Around 90 pages or so into Devil May Care — the latest James Bond novel — it suddenly occurred to me that I just didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care for Bond, the female lead, the bad guys, the plot, the future of the world or anything else.
Which is a pity because, as with most Bond-related concepts, I really wanted to like this one too. After the thumping success of Casino Royale (2006) and a tough-as-nails new Bond in the form of Daniel Craig, I was half expecting the book to give new print-life to the franchise with a novel that did what the movie had.
Heroic antics: In the new book, Bond zips from Rome to Tehran.
But I was also, to be honest, half expecting to be underwhelmed. The Bond of the movies has long eclipsed the Bond of the books in our collective cultural memories. While the movies may have been deeply inspired by Ian Fleming’s book, they have evolved into entirely new entities in themselves. Pierce Brosnan’s and Craig’s Bonds owe little to the books.
Devil May Care was timed to commemorate 100 years of James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s birth. But the choice of Sebastian Faulks to write the book puzzled many. Faulks, though an author of some repute, is not a Bond-enthusiast or an established spy novel writer. His 1993 classic Birdsong sold some three million copies, and he has consistently received positive reviews for his work.
Perhaps the Ian Fleming estate assumed that Faulks’ well-regarded talent would do justice to the Bond legacy. And perhaps that is why the book cover mentions the author’s name so: “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming”.
Faulks’ struggle to write the book becomes clear as soon as the opening murder in Paris occurs and the plot begins to reveal itself. The writer frames his scenes perfectly, no doubt. The streets of 1967 Paris, the pouring rain, the lights and the shadows—all build a vivid setting only for Faulks to stumble clumsily with his characters and their interplay.
And even when Bond makes his entrance and slowly slips out of sabbatical and into spy mode, there is no rush of any kind. Bond, as is his oeuvre, must outwit an international pharmaceuticals millionaire, with a single giant fist, who intends to flood the world market with heroin. We are not sure exactly why he wants to do it, but with most Bond villains, it is perfectly acceptable not to ask why. The how and when are more pertinent. Here, even those are opaque, at best.
As Bond zips from Rome to London to Tehran, he manages to gather his usual retinue: a mysterious woman, infuriated villains, exotic aides with atrocious one-liners and an ever-rising body count. He also manages to beat the villain in a bizarre tennis match that goes on for nine pages—exactly nine too many.
The book eventually crawls to a messy ending where Bond must avert nuclear war between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or Nato, countries—the heroin plot is long forgotten by now. Will Bond and his scraggly bunch of undercover friends manage to pull off a daring international counter-attack? Or, will the utterly un-engaging bad guy, gloved super-palm and all, own the day?
Unlike the Devil, I did not care.
Ian Fleming was never the most accomplished writer of spy thrillers. Sebastian Faulks has not pushed that envelope by much. The plot is confusing and the sex is anything but enticing. The action pieces are downright boring. The average Bond movie opening-scene packs in more action than this entire book.
Yet, there are some similarities between Faulks’ Bond and the one played by Daniel Craig. The spy is naïve, unsure of himself and, often, too brooding. And the gadgets are nowhere to be found. Perhaps Faulks wanted to stay faithful to Fleming’s more austere Bond rather than adhere to the later day glitzy movie avatar.
Whatever his inspiration, Faulks has delivered a book unworthy of the hype and anticipation. He famously announced that Devil May Care took him just six weeks to write. It will take you less than 6 hours to read and remain with you for less than 6 minutes.