-Fleming existence, have always occupied a conservative middle ground tonally. They never got stupid. They also never got especially smart. They always aspired to offer solid spy stories rooted in reality, but also in a formula that would be familiar to fans of the original Fleming books (or what they chose to remember of them) and the latest Eon films. Overall, the Bond continuations have offered a steady flow of very satisfying, familiar, if maybe a bit unchallenging James Bond. But with Solo by William Boyd, this has now changed.

Solo is the right name for this book. Not because "OO7 goes solo" -- a nifty marketing slogan. It's because author William Boyd goes solo into the juggernaut that is "James Bond OO7" and fearlessly does his own thing. Not since the very first continuation novel, Colonel Sun, has there been a Bond book less concerned with the industry that is James Bond. Boyd simply tells a riveting story of espionage, geopolitics, and a British secret agent in 1969. But the ghost of Ian Fleming is right there by his side.

UK edition
Solo is smart, serious, and much more concerned with capturing atmosphere than action. In fact, Solo is largely action free. Those who think this isn't "Bond" need to re-read their Fleming. This is Bond at the core. The real Bond. The thinking man's Bond. You don't read this book for exploding trains. You read it to visit West Africa. You read it to get a lesson on geopolitics in a post colonial Britain. You read it for sex. But above all, you read this book to walk with a committed middle-aged bachelor in the 1960s with a fetish for the finer things in life and a damn dangerous job. It's like paging through an issue of Playboy from the '60s when it was a true male lifestyle magazine that mixed sex, politics, fashion and toys "for the discerning bachelor." Fun.

Solo is also a hugely moody and internal book; a book that brings us back inside James Bond. Turns out that's a pretty dark place. Because the James Bond of Solo is an extremely Dark character. But not in the obvious commercialized "darkness" of a Batman (or even Skyfall). Bond is simply a man who is resigned to living a solitary, voyeuristic, and dangerous existence which, like a cancer, is eating away at his soul and will kill him one sunny day. But Bond never openly thinks this himself. The Bond of Solo only worries about where his next shower and plate of scrambled eggs might come from.

And drink.

Because James Bond drinks in Solo. He drinks a lot in Solo. He drinks morning noon and night. He drinks alone. He drinks full bottles. And when faced with the prospect of a 24-hour stretch without a restaurant or ready pub, he buys and pockets a bottle of whisky just in case (and indeed drinks it). In fact, Bond thinks more about alcohol than his mission in this book. That's because the James Bond of Solo is an alcoholic. Again, not in the falling down obviousness of a Hollywood production. In fact, those who have read the book might be surprised at my declaration here. But the book quietly screams Bond's functional alcoholism as many of the Fleming books quietly scream it as well. But how can a guy as cool and in control as James Bond be a drunk? There you go again. Don't think "James Bond OO7" of the films or even recent books. Think Don Draper of Mad Men. Coolest guy in the world? Absolutely. Cold, tormented, war-damaged alcoholic? That too. And that's the real James Bond. The James Bond of Fleming and the James Bond of Solo...if you think about it.

U.S. edition
Okay, enough about The Man, what about the plot? Does Solo have a ripping good story? The answer is...somewhat.

(Spoilers ahead)
Solo challenges convention, both as a Bond novel and as a thriller. Boyd is not a thriller writer and he doesn't try to be. The book is not packed with twists, not a single chapter ends in a cliffhanger, and there is no countdown to Armageddon. You walk with OO7 in this book, you don't run with him. The plot peels away slowly (sometimes very slowly) and is resolved with an explanation, not a shoot-out. It's much more of a mystery than a thriller. You might even go as far to say Solo's mostly a character study. But none of this is criticism. Not to join the mob of Devil May Care bashers (I enjoyed the book myself), but while reading Solo I couldn't help but think that this was the mature Bond book from a seasoned writer that we all expected from Sebastian Faulks.

But this also means Solo doesn't have a central show-stopping moment -- no Casino Royale torture scene or Goldfinger buzz saw. That's how Fleming often overcame his own penchant for plots that sometimes meandered. And Boyd misses some easy opportunities to build suspense. A prime example is Bond's meeting with the mysterious Gen. Adeka. Shouldn't Boyd have taken his Heart of Darkness idea here all the way and had OO7 gripping a gun or knife in his pocket ready to complete his mission for M? Then the revelation of Adeka's condition would have had even greater impact. Instead, it's unclear what, if anything, Bond is intending to do other than actually interview the General. It's as if both Boyd and Bond have forgotten the mission completely. If I have a complaint about Solo, it's that Bond's plans are too often ad hoc.

But what Boyd does better than many of his fellow continuation authors is his handling of female characters and sex. Solo is a sexy, even erotic book. But it's also kinky and carnal. Bond's observations of the women of Solo are highly voyeuristic (literally in the case of Bryce), and Boyd takes his time building up lust for Blessing in both Bond and the reader. When it finally culminates, its not only sexy, but also a little alarming. It's a kill rather than a winking conquest and certainly not love. All that can come after is loss, which Boyd, like Fleming, heaps onto his secret agent.

