Solo by William Boyd

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Reviewed by Falaise

Although Octopussy was the last James Bond film to reveal the name of its sequel in the end credits, the iconic phrase, “James Bond will return” continues to appear and it is as true of the Bondian literary canon as of its celluloid cousin.  

With Solo, William Boyd has become the seventh in the long line of writers to have produced a James Bond novel(1) – a pretty tough challenge, even if you come from the “Ian Fleming wasn’t actually the greatest of novelists” school as opposed to the “Ian Fleming was a master craftsman/unique voice” school. Of the most recent attempts to revive the literary franchise, Jeffrey Deaver wrote an Americanised version that rebooted 007 rather awkwardly in Carte Blanche and Sebastian Faulks produced an oddly flat pastiche of Fleming’s writing in Devil May Care.

Eschewing the opportunity to differentiate his Bond by moving him out of time or place and instead placing him in 1969, just five years after the last Fleming novel, Boyd creates a sense of continuity with Fleming’s hard-living and tough spy but, by refusing to copy Fleming’s stylistic quirks, he has avoided the pitfalls of homage or pastiche. This, unsurprisingly given his talent and pedigree, has resulted in excellent addition to the series and probably the best non-Fleming Bond novel of them all. It’s really a William Boyd James Bond novel than a James Bond novel written by William Boyd pretending to be Ian Fleming.

As the book opens, Bond is sitting down to dinner at the Dorchester for a solo celebration of his 45th birthday, during which he consumes a bottle of Taitinger Rosé and a bottle of Château Batailley 1959 and flirts with an attractive divorcée named Bryce Fitzjohn (Boyd is good on Flemingesque names).  The next day he takes a Jensen Interceptor sports car for a spin and engages in a spot of mild voyeurism.  So far, so Bond, although there is a subtly melancholic tone to the scene that persists through the book – Boyd’s Bond is more reflective than Fleming’s 007.

The action soon starts to pick up as M sends him off to Zanzarim, a fictional African country, rich in oil reserves and the scene of a vicious civil war – there are strong echoes of the Biafran War here.  Bond’s instructions are simple; he must prevent the rebels (supported by France) from succeeding (Britain and the US are backing the incumbent government).  Having liaised in every sense of the word with MI6’s woman on the ground, the splendidly named Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, he starts out for the rebel capital, armed only with a pack of toiletries, made for him by Q branch.  And from there, the plot only gets thicker, filled with action, betrayals, a healthy martini count and a classic Fleming villain, the facially disfigured mercenary, Kobus Breed.

Boyd was born in Africa and has set several of his books there, which shows in the vivid description and atmosphere of Zanzarim.  He also stays faithful to the factual background of the Bond mythos and, pleasingly, adopts the relatively gadget-free world of the novels rather than that of the films.

Where Boyd differs from Fleming is in the character of Bond.  The Bond of Solo is a decent man, a veteran of D-Day who is troubled by dreams from his past and who has a distinctly introspective air.  Although there is still something of the womaniser in him, he lacks the misogyny and cruelty of Fleming’s Bond.

Fleming was prone to enter into lengthy descriptions of Bond’s food and drink consumption and Boyd is happy to follow suit, playing a little fast and loose with the iconic Bond martini and giving his Bond a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for scrambled eggs as well as a serious cigarette habit.

Towards the end of Solo, there is maybe a little too much reliance on exposition to tie up the loose ends of a fairly convoluted plot and Felix Leiter’s appearance feels somewhat forced and unnecessary, but these are minor quibbles when set against the overall quality of the book.

Treachery, one of Fleming’s favourite themes (think of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale), lies at the heart of the second part of Solo and drives Bond into going rogue on a mission to seek revenge.  A few critics have challenged whether Bond would ever really do this but there is some precedent for this in the canon (the generally poor Licence to Kill) and it doesn’t feel out of character here.

Boyd has taken on 007 and come out pretty much on top.  A Bond, aficionado, he has pulled off the trick of creating a Bond novel for today’s audience whilst retaining the core of Fleming’s vision of a spy with the chauvinism, habits and sensibilities of an earlier age.  It is, in my view, the best post-Fleming offerings and an excellent addition to the canon.  It may not convert non-Bond fans, but it certainly kept this fan-boy happy.

(1) The list in full:  Ian Fleming, Sir Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham), John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver and William Boyd. William Boyd, Solo (Jonathan Cape, , 2013), 2014, 352 pages.

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Falaise blogs at 2606 Books and Counting…

William Boyd, Solo (Vintage paperback, 2014) 978-0099578970, 321 pages.

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