Solo

Posted: September 14, 2014 in Book reviews

By William Boyd.

It is 1969. James Bond has just celebrated his 45th birthday and is in reflective mood, thinking about his life and the past, in particular remembering his time in World War 2. A chance meeting with actress Bryce Fitzjohn suggests the possibility of romance, but before he can pursue this M assigns him a new mission.

007 is sent to Africa, to the country of Zanzarim where recent discovery of oil has encouraged a civil war, with part of the country splitting off to create the Democratic Republic of Dahum. Dahum is a small nation, surrounded on all sides, and yet they consistently hold their own against the superior Zanzarim forces. This appears to be down to General Solomon Adeka, a military genius. M orders Bond to make the General a less efficient soldier.

Once in Africa Bond meets up with Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, a beautiful MI6 agent, and together the two of them set off to infiltrate Dahum, with Bond undercover as a journalist. En route they are captured by Jackobus Breed, a disfigured Rhodesian mercenary working for the Dahum forces. During a firefight Bond and Blessing escape, but in the confusion Blessing goes missing.

Eventually Bond makes his way to Dahum where he completes his mission to degrade the ability of the Dahum army, though not in the way he expected to. On his way out of Dahum he’s betrayed and left for dead.

Bond survives though, and after recuperating he decides to go solo to Washington DC on the trail of those who betrayed and tried to murder him, his mission; revenge!

The first thing to say about this is that Solo is a lousy title for a Bond story, it has none of the verve or panache you’d expect from one of 007’s adventures, and it also brings to mind The Man From U.N.C.L.E’s Napoleon Solo, a character created by Ian Fleming. Perhaps the similarity is intentional, it just seems that there are better titles for a story where Bond goes rogue (though obviously Licence Revoked is taken).

The second thing to say about it is that the title is probably the weakest thing about it. Coming on the heels of Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche and Sebastian Faulkes’ Devil May Care, I’d argue that Solo is a better Bond novel than either of them.

Faulkes’ book was set in the right era, and steeped in Fleming tropes, but it felt too much like a pastiche, as if everything in it was supposed to reference an existing character or situation from a Bond novel, and it ended up nothing more than a reproduction, a beautiful reproduction but one without an original bone in its body.

By contrast Deaver’s 21st Century Bond was bang up to date and a pacey modern thriller, unfortunately it never really felt like Bond. Maybe it was the present day setting, but more likely the fact that all of Bond’s problems could be solved, it seemed, using an app on his phone! It was fun but utterly forgettable.

By contrast Boyd sets his story at the end of the sixties, with Bond’s age and the breakup of Zanzarim both reflecting a post Imperial melancholia. Bond feels like Bond, and the prose feels like Fleming, but in neither case is Boyd as beholden to the past as Faulkes had been. Bond is nowhere near as sadistic (one brutal scene aside) sexist or racist as Fleming wrote him. Perhaps in part this is down to modern sensibilities, but having a slightly older Bond does allow Boyd to create a more reflective 007, and Bond does seem less brutal (this might be down to the Fleming estate who, apparently, had issues with Bond being portrayed as an assassin, which is perhaps one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. This perhaps explains M’s vague order to make Adeka “a less effective soldier”. Clearly Bond is being sent to kill him.)

The book is replete with detailed descriptions of Bond’s lifestyle, from flash cars to gourmet cooking (much as Fleming wrote him) and the prose has the requisite hardboiled feel to it, in particular when Bond goes out to get revenge, and in some ways the Washington chapters play better than those set in Zanzarim.

The novel does flag a little in the middle, and Breed is a curious villain who feels more like a henchman really. But Blessing and Bryce are intriguing Bond girls, and M and Felix Leiter both play their part as well, and it’s refreshing to note that Boyd doesn’t hammer the reader over the head in terms of the rights or wrongs of the situation in Zanzarim, or the nature of the Western powers eager lust for oil. That’s not to say he doesn’t make a point or two, but he’s smart enough to let the reader make his or her own mind up.

A tough and uncompromising novel, much like Bond himself.

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