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.

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.

RE-POST: a modest proposal for the post-Skyfall 007 series

Originally posted Feb. 19, 2012. Re-posted because, well, subsequent events make this post look even more interesting in hindsight. While it’s not official Bond 24 will be delayed so that Sam Mendes can direct, another four-year gap is looking like a possibility. The days of an every-other-year production schedule clearly seem to be in the past. Every third year looks like a stretch at this point. Perhaps the “Bond market” can only bear a movie every fourth year or so.

So what happens after Skyfall? The 23rd James Bond film is still filming, of course, but we got to thinking what happens in the future.

Michael G. Wilson, co-boss of Eon Productions


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which co-owns the franchise with the Broccoli-Wilson family, wants the series to get back to an every-other-year schedule, something it said as part of its 2010 bankruptcy filing.

But MGM relies on Eon Productions to actually produce the films. Michael G. Wilson, co-boss of Eon along with his half-sister Barbara Broccoli, has talked about how wearying making Bond movies are, including in 2009, (“Filming Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace back to back took a lot out of time and energy so at the moment we are all just recharging our batteries.”) in 2005, (“We are running out of energy, mental energy…We need to generate something new, for ourselves.”) one in 2004 or 2005 (“It doesn’t give me a problem to do one in three years instead of two. The studio may feel different, but these are very hard to put together. They take over your life. When we’re working on the script and production, my wife will say, ‘Do you realize you’ve been working seven days a week?’ So I don’t mind doing something else; to me it’s fine.”) and in 1999 (“We don’t have any ideas at this point…It just seems that this one’s [The World Is Not Enough] been particularly hard.”).

So maybe it really is time to give up on the idea of James Bond films coming out at regular intervals.

To maintain an every-other-year schedule, around the time you have one filming coming out, the story for the next should at least be taking shape. MGM’s bankruptcy gets most of the blame for what will be a four-year gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. But there are signs the scripting of Skyfall has been a drawn-out affair regardless of MGM’s financial ills. For example:

–In January 2011, when it was announced that Bond 23 would be a go after MGM exited bankrupctcy, the script wasn’t done. John Logan, hired to rewrite drafts by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, said in a Feb. 17 interview with the BBC that he’s been working on Skyfall for “over a year.” That means he would have begun work on Skyfall around the time of the January 2011 announcement.

–Earlier, in August 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported the movie’s script “isn’t ready” and, at that point, not even sent to MGM for review. This, after Eon announced in June 2009, more than six months after Quantum of Solace debuted, that Purvis, Wade and Peter Morgan had been hired to write Bond 23. But the release also noted that Morgan wouldn’t start writing until he completed other scrips.

Eon has mined all of Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories. Wilson has ruled out, on multiple occasions, basing a film on any of the Bond continuation novels. (CLICK HERE FOR ONE EXAMPLE.) So Eon is pretty much on its own to develop stories.

Wilson’s stepfather, Albert R. Broccoli, lived to make 007 films and, after ending his partnership with Harry Saltzman in the mid-1970s, cranked out Bond films on an every-other-year schedule from 1977 through 1989. Wilson isn’t Broccoli. We take him at his word that he finds it a grind; he has said it for too long and on too many occasions to doubt it. He’s either 69 or 70 (different reference sources place his birth year as 1942 or 1943) and he’s been involved with the film series longer than Cubby Broccoli was.

So, maybe, Eon should follow the lead of Ian Fleming Publications. Starting in 1981, IFP (previously known as Glidrose) published 007 continuation novels mostly on an annual basis, first with John Gardner, later with Raymond Benson. That ended in 2002 as new management took over. Since then, IFP has come out with other projects such as the “Young Bond” novels. Meanwhile, its last two regular continuation novels, 2008’s Devil May Care and 2011’s Carte Blanche, were done more as “events” rather than part of a regularly published series. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks was done as a period piece, Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver featured a rebooted 21st Century Bond, who would have been born around 1980.

Perhaps Eon should view its Bond films as “events,” with a gap of four years, maybe more, between movies, each a stand alone. Studio marketers have hyped “the return of Bond!” before after a hiatus (1995’s GoldenEye and 2006’s Casino Royale).

In any event it’s clear Wilson & Co. aren’t enthusiastic about an every-other-year schedule. Skyfall had scripting delays that had nothing to do with MGM’s financial problems. As long as Eon controls half the 007 franchise, it’s going to be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole for MGM to have Eon come out with 007 adventures every other year.

