GUEST REVIEW: Solo by William Boyd

solonovel

The author did a review of Skyfall that ran on this blog on May 15 and has contributed to the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website and alt.fan.james-bond.

By Peredur Glyn Davies
Much was made in the publicity for the new James Bond continuation novel Solo, by William Boyd, that this would feature 007 doing the unexpected and going rogue, “going solo.”

The very title hints that in this story Bond will not have the usual caravan of allies to help him, but that he will have to rely on his wits alone. The question is: is this an enticing and novel premise?

A brief glimpse into the Bond universe that precedes Solo shows us that Bond, of course, is not averse to going rogue. It’s a major aspect of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Living Daylights, if we remain within the Fleming canon, and it crops up now and then elsewhere too (even in the Gardner novelisation of Licence to Kill, if you accept that as canon!).

Solo, then, is already potentially on the back foot, since it promises an original concept which itself lacks originality. Nevertheless, the idea of a truly rogue Bond is an appealing one. The idea of a period Bond novel which tries to move away from the formulaic issues that will plague any long-running series is also pleasing.

The plot sees Bond sent by M on an assassination mission to stop civil war in a fictional African country. Bond is aided along the way by a woman called Blessing and abetted by a scarred villain called Jakobus Breed (wherein the initials J.B. can hardly be a coincidence). Suffice to say that once Bond finds himself in Africa—and, later, the USA—he is beset by the usual dangers that we would expect Bond to face on one of his adventures.

Except… not really. There are a number of rather surprising things about Solo

First the titular tease of Bond going solo does not manifest itself until quite late in the novel, which means, among other things, that the book feels rather imbalanced—a work of two halves. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about that (Casino Royale, for example, is structurally very curious, but Fleming manages to make it work). But for a novel that claims to be different one would expect the author to embrace that difference from early on in the tale.

Even when he supposedly goes solo, Bond is hardly alone for most of those chapters. None of his actions really differ from how he would usually behave.

So he is doing these things without the permission of M. So what? A true rogue Bond should be doing things, surely, that fall outside the remit of his 00 status, to go to extremes for the sake of justice. Instead, Boyd sends Bond on a formulaic jaunt to America, the main problems he faces being trying to obtain a driver’s licence and weapons without support from Q Branch.

Second, Bond spends a long time in this book looking at other people doing things. Fleming’s Bond was never really a watcher. He is an impatient man, whose idea of fighting the foe is, more often than not, to barge in and rely on his wits, strength and luck. Boyd’s Bond is more of a detective, spending several chapters of the first half of the novel sitting in a town and letting things happen around him.

Instead of a blunt instrument, Boyd’s Bond is a refined instrument, cold and clinical rather than hot and passionate. There is literally one part of the novel which consists of four chapters of Bond looking at a building from another building.

Fleming’s Bond, I feel, would have got bored quickly and would have sought that white-hot thrill of danger and the threat of death.

Moreover, whilst Bond novels are always about more than just action and death-defying escapes, Solo is light on action scenes. Bond hardly gets into a fight at all.

Sometimes when the plot looks as if we’re building up to an exciting sequence, the author pulls back and the action either doesn’t transpire, or it is dealt with perfunctorily. Not that Solo shies away from violence but this violence is frequently rather static rather than being the kind of thing we expect of a page-turner.

In particular, the final climax is over and done with abruptly and any tension that has been cranked up prior to this point drains away unsatisfyingly.

Third, while the geopolitical aspects of the novel’s story are a refreshing change from anything involving nuclear bombs, the plot verges at times on being dull. This is because the plot revolves around issues such as who is funding the rebellion, and it’s hard to get one’s blood pumping about something that mundane.

Fleming was excellent at character-driven action, whereas Boyd often sticks to plot-driven action. The sheer number of named characters in the book (including a bewildering number of chauffeurs) hints at this. I found it strangely hard to care when certain characters got killed off or certain other characters turned out to be bad ‘uns.

This is a pity, since there are lots of interesting (or potentially interesting) characters here—especially Breed, the “man with two faces”—but I yearned for there to be more actual stuff happening between them and Bond.

Boyd doesn’t always tie his plot strands together very satisfyingly. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the case of a major female character whose numerous interactions with Bond ultimately serve only to fulfil a minor plot requirement.

Surely the overarching plot of any novel of this type should bring all the plot strands together, somehow, and in a pleasing fashion, at the end? Instead, a lot of this (rather long) novel’s story feels superfluous and disconnected.

