More “Carte Bland” that “Carte Blanche” for 007

Posted: 13 July 2011 in books
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Carte Blanche (UK independent bookseller exclusive cover)

For 2011 the world was promised a new James Bond thriller in which Ian Fleming’s iconic hero would be rebooted and reinvented for a 21st century audience. The story was to see 007 fighting post 9/11 terrorism as part of a “00” section operating as a shadowy assassination branch of MI6, where agents would be disavowed if compromised.

And whilst we wait for that novel to come along let’s look at Jeffery Deaver’s “Carte Blanche”…

My only exposure to the writing of Jeffrey Deaver prior to “Carte Blanche” was viewing the film version of his novel “The Bone Collector” late one night on the BBC. Whilst it was an entertaining enough film (though I can’t abide Densil Washington’s acting – always so “worthy”) it didn’t inspire me to rush out the next day, or the next, or the next to buy any of Deaver’s works. On the basis of his handling of James Bond in “Carte Blanche” it’s safe to say my pennies will not be making their way into his bank account anytime soon.

Given the success of the rebooting/reinvention of 007’s film incarnation for a 21st century audience in 2006’s “Casino Royale” the same treatment was almost inevitable for the literary incarnation. But I don’t believe Jeffrey Deaver was the author for the job. Granted making Bond a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict and a warrior of the War on Terror era, as opposed to the original version of a veteran of World War II and a warrior of the Cold War, doesn’t doom the project to failure. What has caused the problem is that Jeffrey Deaver is not Ian Fleming. Eon Productions and Daniel Craig on “Casino Royale” had the advantage of being able to use Ian Fleming’s debut Bond novel as the source of the story and it shows. The “Fleming Sweep” of character, location, and plot is sorely lacking from “Carte Blanche” which, although no worse than the lesser Fleming efforts of “Diamonds Are Forever” and “The Man with the Golden Gun”, is certainly not in the same league as the premier Fleming tales such as “From Russia, With Love”, “Thunderball” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. An undoubted advantage for Fleming was that he lived the exotic lifestyle of his creation and during his World War II service as a Commander in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve was exposed to characters and situations that would later be interpreted into the stuff of adventures.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

A particular skill of Fleming’s was the ability, honed by his journalistic background, to provide a sense of location and the exotic.  Far-off lands (as there were back then) such as Turkey in “From Russia, With Love” and Japan in “You Only Live Twice” were bought off the page at the reader. Unfortunately this descriptive ability was sadly absent in bringing supposedly exotic locations as Dubai and South Africa to life during “Carte Blanche”. Adding to the absence of location was the fact that, apart from a brief action segment set in Serbia, the first 1/3 of the novel is UK-bound and drags interminably. A Bond adventure set entirely in the UK isn’t doomed to failure (“Moonraker” was set entirely in England with the narrative split between London and Kent) as long as the narrative is engaging enough. And I have to ask…Was Deaver contractually obliged to set part of the story in Dubai? True it’s an exotic locale worthy of a visit by 007 but it came across as exciting as a visit to a holiday camp on England’s south coast. In the same vein Cape Town, and the other environs of South Africa that act as the backdrop to the majority of the novel’s narrative, failed to come alive.

More of the approach of the literary and film incarnations of “Casino Royale” was required with characters and situations, such as Bond’s first kills as a Double 00 agent, being detailed within the rebooted universe. Although the first meeting of Bond and M is described in “Carte Blanche” we should have also been privy to those initial encounters with the classic characters: Miss MoneypennyQ (Major Boothroyd), Mary GoodnightFelix LeiterRené MathiasRonnie Vallance, who all make appearances (cameos really) or are referred to in passing here and there. All that is except Major Boothroyd. In Deaver’s rebooted universe the head of Q Branch is Sanu Hirani, a cricket-loving Indian in his 40s. Now whilst I am all for equality and the like, the reinventing of a classic character in this way smacks completely of pandering to political correctness. Deaver shouldn’t mess in this way with the characters that Fleming established as Bond’s allies nigh on 50 years ago when his own characters can come from whatever ethnic background he desires.

