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The Old Devil
on 23 November 2012
An essential for Bond fans, by a Bond fan. Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) was a British writer of darkly comic novels (Lucky Jim, The Old Devils), essays on jazz & drinking, and what he called genre fiction (eg sci-fi, spy thrillers) both as writer and critic. A Bond book fan when it wasn't fashionable for 'literary types' to be, he met Fleming, liked him and was invited to write a light hearted but thorough literary appraisal of the canon: The James Bond Dossier (1965) and a tongue in cheek companion piece, The Book of Bond or Every Man His Own 007 by "Lt.Col Bill Tanner"!
When Fleming died, it was natural that Amis was asked to ghost edit the complete but rough manuscript of The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) and then write its follow up, Colonel Sun (1968). [The gap was bridged by the final collection of short stories Octopussy (1966) and an attempted children's spin off, The Adventures of James Bond Junior: Double-O Three and a Half by "RD Mascott" (1967)- weird but surprisingly good!].
Score: 9/10. It's autumn, six months after 007's duel with Scaramanga, and a recently healed Bond is worried he's in a rut. Then a casual visit to the home of his convalescing chief ends with a drugged Bond running for his life and M kidnapped. With the only clue an obvious trap, 007 has no choice but to head for Athens and an assignation with Ariadne: a beautiful communist agent working for Russia. However as the gunfire and double crosses begin beneath the Acropolis, a sadistic Chinese spymaster waits on an obscure Greek island plotting the downfall of both sides.
I'll admit frankly that it's one of my favourite Bond novels by anyone, perfectly judging tone and content. Whereas Faulks' Devil May Care (2008) was the work of a great writer first and a fan second, Amis has no loftier ambitions than keeping you immersed and enthralled. All the ingredients are here: golf at Sunningdale, roast beef and rose at Scott's, Quarterdeck (last seen in OHMSS), high life in luxury hotels, violent death in alleyways.
We have 360 degree characterisation of a beautiful, fascinating love interest in Ariadne; a tough ally in Litsas, sailor and onetime freedom fighter; and as well studied and vicious a villain in Sun as Fleming ever created (the torture scene is terrifying). Even minor henchman and allies are memorable. Bond's world is unchanged: section chiefs at home, station chiefs abroad, Q branch's gadgets ingenious (but not a get-out-of-jail-free) and above all the sardonic, stalwart staff. The latter are exemplified by Bill Tanner who gets a big part here, while M's kidnap is genuinely disturbing.
It's not a pastiche and I know some fans miss the 'Fleming sweep'- that uncanny narrative drive that held together the most incongruous scenes, and made the most wildly improbable plotting seem plausible. The plot's less outrageous and the writing's less eccentric, but we get the dry tone of old plus vivid and compelling prose (it's probably the best written Bond ever) and a noirish story reminiscent of Casino Royale, From Russia with Love & Dr No. As for the 'strong sensations' Fleming insisted on, the set pieces are less bizarre/ quirky, but the sex and violence are grittier than ever. A great shame the continuations were put on hiatus (until John Gardner's Licence Renewed (James Bond 1), 1981) as this is a class act.