Let me clarify that I still enjoyed reading Solo, for the most part. Boyd’s great skill as an author is in setting a scene, and some of the most pleasing sections of the novel are where Bond has a particularly fine meal or had a stiff drink. Boyd can cause the reader to salivate via an adroit turn of phrase.

There are also some chilling and moving descriptions of the plight of the fictional African civil war on the civilians, and a disturbing sequence where Bond tries to help some villagers who are on the verge of starving to death. Boyd also strives for realism, and much of the novel gives a detailed procedural account of how an intelligence operative might deal with the situation. I appreciated the research that Boyd has gone into, and the detail adds to the atmosphere.

On the other hand, Boyd’s adherence to realism means that there are almost no fantastical elements to this story. Whilst I did not expect any giant squids or gardens of death, I believe that good Bond stories set themselves apart from the crowd by being able to include fantastical elements without descending into pastiche.

Solo is down to earth, for the main part, and there is almost nothing here that could be termed spectacular. Glimpses of Fleming-like plot details late in the day give promise, but are ultimately overshadowed by the more pedestrian aspects of the story.

Solo could be described as a character study of Bond rather than a Bond adventure. Nevertheless, I don’t suspect most people pick up a Bond book for a character study. To me, the insightful investigation of Bond’s inner workings fall flat when put against the book’s failings. More often than not the plot rambles and the action is flaccid.

I realised, after finishing the book, that I was more able to accept the structural and narrative idiosyncrasies of Solo if I conceived of it as not being an action thriller, but rather a whodunit of sorts. Bond is much more the detective than the physical hero.

If you go into reading this novel without expecting the derring-do we might otherwise expect of James Bond, but instead see it as a slow unravelling of a complex plot, then perhaps it would feel less strange.

That said, the key part of any whodunit is the great reveal, and ‘the reveal’ here, when it comes, didn’t excite me. In a novel where Bond meets one of the villains only once, about a third of the way through, it’s hard to be that gripped by a plot twist.

It seems likely, going by Ian Fleming Publications’ current business model, that William Boyd will not write another Bond novel. That would be a shame, if only that several plot elements are left unresolved here, and as such it feels incomplete without a continuation of the tale. Also, Boyd clearly knows his Bond very well, and his writing style is fresh and highly readable, and perhaps in a different novel the same flaws might not arise again in a sequel.

However, ultimately I see Solo as the third part of a disconnected trilogy of lacklustre Bond continuation novels—following from Devil May Care and Carte Blanche—which have played with the character and with the formula in various ways, but on no occasion truly succeeding.

The more experimental Bond novels of late, specifically the Young Bond and the Moneypenny novels, have, in my view, been far more successful than the ‘adult Bond trilogy’ as sources of entertainment because they have nailed both the character and the spirit of Fleming’s creation in a way that William Boyd hasn’t succeeded.

Wilson, Broccoli to get Producers Guild award

Barbara Broccoli

Barbara Broccoli

Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the co-bosses of Eon Productions, the production company that makes James Bond films, are set to receive the 2014 David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Motion Pictures from the Producers Guild of America.

Here’s an excerpt from THE PRESS RELEASE on the organization’s website:

The Producers Guild of America (PGA) announced today that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli of EON Productions will receive the 2014 David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Motion Pictures. The award will be presented to Wilson and Broccoli at the 25th Annual Producers Guild Awards ceremony on Sunday, January 19th at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.

“We’re honored to be associated with the legendary David O. Selznick and delighted to be receiving this award along with its previous recipients,” said Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.

The Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Achievement Award recognizes a producer’s outstanding body of work in motion pictures. The honor has a rich and distinguished history with past recipients including such legendary producers as Stanley Kramer, Saul Zaentz, Clint Eastwood, Billy Wilder, Brian Grazer, Jerry Bruckheimer, Roger Corman, Laura Ziskin, Kathleen Kennedy & Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg and last year’s recipients Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are, respectively, the stepson and daughter of Eon co-founder Albert R. Broccoli. They took command of Eon about two decades ago, a few years before the 1996 death of Albert R. Broccoli. Wilson is in his early 70s while Barbara Broccoli is 53.

What’s the future of 007 continuation novels?

007 continuation novel authors William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks and friend.

007 authors William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks and friend.

Another James Bond novel has been published. So where does the series go from here? Ian Fleming Publictions (formerly Glidrose) has been all over the place.

From 1981 until 2002, continuation novels by John Gardner followed by Raymond Benson were published pretty much on a regular basis.