Fleming provided memorable allies for 007: Felix Leiter, in many adventures (here wasted in the Dubai interlude); Kerim Bey, the Head of Station T (Turkey) in Istanbul, in “From Russia, With Love”; Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Union Corse (and briefly Bond’s father-in-law), in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”; and Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service, in “You Only Live Twice”. In “Carte Blanche” it’s a pretty wet and forgettable bunch:

  • Bheka Jordaan: An officer of the South African Police Service. She is aware of the nature of Bond’s work (which makes no sense) and refuses to take part in it unless Bond can give her a legal reason to intervene. An opportunity for a conflict between the force of law and the force of Bond was missed here.
  • Ophelia “Philly” Maidenstone: MI6’s liaison officer to Bond’s unit who he briefly considers pursuing a relationship with her before concluding that it would be unprofessional. (Fleming’s Bond wouldn’t have bothered worrying about a potential relationship and simply had the sex)
  • Gregory Lamb: An MI6 officer stationed in Cape Town. Although advised not to associate with him Bond surmises that he is less dangerous than he is cowardly.
  • Percy Osborne-Smith: An agent with Division Three, an offshoot of MI5. Osborne-Smith likes to be the one leading investigations so that he may take the credit for a successful operation.

Fleming saw the conflict between Bond and his enemies as a St George vs. the Dragon concept and so provided monstrous and worthy villains to oppose his hero: Sir Hugo Drax in “Moonraker”; Rosa Klebb and Red Grant in “From Russia, With Love”; Auric Goldfinger in “Goldfinger”; and the arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the trilogy of “Thunderball”, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “You Only Live Twice”. In keeping with the allies of the novel the villains are a pretty second rate bunch:

  • Severan Hydt: The Dutch-born owner of Green Way International, a waste disposal corporation. He has an obsession with death that borders on being a sexual fetish.
  • Niall Dunne: A former Army sapper turned enforcer who serves as Hydt’s trusted confidante and the brains behind his plan. From Belfast, he has a fascination with machines.
  • Felicity Willing: The spokesperson for the International Organisation Against Hunger, which controls one-third of all food aid arriving in Africa.

Walther Police Pistol Slim (PPS)At the heart of “Carte Blanche” is Bond’s attempt to prevent an attack that will kill thousands of innocents and adversely affect British interests. Coded by the British firstly as “Incident 20” and then later revealed to be named “Gehenna” (derived from the Hebrew word for Hell). For a brief period it looks as though the attack is connected to Hydt’s plan to detonate a dangerous weapon in a British university to kill a cancer researcher and pin the blame on the Serbian government. In the dying pages of the novel it becomes clear that Hydt’s actions were merely a diversion from the true attack and that the waste disposal mogul was not the true architect of “Gehenna”. Felicity Willing attempted to use her position to distribute food in a way that would give the Sudanese government a pretext to go to war with rebels in the south.

To be frank the whole plot device of “Gehenna” is a bloody mess. The bombing has an extremely convoluted set-up and the pretext for starting a war in Sudan is too rushed and distant from Bond to have any impact. In the 50s and 60s Fleming’s Bond was given state-sanctioned killers and privately-funded nuclear, biological and chemical international terrorism to combat. In 2011 Deaver’s Bond gets a bin man with a fetish for dead flesh and a charity food worker to take down.

Not to be totally damning of Deaver throughout let’s give him kudos for his decision to revive the Special Operations Executive (SOE), as a covert operational unit under the control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to make James Bond one of its agents, charged with defending the realm “by any means necessary” – carte blanche, in other words, to step outside the law when the situation demands. The original SOE was a World War II organisation of the United Kingdom. It was officially formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Axis powers and to instruct and aid local resistance movements. On its formation, it was ordered by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”. Its mission was to encourage and facilitate espionage, sabotage, assassination and reconnaissance behind enemy lines and in its early days, to serve as the core of the Auxiliary Units, a British resistance movement which would act in case of a German invasion of Britain. James Bond has always been a blunt instrument, not an intelligence gatherer in the true sense of a MI6 agent proper, and having him as part of a modern day SOE is an extremely logical and inspired step on the part of Deaver. There’s also an element of homage to Bond’s creator here as Ian Fleming knew personnel from the SOE during the war and likely used a number them as templates for the likes of M and Miss Moneypenny.

