Thursday, July 07, 2011

Junk Bond

Here’s a pop quiz. What’s common to these writers: Kingsley Amis, John Pearson, Sebastian Faulks, John Gardner and Raymond Benson? After the death of Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond series, all of them have written at least one Bond book. It’s a glowing testimony to Fleming’s Zen-like focus on the world’s deadliest fictional spy that none of these writers saw their books made into movies. The Fleming estate continues to gamble and this time it is American thriller veteran Jeffery Deaver who writes the latest Bond book.

In keeping with current world politics and cultural mores, Bond’s enemies are no longer the Soviets (if anything, the new ones are to be found in the Tora Bora caves), he totes an iPhone and has this new-mannish sensitivity of avoiding sex. What’s more, no fist fights and cliff-hanging either. I wouldn't mind if you asked whether we are talking about Jason Bourne or James Bond. As you see, this is less of a renaissance and more of a recrudescence of Bond.

Carte Blanche opens in Belgrade with a train full of methyl isocyanate (of the Bhopal gas tragedy notoriety) almost being derailed. Bond averts the sabotage but is intrigued by the motives of a dead-eyed villain, Niall Dunne. Back in London, then gearing up for the Olympics, Bond traces Dunne’s antecedents to Severan Hydt, the owner of Green Way, a garbage disposal company.

Meanwhile, an Operation Gehenna in the making is reported by Government Communications Headquarters, a UK agency that collects and analyses foreign signals intelligence. The attack scheduled for three days later might leave thousands of casualties, including, yes, the British.

Bond, the nifty dot connector, tracks Dunne and Hydt to Dubai then Cape Town, where a not-so-cracking denouement awaits the reader. In between, Bond assumes a different identity to gain entrance into Hydt’s lair, which is certainly going beyond Green Way’s motto: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The ruse that Bond adopts to gain Hydt’s confidence is a stroke of genius. Calling himself Gene Theron – spoiler alert! – he masquerades as a mercenary who supplies troops and arms to the despots of war-ravaged countries.

Deaver involves a handful of other characters to lend Bond’s mission vim and vigour. Ophelia Maidenstone is his pointswoman in London, Bheka Jordaan is his partner-in-crime (pun intended, unfortunately) in Cape Town; and there’s Bond’s love interest Felicity Willing, who intends to put a stop to the horrible practice of “foreign-owned megafarms forcing their way into third-world nations and squeezing out the local farmers”.

Being a Bond devotee, Deaver is able to maintain the tight pace of the story with staccato writing and he does manage to capture Bond’s typical derring-do style. But a Bond book is not so much about the destination as the journey. Right off the bat I can list the trademark Bond tics that are missing in the Deaver avatar — obsessive-compulsive tendencies, depression and a tinge of S&M.

The problem is that Deaver tries to touch all the familiar Bond bases but doesn’t really succeed. For instance, Hydt comes across as convincingly feral in the beginning but he doesn’t do much after that and ends up being as generic a villain as they come. Also, many of the hallmarks of the series are missing — especially the quirky inventions (the use of the ejector seat to upturn the Aston Martin in Die Another Day) and neatly judged humour (Bond straightens his tie while submerged in the Thames during the boat chase in The World Is Not Enough).

Of course, Deaver has managed to invest his Bond with a sense of humour as dry as the martini (“shaken not stirred”) that he famously favours. During a fight in a basement that is on the verge of demolition, putting Bond at risk of being buried under the detritus, he has him musing, “Not a great place to be buried alive...” When his mission is going nowhere and pressure is mounting, Deaver has him thinking: “I'm beginning to feel a bit like Lehman Brothers; my debts vastly outweigh my assets.”

The prose, however, becomes clunky in places. Examples: “you can keep secrets from those you’re close to for only so long” or “seduction in tradecraft is like seduction in love, it works best if you make the object of your desire come to you”.

Though the dialogue is trite and characters weak, Carte Blanche is not a complete downer. The author does manage to successfully recreate the Bond persona: tuxedos, fast cars and pretty women. Deaver also deserves to be appreciated for his sleight of hand in deftly handling the alphabet soup of agencies’ names.

That doesn’t mean Daniel Craig should be the leading man if Carte Blanche is made into a movie. This is a sort of the role Jason Statham should be sinking his Kevlar-like teeth into. Deal with it, Bond fans.

Jeffery Deaver
Hachette India
436 pages; Rs 499


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