A new regime then took control of the literary 007 and that changed. The literary secret agent went on hiatus while novels featuring a young James Bond and The Moneypenny Diaries were published.

Since 2008, and the return of an adult Bond, Ian Fleming Publications has veered from period piece (Devil May Care) to total reboot (Carte Blanche) back to period piece (Solo).

The only thing the novels have in common is name authors: Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd.

The question is whether that strategy is working. There were reports (such as THIS ONE ON THE MI6 JAMES BOND FAN WEBSITE) that sales have tailed off in the U.K. since Faulks’s Devil May Care, published the same year as the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth.

Novels written by John Gardner and Raymond Benson attempted to maintain a sense of continuity, with stories playing upon one another. The current IFP management seems to prefer one-off adventures that have no connection to each other.

Part of that stems from the choice of employing big-name authors — their James Bond will only live once.

“They find it fun and enjoyable but they’ve got their own books to write.” Corinne Turner, Corinne Turner, managing director of IFP, told The New York Times in a story PUBLISHED THIS MONTH.

Strictly a guess, but don’t expect another adult James Bond continuation novel soon. IFP has announced a new Young Bond series, with Steve Cole taking over from Charlie Higson. So IFP will be busy.

Also, based on The New York Times story, IFP doesn’t sound like it intends to change direction for the literary adult 007. So, if IFP opts to keep going for big-name writers, perhaps it will keep 007 off the market for a while to let demand build back up.

For the moment, there’s no incentive to make a major change. Eon Productions has made clear it has no interest in using continuation novels as the basis of 007 movies.

Eon co-boss Michael G. Wilson criticized the Gardner novels in the 1980s and ’90s. Meanwhile, John Logan, one of Skyfall’s screenwriters, was hired to write the next two movies, the first of which won’t be out until two years from now.

So the next time you read about a 007 author saying his story has “been sent to Eon,” the best-case scenario was the novel was placed on a shelf.

U.N.C.L.E. movie resumes filming after big U.K. storm

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer

Despite a major storm that affected southern England, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie resumed filming on Oct. 28, according to a post on the HENRY CAVILL NEWS fan website.

The production is using the U.K. as a stand-in for East Germany. The sequence being shot involves a car chase with early 1960s era cars. CLICK HERE and you can see a series of photos on the Henry Cavill News site.

Production of the movie has been underway for a little more than seven weeks and is probably past the halfway mark.

Henry Cavill, who plays Napoleon Solo, the role originated by Robert Vaughn in the 1964-68 series, needs to begin filming on the Superman-Batman film sometime in early 2014. That movie is a sequel to this year’s Man of Steel film with Cavill as Superman. The U.N.C.L.E. movie also stars Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, who was played by David McCallum in the series.

There are still some major questions about the U.N.C.L.E. project, which is being directed by Guy Ritchie. Warner Bros. hasn’t publicly disclosed if it has a release date. Also unknown is when the first teaser trailer might come out. If a composer has been hired, Warner Bros. is keeping it a secret.

Connery still most popular U.K. actor in U.S.

Sean Connery and David McCallum circa 1966

Party like it’s 1966: Sean Connery No. 1 most popular U.K. actor in U.S., David McCallum No. 4

Sean Connery, the original screen James Bond, is still the most popular U.K. actor in the U.S., according to an article in the Sunday Times.

Here’s an excerpt:

Connery, who played James Bond in seven films between 1962 and 1983, eclipses younger British actors including Colin Firth, Daniel Day-Lewis and even Daniel Craig, the current 007.

He is the most popular Briton to feature in the Q Score charts, which are based on opinion polls conducted in America every six months, asking 1,500 people how much they like stars and the extent to which they trust them.

The ARTICLE and full list is behind a paywall, meaning you have to register for the website to view it. But copies have circulated elsewhere on the Internet. Anyway, for readers of this blog, here are some other names of interest:

No. 4: David McCallum, who gained fame as Russian agent Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and is a supporting player on NCIS.

No. 6: Judi Dench, who played M in seven James Bond films from 1995 through 2012 and an Oscar winning actress.

No. 8: Daniel Craig, James Bond actor in three movies, 2006 to present and has said he’s signed to play 007 in two more movies. The next, the untitled Bond 24, is scheduled for fall 2015.

No. 12: Robert Carlyle, who played one of the villains in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough.

No. 21: Alan Cumming, character actor who played a secondary villain in 1995’s GoldenEye.

