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Not shaken, not stirred, just a 2008 remix

James Bond nuts may enjoy Devil May Care, but 007 deserved a better homage, feels Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Jun 16, 2008 17:55 IST
Ashok Malik

Devil May Care
Sebastian Faulks
PENGUIN
RS 395 PP 295

Why would you read a book that is never going to be a classic, has a fairly unsophisticated plot and a trademark, 1960s-era caricature villain who can't decide if he wants to flood London with cheap heroin or trigger World War III by catalysing a nuclear attack?

If you're a James Bond fan - books, films or simply mythology - the answer is easy: homage. Written to coincide with the birth centenary of Ian Fleming - Bond's godparent would have turned 100 on May 28, 2008 - Devil May Care is not Sebastian Faulks's best writing.

The narrative is clumsy, the editing is loose: Mossad mysteriously appears in place of Savak on page 100. Anachronism creeps in as early as page 21. Singapore is described as one of the "better places", comparable with Rome and New York.

In the late 1960s, however, it was a backwater. There's even a hint of malapropism. On page 168, the villain describes his condition as "anomie" when perhaps he means the less forbidding 'ennui'.

Maybe the problem is with us. We are now used to consuming and celebrating Bond on screen rather than between covers. Jokes that would have been clever, cynical one-liners in a film fall flat in print.

In his first appearance as James Bond in the 2006 Casino Royale, Daniel Craig began a new chronology. Here was a younger, 21st century Bond, fighting today's enemies, not the Cold War and its leftovers. Faulks's Bond, however, is true to the original timeline.

Devil May Care is set in July 1967. One of the clues is provided on page 183 by M, walking to his office window and contemplating Regent's Park: "A couple of weeks ago he had spent a morning down the road at Lord's, watching England on their way to victory over the touring Indians by an innings and 124 runs. There was no time for such frivolities now."

That reference to a Test match is authentic. India was bowled out at Lord's on June 26, 1967. Earlier in the year, members of the Rolling Stones had been arrested for narcotics use, an incident alluded to on page 26. Swinging London, with its drugs and dissolute youth, leaves Bond cold. As Britannia's steadfast if risqu knight, he has to protect Queen and Country.

The Americans - and here Faulks probably has a more contemporary conflict in mind - are trapped in a strange war in Asia, a trifle paranoiac or merely preoccupied.

As such, from the tennis courts of Paris to the naked hamam girls of Tehran, from the terrifying Baloch city of Zabol (on Iran's border with Afghanistan) to a wild ride through the Russian countryside and into the waters of Finland, Bond has to save the world alone - with the lady conveniently around.

Unfortunately, like much of the book, Bond seems to be working at slow-speed, not even questioning the girl when the villain (who, she says, is holding her twin captive) doesn't recognise her.

He has his moments, as does Faulks when he scripts a dramatic plane journey to death, almost. Particularly subtle is the manner in which Bond finds out the truth about the girl but never lets on. Yet, Bond deserved better. Part Great Game adventurer, part Cold War warrior, Ian Fleming's character is not just flesh and muscle; he has - or should have - soul.

Fleming drew from his (and his brother Peter's) experiences in military intelligence. Another inspiration was Dusko Popov, the debonair World War II double agent - nicknamed "Tricycle" - apparently because he enjoyed three-ina-bed romps whose delightful autobiography Spy/Counterspy was, really, the unacknowledged Bond prequel.

Faulks doesn't make it to those heights. Nevertheless, the book will be devoured by 007 worshippers. As Bond may have put it, the chase is worth more than the prey.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based Bond fan