Top positive review
53 people found this helpful
on 30 September 2013
Promoting Solo in the Guardian newspaper (28/9/13) Boyd printed an 'interview' between himself and James Bond from 1969. Fun but it helped me put my finger on it- this is a 007 novel written as though Ian Fleming never existed. While it's obvious from the blurb that Boyd eschewed a classic Bond plot (playing cat & mouse vs supervillain), and clear that he hasn't attempted Fleming's voice, the wholesale dumping of the thriller style is a courageous mistake. The result is a curate's egg, lacking in action and pace but compelling in tone and atmosphere.
To start with the positive, he's got Bond pretty darn close. Beyond the welcome knitted tie, eggs, fags, etc, there's an appreciation for the dry, humane, pernickety but coldly professional hero. His voice especially shines through: be it grumbles at the service industry, or an impressively unfusty appreciation of young people's fashion and freedom. The mischief in Richmond didn't worry me from a character point of view: silly, reckless, ungallant, man without milk tray but very human.
Moreover the period setting is consummate, effortlessly weaving in the old world trappings that were a powerful counterpoint to 007's extravagant adventures: Dimple Haig, the old pound note, Jensen FF. By extension, the undoubted high light of the book is the fictional African failed state. Boyd's background obviously informs the wildlife, geography, politics of Zanzarim; the late colonial setting is perfect for Bond who operates best on a thin veneer of civilisation, the private club never more than a few steps from the urban guerrilla. Remoteness and exoticism are at the heart of the best Bond outings, and Zanzarim must be a contender for the most alien: vivid, horrific and haunting.
The problem is not so much the plot (I needn't repeat here) but the storytelling. This isn't a thriller by any means: too recursive and wandery, it's disjointed and lacks urgency. Not uneventful, but with little incident and almost no action until the halfway mark. Scenes occur so we can revisit them once something happens. I don't need shootouts and car chases, but to deprive a man of action of his purpose is dangerous. Without a proper mission or megalomaniac to hunt the pace flags badly. I don't mind continuation writers breaking rules (Amis, Gardner, Benson) but you better have a damn good reason.
Fleming's cardinal rule (borrowed from pulp fiction) was keep the plot flying and they won't see the plot holes. Here they appear cavernous, as chapters end with little coercing you to start the next. Gardner proved that 007 mysteries (semi-concealing the bad guy for plot reasons) need plenty of action, heavy on the quirky/bizarre/macabre. Without head to head showdowns over cards/cars/golf, 007 wilts amid a conspiracy. The girls and henchmen are well characterised but fail to loom large. Crucial as once out of Africa the leaden pace makes Bond's solo mission appear arbitrary, out of character and unconvincing.
In fairness the twists are good, and the prose better than I feel he's been given credit for. Erudite but unshowy, with an impressive knack for description, it's an easy read. I enjoyed it as a romance in the same old-fashioned sense that applied to Fleming's work (a story with scenes remote from ordinary life), but mourned it as a non-thriller. An interesting period companion piece about 007, but not a Bond adventure.