by Anthony Horowitz
320 pages, Harper
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I make no secret about my fondness for Ian Fleming. Although his 007 stories have been criticised by the sneering literary establishment for their “sex, snobbery and sadism”, I still return to them when needing my fix of perfectly-paced action and adventure. James Bond has been my favourite literary (and cinematic) hero since I was a young lad. I grew up with a pile of VHS cassettes full of Bond movies taped off the television. My first proper crush was on Carole Bouquet, whose swimsuit-clad escapades with Roger Moore in “For Your Eyes Only” are indelibly stamped on my memory. I can’t choose between Connery or Moore, Dalton, Brosnan or Craig… I like them all. Hell, I can even see the good in George Lazenby’s single performance as the British secret agent. In my own writing, the relationship between Inspector Forrester and Chief Inspector Pardoe was always intended as a tribute to the wonderful dynamic Fleming created between Bond and M. I am more excited about seeing Daniel Craig’s next outing as Bond than JJ Abram’s new Star Wars film and have already planned my trip to the cinema to see it the week it is released.
I think it is safe to say I’m a 007-nerd.
Whilst 007’s recent cinematic outings have all been pretty solid affairs, it’s a shame the same can’t be said for the recent Bond novels authorised by the Fleming estate. William Boyd’s “Solo” was just-about readable, but was lacking Fleming’s tight prose and the customary glamorous settings. Jeffery Deaver’s “Carte Blanche” took Bond into the twenty-first century with a modern setting. I felt that it had a decent villain and some enjoyable action sequences but others found it over-long and the 007-faithful damned Deaver’s attempt to explore Bond’s backstory. It’s probably safest to say little about Sebastian Faulks’ truly dreadful “Devil May Care” as the mere memory of it is known to make me vomit blood. One awful book, one bad book, one pretty-good-but-poorly-received book. Not a great record, Mister Bond. Until now...
When I heard that Anthony Horowitz had taken the job to write the next Bond novel, I allowed myself to relax a little, knowing my favourite secret agent was in safe hands. Horowitz is a huge Bond fan and his series of YA books about the teenage spy Alex Rider make no bones of hiding how they have been influenced by Ian Fleming. With fast-paced action, outlandish plots and over-the-top villains, Horowitz’s books were bound to be well-received. Just like Fleming’s novels about 007 turned a number of adolescent boys in the 1950s and 1960s into avid readers, Horowitz’s Alex Rider books have given young lads something thrilling to pick up in their school library that doesn’t involve schoolboy wizards or simpering Hobbits.
“Trigger Mortis” does not disappoint. In fact, it is entirely fair to say that Horowitz’s book surpasses all expectations by being not just a fantastic Bond novel but also the first genuinely Fleming-esque Bond novel of the twenty-first century. Writers who take on the challenge of writing a 007 novel are faced with a difficult choice before they even set pen to paper. Do they try to emulate Fleming’s tight prose and meticulous attention to detail or do they write in their own style? Faulks had a stab at Fleming’s prose, and whilst he got the attention to detail right, he fell flat on his face when writing punchy dialogue and believable action sequences. Deaver jettisoned the Fleming-style and wrote a Bond novel his own way, the result being that the book felt curiously detached from the original series. Being set shortly after the events of “Goldfinger”, Horowitz’s novel allies itself closely with the original Fleming stories and so requires the writer to stick to the Fleming formula. What is most impressive about “Trigger Mortis” is that it does not read like a modern writer trying to write like Fleming, it feels like the genuine article. There’s no embarrassment about this being, at its heart, a goofy adventure story. This means that it is totally free from the tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ironic style that hamstrung Faulks’ effort. Horowitz isn’t an apologist for Bond’s questionable behaviour. He knows that the real Fleming fans don’t care that Bond is an insufferable snob, obsessed with designer labels and expensive wines. In Fleming’s books, Bond was never particularly likeable and Horowitz makes no effort to soften Bond’s 1950s world view for the modern audience. This isn’t imitation or pastiche but a tribute-act so damn good it is difficult to distinguish from the real thing.
