by Jeffery Deaver
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The last official James Bond novel was released back in 2008. Sebastian Faulks' “Devil May Care” was released in a tidal wave of hyperbole and became Penguin UK's fastest selling hardback novel – shifting 44,093 copies in the first four days. However, true fans of 007 were not impressed. Whilst the novel took the secret agent back to a 1960s setting and Faulks made a fair stab at imitating Fleming's writing style, it was a pretty poor book. The villain was laughable, the plot was dull and Faulks proved that even the most highly acclaimed literary author can struggle when writing action.
“Carte Blanche” is a very different beast. Penned by veteran thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, the novel relocates Bond to a modern setting and gives the secret agent a new lease of life by rebooting the franchise. Bond is no longer a veteran of the WW2; he's now a Royal Naval Reserve officer fresh from the war in Afghanistan. Recruited by the Overseas Development Group, a covert operation independent of MI5, MI6 and the Ministry of Defence, whose sole aim is to protect the state by any means necessary.
The novel features all the usual Bond tropes but Deaver tinkers with them ever-so-slightly. The result is that that “Carte Blanche” feels like a James Bond book without being over-familiar. There's the usual blend of sex, violence and glamour which one would expect but Deaver brings a very modern, dynamic edge to the book. M, Miss Moneypenny and Mary Goodnight are all present and correct but Bond appears to have a bit more respect for his female colleagues, even turning down a rebound-shag with one of them. Bond still has very hot then very cold showers and a taste for fast cars but now drives a modern Bentley Continental GT. Q Branch still provides Bond with gadgets but they come in the form of special apps for his hi-tech mobile phone, dubbed the iQphone. Deaver sticks fairly closely to the details of Bond's childhood, with references to his Aunt Charmain and his expulsion from Eton, but a sub-plot revolving around his parents' untimely death has the potential to be the most contentious addition to the canon.
The plot involves Bond's investigation into a potential terrorist atrocity dubbed “Incident Twenty”. Bond dives into the mission with his customary zeal and finds himself up against the sinister Severan Hydt, the owner of a waste disposal corporation with a passion for decay that borders on necrophilia. Assisted by the technically-minded but emotionally cold Niall Dunne, Hydt leads Bond on a globe-trotting adventure from Serbia to Dubai and then on to South Africa. Bond's mission is, of course, not as simple as catching up with Hydt and putting a bullet between his eyes. Deaver manages to handle the increasingly complicated plot with consummate skill whilst maintaining a breakneck pace throughout.
“Carte Blanche” is significantly longer than Fleming's bond novels and it is testament to Deaver's talent as a thriller writer that it doesn't feel much longer. Opening with an attempted derailing of a train carrying toxic chemicals in the first chapter, the novel hammers along for over 400 pages of relentless thrills. Set-pieces abound, from Bond's breathtaking escape from a condemned building set for demolition to a high tension gunfight at the book's climax where the hero's ever-diminishing supply of ammunition is coldly and calmly counted down as he eliminates bad guy after bad guy.
But it's not all action. Deaver also shows himself to be highly accomplished at cranking up the tension during the novel's quieter moments. Whether Bond's methodology is bringing him into conflict with other security agencies or he's indulging in some complex undercover activities to ingratiate himself with Hydt's organisation, the author manages to maintain a sense of danger and urgency throughout. Indeed, the novel is almost frustratingly enjoyable as each chapter ends with a teasing cliff-hanger that leads to “just-one-more-chapter-then-I'll-sleep” style insomnia.
Deaver is clearly a fan of James Bond and this enthusiasm comes through in his writing. One of the criticisms levelled (quite fairly) at Sebastian Faulks' effort was that the author perhaps felt he was “slumming it” by lowering himself from his literary heights to write a work of popular fiction. Bullsh*t and snobbery, I say. Faulks fell flat on his arse in his attempt to emulate Ian Fleming's stylish thrillers. “Carte Blanche” doesn't try to imitate Fleming, Deaver's own style being perfectly suited to an action-adventure thriller.
“Carte Blanche” is a fine return to form for the world's most famous secret agent and a worthy addition to the 007 canon. James Bond is a character that has undergone numerous reinventions and interpretations. Like the 2006 adaptation of “Casino Royale”, Jeffery Deaver respects Fleming's original novels by taking the elements which work and transplanting them into a plausible modern-day setting. Highly recommended.
Hereward L.M. Proops