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.

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