The book opens at the tail-end of Bond’s and Pussy Galore’s relationship. Horowitz is not content to go with the inaccurate and oversimplified interpretation of Bond’s bed-hopping behaviour as being misogynistic. Like Fleming, Horowitz understands that the nature of Bond’s work means that healthy sexual relationships with women and normal friendships with men are impossible. Bond is an isolated, lonely figure, his job demands that he remain so. It is inevitable that the fling with Pussy will turn sour, it’s just a matter of time and circumstance as to how and when it will happen. As in all great Bond stories, he is summoned to M’s office to be given his latest mission. This time it is to protect a top British race car driver who has been targeted for assassination by Bond’s old adversaries, SMERSH. Already fond of high performance vehicles, it doesn’t take long for Bond to get behind the wheel of a car and act as guardian angel to the targeted driver. The race around Nürburgring is the first of many thrilling scenes of pulse-pounding excitement in the book and pays homage to the game of baccarat in “Casino Royale” and the game of golf in “Goldfinger”. What makes this sequence all the more fascinating is the knowledge that the idea of Bond taking part in a car race came from Fleming himself in the form of an outline for a never-filmed television series pilot. Horowitz even had access to four or five hundred words of Fleming’s own dialogue that he included in the book.
After an explosive climax to the race, Bond finds himself digging deeper into the past of the mysterious Korean business magnate Jason Sin. Like all great Bond villains, Sin is foreign, has a silly name, a dastardly plan and is completely insane. To reveal the details of Sin’s diabolical scheme would be to spoil the masterful way in which Horowitz allows the book’s relatively thin plot to develop. Revolving around the 1950s space race between the US and the Russians, Horowitz manages to take aspects of Fleming’s “Moonraker” (the book, not the preposterous Roger Moore movie), tie up some loose ends from “Goldfinger” and add some thrills of his own invention.
No Bond story would be complete without a Bond girl and, in this regard, Horowitz comes up trumps again. Whilst the book opens with the end of Bond’s dalliance with Pussy Galore, the foxy head of a lesbian crime syndicate (no, really), the main female character comes in the form of the wonderfully-named Jeopardy Lane. Bond girls often take a lot of flak for being one-dimensional window-dressing, pandering to a male juvenile fantasy. Look a little closer at the Bond girls in Fleming’s novels and you see that many of them are strong, independent and sexually adventurous. For books written at a time when many women were expected to be stay-at-home mothers or humble secretaries, Fleming’s female characters could almost be said to be the forerunners of modern emancipated women. Jeopardy Lane takes her seat amongst the strongest of Bond’s women. She’s tough, resourceful and instrumental to Bond’s eventual victory over the evil Jason Sin. Her suitably improbable background as a wall of death motorbike rider at a carnival provides her with a skill that is put to good use in the thrilling chase sequence towards the end of the book. In fact, the chapter where Bond and Jeopardy tear through the streets of New York to stop Sin’s evil plan is as breathtakingly paced and as gripping as anything you’ve seen in Bond’s recent adventures on the big screen. When Jeopardy eventually sleeps with Bond at the end of the novel, it is on terms that are amenable to both of them. Horowitz clearly knows that some aspects of Fleming’s portrayal of women (such as the sado-masochistic rescue-fantasy of “The Spy Who Loved Me”) are uncomfortable to modern readers and has, quite wisely, avoided them.
“Trigger Mortis” is a splendid book and is certainly the best modern Bond novel for many years. Horowitz manages that tricky balancing act of sticking to the Fleming formula without seeming like a crass imitation. By keeping Bond in the original historical setting, Horowitz is able to ensure that his secret agent retains the 1950s period flavour. Through judicious handling of a supporting cast of characters, Horowitz manages to prevent the novel from slipping into the unreconstructed attitudes that make a number Fleming’s original works look hopelessly dated. Perfectly paced, eminently readable, and enormously fun, this latest addition to the Bond canon is one of the best.
Hereward L.M. Proops