Unfortunately Deaver’s inspired resurrection of the SOE is one of the few highlights of the book – and that gets misused. In keeping with Fleming’s original vision, James Bond should exist in a world where allies can be as dangerous as enemies…yet lowly Cape Town policemen end up being aware of Bond’s existence and mission – aiding and abetting an operative of a foreign government’s black ops section in his illegal operations on South African soil. “Carte Blanche” was an ideal opportunity to explore the morality and legality of an government-sanctioned assassination unit in the 21st century and it’s totally wasted, as well as the inner workings of an agent who is skilled at killing but doesn’t particularly savour doing so. Check out the start of the Goldfinger novel for Bond’s reaction to having killed a drug dealer in Mexico:

It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare Double-O prefix – the licence to kill in the Secret Service – it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional – worse, it was a death-watch beetle in the soul.” – Goldfinger, chapter 1: “Reflections in a Double Bourbon”

For the most part Deaver’s James Bond comes across as a global detective piecing together clues and whipping out a gadget occasionally as opposed to a blunt instrument who is prepared to kill in cold blood if that’s what’s required to protect his country and defend innocents.

Bentley Continental GTIn this day and age it would be ridiculous if Bond wasn’t to carry a smartphone, and the iPhone is a highly logical choice – but to call it the iQPhone and give it a application for most tasks short of defusing a nuclear bomb comes very close to parody. In fact there are points where 007 comes dangerously close to being an amalgamation of the worst elements of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan film incarnations and their over-reliance on technology.

An utterly superfluous subplot throughout the novel involves Bond’s investigations into a KGB operation code-named “Steel Cartridge”. Bond believes that his father was a spy for the United Kingdom during the Cold War, and that he was killed by Russian agents. Further evidence suggests that Steel Cartridge was a clean-up operation, with the Russians assassinating their own agents that had infiltrated Western intelligence organisations. The suggestion that his father was a traitor does not sit well with Bond, until he unearths further evidence that shows the Russians carried out a Steel Cartridge assassination on a Western spy-hunter who was dangerously close to identifying Soviet moles – his mother, Monique Delacroix Bond. The whole “Steel Cartridge” concept comes across a clumsy homage to the Smert Shpionam concept used through the early Bond novels and in the first Timothy Dalton film “The Living Daylights”. Bond’s parents being killed by agents of the Soviet Union when he was a child immediately puts one in mind of how Harry Potter’s parents were killed by Dumbledore. Never believed I’d associate James Bond with Harry Potter in the same posting…

When the rebooting of James Bond for the 21st century was first announced under the banner of “Project X”, it was implied that the a series of novels by different authors could be produced in coming years. Although Jeffrey Deaver has indicated that he would be interested in producing a second 007 continuation novel let’s hope that he’s too busy to do so. Whilst “Carte Blanche” has sold respectable numbers I’d prefer to see another author tackle the follow-up. For me an interesting choice would be Ben Macintyre, author of “Agent Zigzag” (the story of Eddie Chapman, a real-life double agent of Germany and Britain during World War II) and “Operation Mincemeat” (the so-called “The Man Who Never Was” deception plan to direct attention away from Allied plans to invade Sicily in 1943 – and which was inspired by an initial suggestion by a certain Commander Ian Fleming). Though not a writer of fiction, Macintyre could be a good fit in for the next 007 novel has he has an engaging writing style, and is extremely familiar with the World War II intelligence realm that produced many of the ideas that helped Ian Fleming to create James Bond in the first place.

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