No. 24: Henry Cavill: most recent screen Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel and currently playing Napoleon Solo in a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Was also one of the finalists for the 007 role who lost out to Daniel Craig in 2005 for 2006’s Casino Royale.

No. 27: Jane Seymour: busy actress who played Solitaire in 1973’s Live And Let Die.

UPDATE (Oct. 28): This ARTICLE IN THE GUARDIAN isn’t behind a paywall and a has a full list of the top 20.

REVIEW: Solo by William Boyd

solonovel

Solo, William Boyd’s turn at penning a James Bond continuation novel, tries to thread a needle: giving fans of the literary 007 what they want while putting his own spin on the proceedings.

Boyd succeeds, at least most of the time. The author’s tale, set in 1969, uses a thinly disguised version of the Nigerian civil war as a setting and manages to provide readers a sampling of his world view without seeming too preachy.

Meanwhile, Bond drinks a lot of alcohol and a lot of different kinds; he periodically smiles grimly to himself; and he’s still fussy about what he eats (including having his own salad dressing). What’s not to like?

Well, in his drive to make Bond a real person who makes mistakes, Boyd occasionally has 007 commit Homer Simpson moments.

Bond goes rogue, makes his own fake passport but — D’OH! — forgets to come up with a fake U.S. driver’s license until he’s already arrived at Washington’s Dulles airport. Later, Bond curses how he doesn’t have coins to throw to create a diversion until — D’OH! — he suddenly remembers he’s carrying (and has been for some time) a sock with $10 worth of nickels and dimes to use as a weapon.

Also, at one point, Boyd actually writes this piece of Bond reflecting: “Revenge is a dish best served cold, he reminded himself.” Evidently, Boyd’s Bond is a great secret agent but not an original thinker.

To be fair, that’s quibbling. Overall, the story holds the reader’s interest. Boyd keeps the reader turning the pages. The author demonstrates knowledge of Fleming’s Bond. He drops in references to Ian Fleming novels in such a way that long-time readers will pick them up but doesn’t bog down the narrative.

Boyd doesn’t attempt to provide a Dr. No/Auric Goldfinger/Ernst Stavro Blofeld mastermind villain. There isn’t even a Kronsteen/Rosa Klebb opponent. Given the geopolitical theme Boyd inserts, that’s probably for the best. Boyd’s interest is the geopolitics. There is a villain, Kobus Breed, but he’s at best in the Red Grant class.

No, Boyd want to make a broader point about How the World Really Works and how Bond, Breed, Felix Leither, M and other characters are all having their strings pulled.

Fleming’s originals, published from 1953 into the 1960s, were a then-new take on St. George and the Dragon. For Boyd, St. George and the Dragon are pawns on the chessboard of life. It’s just a part of how Boyd sought to make 007 his own. GRADE: B.

Earlier posts:

April 2013: OPEN CHANNEL D: WILLIAM BOYD’S FLEMING RESEARCH GAP

August 2013: THE AFRICAN WAR THAT MAY HAVE INFLUENCED BOYD’S SOLO

Hal Needham, director of Hooper, dies

Burt Reynolds and the cast of Hooper in the film's final scene

Burt Reynolds and the cast of Hooper in the film’s final scene

Hal Needham, a veteran Hollywood stuntman and director of action comedies such as 1978’s Hooper, has died at the age of 82 according to AN OBITUARY IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.

As a director, Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds as an aging stuntman, is arguably Needham’s best work. The movie looks at the stunt work being done on a James Bond-like film by an A-list Hollywood director.

The movie has its origins in an earlier film, 1976’s Nickelodeon. It was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, with Reynolds as one of the stars and Needham as stunt coordinator.

When Hooper came out two years later, there were reviews posing the question whether Needham and Reynolds were getting a little payback. Whether that’s true or not, Hooper wasn’t just played for jokes.

The title character played by Reynolds is getting old for to be a stuntman and knows it; his next major injury could paralyze or kill him. What’s more, Hooper is being pushed by a younger rival stuntman (Jan-Michael Vincent). All of this is happening on a movie directed by egotistic director Roger Deal (Robert Klein) that resembles a James Bond film (starring, as it turns out, Adam West).

Needham also directed 1981’s The Cannonball Run, another Reynolds comedy, with a cast including Roger Moore, playing somebody who thinks he’s Roger Moore.

Here’s part of the climatic sequence of Hooper (as long as it doesn’t get yanked by YouTube):