Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Solo by William Boyd

At last!  Some proper Bond, and a massive improvement on this guff.  Instead of a pastiche of cliches from the movies, this feels like a smart update of Fleming's books.

It's the late 60s and Bond is sent to a famine and civil war stricken African country to kill a general, and things get complicated.  Like the orginal books, much of the fun here is in the travelling from place to place and soaking up the atmosphere.  A lot of Boyd's other books are apparently set in Africa, and it's clearly a continent he knows well.

The other elements of a great Bond book are also in place - the action's well told and sometimes bone-crunchingly brutal, there are interesting, beautiful and maybe not totally trustworthy women, and there's a villain with a disfigurement - here, it's a Rhodesian mercenary with a wonky face.

As there should be, there's lots of eating and drinking too, but mostly drinking.  Whisky, African beer, dry martinis and emergency African martinis (ice, lime juice, lots of gin)  Boyd's martini recipe is even drier than Fleming's, which was six to one vodka to vermouth.   The one here recalls Noel Coward's advice to wave the shaker in the general direction of France before pouring.  There's also a salad dressing recipe with a hell of a lot of vinegar.

Bond himself comes across as fairly likeable.  He's entering his silver fox phase, and it feels like he's mellowed with age.  A ladies man, but not a misogynist, an agent of post-colonialism, but not a reactionary great white hope saving Africa from itself.  His mind wanders back to his commando days during WWII.  Even his relationship with M has a touch of bittersweet sentimentality.

The plot of the book mirrors this autumnal theme.  We never quite get the whole story (unless I missed something - always very possible) but the suggestion is that the world of espionage is moving on from 007 to something a bit more sinister.  This aspect isn't overplayed, but does give a nice extra tinge of melancholy to the ending, which for once explains why Bond doesn't stay with the woman he's been getting on so famously with.

Extra shout out to the audiobook version - Dominic West bringing his best Eton rather than Baltimore tones to proceedings.

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