Described as the “pillow book fantasies of an adolescent mind” by no less an authority than Ian Fleming himself, the original James Bond novels were models of functional writing. The plots were ludicrous, of course, as a single agent, the sociopathic killing machine known as 007, foiled a series of megalomaniacs in their bid to achieve world domination. Perversely, Fleming’s successful career as a journalist stood him in good stead when writing his ‘fantasies’. In delivering the pot-boilers via a hard-bitten prose that eschewed the elaborate flourishes and curlicues of more literary stylists, Fleming – a SOE operative during WWII – invested his stories of unlikely triumphs over the Blofelds and Scaramangas with what seemed like gritty and plausible realism.
The further you delve into DEVIL MAY CARE, then, the more you’re inclined to wonder why Sebastian Faulks was so assiduously courted to write the novel intended to mark the centenary of Ian Fleming’s death. A superb stylist, his Birdsong is among the finest novels published in the last decade precisely because Faulks achieves a heart-wrenching realism by virtue of his painstaking accretion of detail. And while Charlotte Gray, for example, engages with the world of espionage, albeit during WW II, and On Green Dolphin Street is set during the Cold War, Fleming and Faulks inhabit opposite ends of the literary spectrum. Faulks is a subtly persuasive writer, and a very English one in the mould of Fleming’s peers such as Lawrence Durrell and William Golding. Even if Fleming hadn’t been championed by Raymond Chandler, the grand master of the American crime novel, his brutally foreshortened sentences and wilful disregard for the finer things in life, such as metaphor and adverb, would have marked him out as an artisan rather than an artist.
Devil May Care has Faulks ‘writing as Ian Fleming’ rather than reimagining Fleming for a contemporary audience. In effect it’s an act of literary ventriloquism, which begs the question as to why Faulks, who was famously reluctant to take the job, and spent a mere six weeks writing the novel, was asked to take on the project in the first place. Certainly it’s not because Faulks has the ability to create a note-perfect echo of Fleming’s style. DEVIL MAY CARE is at times slapdash and shoddy, and contains far too many clunky, faux-philosophical moments that would have horrified Fleming, the first of which appears as early as page 7: “It was here that Paris shunted off those for whom there was no house in the City of Light, only an airless room in the looming cities of dark.”
But if Faulks is perfunctory where Fleming was functional, the plot is outrageously implausible even by Fleming’s standards. Sent by M to Paris to investigate Dr Julius Gorner, who is suspected of flooding Britain with cheap heroin, Bond discovers that Gorner is in fact plotting a nuclear strike in order to gain revenge on the British Empire for a personal slight which he received as a student at Cambridge. If it were simply pastiche it might be funny (Gorner justifies his attack on the British establishment by referencing the Irish potato famine, for example), but there’s a persistent silliness to it all that suggests nothing less than contempt for the veteran Bond reader.
There are positive aspects. Faulks is wonderfully evocative when it comes to exploring the exotic settings of Paris and the Near East, and particularly when juxtaposing the austere Bond and the flesh-pots which could easily have been drawn from a modern take on the Arabian Nights. He is excellent too at recreating Bond himself, who is at the start of the novel a poignant creation, half-broken by the death of his wife and the years of abuse, physical and emotional, he has suffered in his vocation as a human weapon. The Cold War backdrop is sketched in deftly, courtesy of some glancing references to The Rolling Stones, the Vietnam war and the fashion boutiques of the King’s Road, Chelsea.
Most pleasing of all is Faulks’ refusal to provide a commentary on 1967 from the vantage point of the 21st century. Bond, an emblem of British might-is-right despite its crumbling empire, the fragile but unbreakable wedge between the superpowers of America and Soviet Russia, remains gloriously and unrepentantly a one-man flag-waving band for innate British superiority. Form, the character of James Bond trumpets, is temporary but class will always be permanent.
So where sits DEVIL MAY CARE in the Fleming pantheon? It’s a fine pastiche, an hilarious parody and a poor homage. Had it been written by an anonymous hack and published with little fanfare, it might well have been hailed as an workmanlike rebirth of the Fleming brand. Given the hype, however, and the high-risk gamble of employing a writer of Sebastian Faulks’ quality to write it, DEVIL MAY CARE can only be judged a severe disappointment. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.