The promise of a new addition to the James Bond franchise brings with it expectations of beautiful women, fast cars, alcoholic excess and plenty of action. However, the latest offering from William Boyd places Bond’s own character firmly in the foreground, creating a much more complex and human incarnation of the agent the majority feel so familiar with.
The novel opens with Bond in the streets of Chelsea, but he is soon sent off into the jungles of Africa, finally ending up in Washington DC. Sent on a mission to end a brutal civil war in the fictional country of Zanzarim, he quickly finds himself part of a much wider plan to extract the country’s new-found oil reserves. Confronted with his mirror-image nemesis, Jakobus Breed, (Jacobus being the Latin name for James), Bond jumps from journalistic investigation to military action.
This, however, is where the book falls down the most. The plot is not only confusing but seemingly anti-climactic. Bond’s final showdown comprises him simply taking out three incompetent guards and confronting Breed.
For a reader who is used to the modern blockbuster, it all seems a little unassuming.
However, the author comes into his own when he explores the character of Bond himself. Rather than blasting his way into the villain’s volcano lair, he must rely on his own skills and experience in a much more nuanced way. Boyd’s use of a grizzled, middle aged Bond allows him to construct a character who is much more complex than we might expect. In fact, it is a slightly sad figure that is created; the book opens with Bond hungover and alone in the Dorchester Hotel after a night drinking by himself and lusting over a young woman.
Yet this Bond is still the cruel and in many ways cold character of Fleming’s creation. It should not be forgotten that the brutal torture scene from the Casino Royale film that drew criticism for its violence is taken directly from Fleming’s own novel. Bond demonstrates his desires to exact revenge on those who have done him wrong, taking risks to ensure his enemies feel as much pain as possible.
Solo is a book that delights in many ways but disappoints in others. Boyd carries Bond smoothly from the excess of the Dorchester Hotel to the African jungle with only a few hiccoughs along the way, yet it seems that a more cohesive plot would be required in order to really hold everything together. Fortunately, Boyd’s wonderfully complex 007 ensures that the book still manages to do justice to the world’s most famous spy.
Solo is published by Jonathan Cape and available here.