As I stepped out of the cinema after watching Skyfall, I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that 007 still works superbly on the silver screen. The movie demonstrates everything that is great about 007 as a character, while avoiding the pitfalls of the less successful instalments in the franchise. The effectiveness of the 007 films is a mystery when compared with the terrible 007 novels that have been produced by a slew of hacks after Ian Fleming’s death. I use the word “produced", rather than “written", as they constitute an affront to the tastes of the refined pulp aficionado.

On the other hand, maybe that’s just what can be expected in a world where everything is franchised—the pre-formatted TV shows that shape our thinking, the chain shops where we buy our clothes, the kind of restaurants we eat in are increasingly the same whether we’re in Los Angeles, Mumbai or Shanghai. The industry of giving new life to the creations of dead writers is therefore worth reviewing.

James Bond wasn’t the only flamboyant super-spy with a right to kill, but who didn’t die. Let us consider the freelancing super-assassin Nicholai Hel, originally featured in the 1970s multimillion copy best-seller Shibumi (often compared to the novels of Fleming and John le Carré, and even suspected to have been written by Robert Ludlum under a pen name). Shibumi now has a sequel-prequel, Satori, the first in a new franchise.

It is easy to understand why Hel should be resurrected from among the other old, forgotten heroes. Hel’s father was a German toy boy, possibly Nazi, and his mother an exiled Russian countess in pre-Communist Shanghai where Hel is born, after which he’s raised in Japan. His cold, rational mentality is shaped by the Japanese strategic board game Go. He can walk into a room and find more than 200 everyday objects that will become lethal weapons in his hands, and is a level-IV sex athlete for whom lovemaking is a sport “in which excitation and climax are relatively trivial terminal gestures in an activity that demands all the mental vigour and reserve of championship Go". Need I say more?

Cleverly, the California-based thriller writer Don Winslow, commissioned to write Satori, picked a passage of merely two pages from the almost 500-page-original to expand into a prequel, rather than a straight-forward sequel. So it is at the outset of Hel’s career that we find ourselves here, as we’re flung into priceless action scenes in which Hel, for example, uses newspapers and tea cups as murder weapons. Certainly Satori is much faster paced than the original. The action-driven chapters are short, often half a page.

Conversely, in Shibumi Trevanian allowed the story to unfold leisurely; save for the filmic action set piece replayed forward and backward at the outset, and a brief climactic extermination job at the end, there’s scarce depictions of violence. The novel doesn’t even have much of a plot in the conventional sense; instead the thrills are psychological and intellectual.

Close