Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Bond Begins (again):
Forever And A Day

Just a week after Ron Howard's self-defeatingly unnecessary Star Wars prequel Solo limped into cinemas, Anthony Horowitz's James Bond continuation novel Forever And A Day - set before the events of Ian Fleming's first 007 book Casino Royale - arrives bearing another origin story for a 20th century pop culture hero. The timing, of course, is coincidental, but the result is identical: a serviceable but weak yarn that might have passed muster if only numerous other entries in the series weren't vastly more impressive. Both Han Solo and James Bond deserve better.
Ant: man

There's definitely a great Casino Royale prequel to be written, and it doesn't need to cover every event in Bond's formative days that led to him becoming the cold, ruthless, state-sanctioned psychopath we know and love. To his credit, Horowitz realises this and avoids Phantom Menace-ing Bond, but the result swings a little too far the other way. You could fillet out every reference to Bond's pre-double-0 duty in Forever And A Day without much impact on the word count, and it would appear for all intents and purposes like any other Bond novel. It's almost as if the character needs no introduction.

It's a shame Horowitz didn't choose to cover Bond's WWII exploits; there's probably a cracking war story to be told that includes his rise from lieutenant to commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve that doesn't follow all the predictable beats of every other Bond book. I'd also love to see a fully fleshed-out account of the two assassinations Bond undertook in order to be elevated to double-0 status, and to which he briefly and tantalisingly alludes in Casino Royale. Horowitz obliges me with a few pages devoted to the latter of those jobs, but it's a cursory bit of connective tissue before the thrust of his own story gets underway.

That thrust is this: the newly-promoted James Bond assumes the code number 007 after its previous (unnamed) owner, who was in the middle of an investigation of unexplained goings-on in the heroin trade, inconveniently rocks up dead in the south of France. Bond sets out to finish whatever his predecessor started, with the added objective of a little payback for the death of 007.1. Grotesque villains, beautiful women, casinos, car chases, explosions, sex, violence and betrayal all follow, just as they always do, and surprises are few and far between. The only way you won't spot the final chapter's "twist" coming from at least the halfway mark is if this is your first ever book.
Oh God James Bond's going to die, he's going to die!

Horowitz writes well enough to keep you reading without getting bored, but his is not a particularly entertaining style. His attempts to emulate Ian Fleming are admirable - the detail with which he describes certain objects or places is almost as exhaustive as Fleming, and there's a great deal of evocative authenticity in his writing  - but you never get the feeling that he's as deep under Bond's skin as the character's creator was. There are brief references here to the way Bond feels about taking a life (which shifts significantly by the story's end), and a weird amount of reflection on the vulgarity of excessive wealth (specifically cruise liners), but Fleming poured so much of himself into Bond that you genuinely felt you were reading about a three-dimensional person, rather than the franchise icon of Forever And A Day. At least that title would have pleased Fleming, being as it is entirely meaningless and crowbarred into the story with minimal justification.

Where Horowitz succeeds is with his version of the Bond Girl: Sixtine, as she's mysteriously called, is a competent, independent woman who's more than a match for Bond and who approaches their relationship entirely on her own terms. She's never a damsel in distress and she teaches Bond a thing or two about a thing or two, which is refreshing to read. Bond first encounters her playing blackjack in Monte Carlo, in a great little vignette that tells you much about both characters with wit and efficiency.

Sadly that fire doesn't spread to any of the other characters: there are two major villains and neither of them are remotely memorable. Horowitz has one of them, a hideously obese Corsican gangster, speak via an emotionless translator, an unnecessary choice which prevents the reader connecting with the bad guy in any meaningful way. And as for the villains' evil scheme, it's lifted wholesale from one of the Bond films and makes even less sense here than it did there. Keep your eyes peeled too for echoes of Quantum Of Solace (spy business set against the backdrop of a performance of Tosca) and Skyfall (a villain's interrogation of a bound Bond that challenges his sexuality, albeit briefly and inconsequentially).

So the quest for a truly worthy successor to Ian Fleming continues: this is Anthony Horowitz's second Bond assignment (following 2015's criminally-titled Trigger Mortis), effectively rendering him the authorial equivalent of a double-0, but it's hard to get excited about any future missions bearing his signature. His style, which often borders on the prosaic (one major character's demise is described in literally the shortest, simplest way possible), is ideal for the younger audience of his Alex Rider books, but for the grown-ups who look to the literary Bond for the meat that's missing from the cinematic version of the character, it's a little on the lean side.