Boyd also fearlessly upends the convention of the Bond villain. Bond's main antagonist in Solo is Kobus Breed (think Sharlto Copley), who's really more of a henchman. I kept waiting for the revelation of the main villain -- the Blofeld in the volcano pulling the strings. Boyd even hints at a master villain throughout. But in the end the villain in the volcano is just a collection of legally operating oil companies. The only lawbreakers are the blood-soaked Bond and Breed. The true villain is indifference to suffering and greed. The villain is the future. And the villain wins. For James Bond the only future is to be stalked by the past (literally), and the reality that he probably can't afford the new car he covets; a Jensen FF Mark I. The future for James Bond is greater darkness, greater loneliness, and more alcohol.

But if you hadn't caught on in the proceeding 232 pages, the ending of Solo is your final clue that what you just read was not a thriller or action book and certainly not an adventure of jolly old James Bond OO7. It was the next -- and maybe last -- chapter of Ian Fleming's dark man in silhouette. A man we have not heard from in a very long time.

Solo is available now in the UK from Jonathan Cape (Amazon.co.uk) and the U.S. from Harper (Amazon.com).

17 comments:

  1. An excellent review, John. Without giving too much of the plot away, you establish just why "Solo" is distinctive. Having read William Boyd's book myself, I wouldn't be at all disappointed to see him tackle a sequel.

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  2. Interesting review. I'm halfway through the book at the moment. Bond is just about to leave Africa. I'm enjoying it but I would have preferred if there has had have been a clearer idea of what Bond intended to do. Having said that though it is still a page turner. It's a character study. I think Boyd deserves to be asked back, presuming he wants the gig again but a more traditional plot would be welcome this time.

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  3. My own review of Solo picks up on many of the points you made. I too enjoyed it and thought it the best Bond novel in many years.

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  4. Mr Cox, what would you give the book out of 5 or 10 stars? Or are you not one for ratings?

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    1. I'm not really one for ratings. On Amazon I always give the max to offset the haters.

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  5. I've only just started it myself (he's just met the brother in London) but am enjoying it. That was a brilliant review and has spurred me on to ignore my work and children and finish it!!

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    1. Work and children...bah! Bond. Only Bond. ;)

      Thank you Gypsy King.

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  6. Had to stop before the spoilers, but good to hear a more moderate (even praiseworthy) review. Seems like I've read nothing but the "purists" tearing into it and it's been putting me off. Looking forward to reading it myself.

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  7. This was an excellent read! After Devil May Care I didn't get my hopes up on another period piece, but this book knocked it out of the park! It seems to flow seamlessly in with the ian Fleming novels. I loved it and would be ecstatic if he and Jeffrey Deaver took over the series with each author picking up where they left off in their respective novels.

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  8. Great review! Finished the book last night and it seems to fit nicely next to the later Flemings and "Colonel Sun". While it appeared to have a few instances of Bond behaving in a manner that I wouldn't expect, Boyd did a great job of being true to the character while throwing in a few of his own observations. I agree that it stands as more of a character study of James Bond than an outright, plot-driven spy thriller, but it's definitely a better tale than the efforts of Faulks and Deaver.

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  9. Great review, I agree 100%. For me it's a real continuation novel, may be the first one, and it gives me the real feeling that Ian would have written it, had he lived enough to. The Bond character depicted in this novel is pure Fleming.

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  10. I've liked all of the recent continuation novels, but I think Solo is probably the best of the bunch. I especially loved the way the novel's first chapter (and the character introduced during it) was eventually paid off. I wasn't sure what Boyd was up to with that plotline for a while, but it certainly made perfect sense in the end.

    My only complaint would be that during one climactic scene, when a character seemingly survives instead of dying, that I am not sure I feel Bond would have left that situation unresolved. But that's a minor complaint; overall, I loved the book.

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  11. John, when you posted this review I didn't read it because I hadn't read the book yet. I meant to come back to it when I did, but forgot until you just linked it again on FB. I have to comment though, because I think this is the best review of Solo I've read (absolutely spot on) and the best review you've ever written on this site. All around, a really outstanding piece! Thank you.

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  12. I do agree about that part you refer to, Bryant, and while I really appreciate what Boyd is going for at the VERY end, I feel like the actual mechanics of it are a tad sloppy. But I'd be very eager indeed to see him pen another 007 continuation!

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  13. An excellent review but I disagree completely with the summation.
    The principle difficulty is that Boyd tries to turn Bond into a haunted, Le Carre type character and fails miserably. He just gives us a dull, uninteresting, unglamorous and dislikable 007 who spends the entire outing wallowing through a boring plot whilst drinking and smoking himself into a stupor.
    What's even more unforgiving is that Boyd's Bond has developed foul taste and some dubious habits. He indulges in some Savillesque voyeurism and hackers after a brown Jensen when not stumbling around in some bizarre tropical outfits.
    Frankly Solo is an out and out clunker. IFP should hang their heads in shame and thank God Horowitz has come to save us!

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