ADDENDUM (Feb. 20, 2012): Just to be clear, as a matter of personal preference, we’d like Bond movies to come out more often than called for above. We call this a “modest” proposal because it calls for no changes in the cast of characters.

To get Bond movies more often, one of the following is going to have to happen: 1) Eon agrees to use continuation novels (because you’d at least have a starting point, something that would save time in story development); 2) Michael G. Wilson retires (though that alone doesn’t guarantee it); 3) MGM, or Sony or somebody else buys out the Broccoli-Wilson family (something that would be unpopular with much of the fan base), causing a jump start in the frequency (again not guaranteed).

Something has to got to give in the MGM/Eon dynamic: either MGM backs off an every-other-year schedule or Eon accelerates the pace of movie development or some combination of both. Maybe every third year, but *no* backsliding (Casino Royale was originally supposed to be released in 2005, but was delayed a year). The modest proposal above is a compromise that could occur without taking more far-reaching steps. Essentially the “modest proposal” is more or less the status quo of the past decade, simply recognizing it for what it is.

James Bond’s connections to Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Here’s to a long life and a merry one
A quick death and an easy one
A pretty girl and an honest one
A cold beer and another one!

In the spirit of the holiday, maybe point you in the direction of Ireland’s largest newspaper, the Independent. The venerable organ has recently put together a list of items connecting the Emerald Isle with the world of James Bond. Sadly, it’s not a long list, and to quote even a small portion would probably put us in violation of fair use laws. Nevertheless, you’ll probably enjoy checking it out (especially with a Guinness or two under your belt), and possibly even learn something new. So hie your fine self over to their website for some 007 Irish Connections, and read up on it.

The paper also had recently run an entertaining history of the James Bond film series,
Ah, Mr. Bond: We weren’t expecting you to last 50 years, which starts off with a terrific anecdote:

On a boiling hot afternoon in early 1962, four friends were walking along a beach in Jamaica when, from across a sand dune, a man shouted at them to lie down.

The man was Terence Young, director of the first Bond film Dr No and he was about to shoot the soon-to-be-famous scene in which Ursula Andress strides, goddess-like, from the sea, wearing a barely-there bikini and an elusive pout.

The quartet of pals had unwittingly walked directly between the camera and Andress as she was about to emerge from the surf. They were poet Stephen Spender, critic Peter Quennell, playwright Noel Coward — and Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

It’s one of our favorite behind-the-scenes stories of James Bond filmmaking, and a great way to start off an entertaining and informative read. Enjoy!

A modest proposal for the post-Skyfall 007 film series

So what happens after Skyfall? The 23rd James Bond film is still filming, of course, but we got to thinking what happens in the future.

Michael G. Wilson, co-boss of Eon Productions


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which co-owns the franchise with Eon Productions the Broccoli-Wilson family, wants the series to get back to an every-other-year schedule, something it said as part of its 2010 bankruptcy filing.

But MGM relies on Eon Productions to actually produce the films. Michael G. Wilson, co-boss of Eon along with his half-sister Barbara Broccoli, has talked about how wearying making Bond movies are, including in 2009, (“Filming Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace back to back took a lot out of time and energy so at the moment we are all just recharging our batteries.”) in 2005, (“We are running out of energy, mental energy…We need to generate something new, for ourselves.”) one in 2004 or 2005 (“It doesn’t give me a problem to do one in three years instead of two. The studio may feel different, but these are very hard to put together. They take over your life. When we’re working on the script and production, my wife will say, ‘Do you realize you’ve been working seven days a week?’ So I don’t mind doing something else; to me it’s fine.”) and in 1999 (“We don’t have any ideas at this point…It just seems that this one’s [The World Is Not Enough] been particularly hard.”).

So maybe it really is time to give up on the idea of James Bond films coming out at regular intervals.

To maintain an every-other-year schedule, around the time you have one filming coming out, the story for the next should at least be taking shape. MGM’s bankruptcy gets most of the blame for what will be a four-year gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. But there are signs the scripting of Skyfall has been a drawn-out affair regardless of MGM’s financial ills. For example:

–In January 2011, when it was announced that Bond 23 would be a go after MGM exited bankrupctcy, the script wasn’t done. John Logan, hired to rewrite drafts by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, said in a Feb. 17 interview with the BBC that he’s been working on Skyfall for “over a year.” That means he would have begun work on Skyfall around the time of the January 2011 announcement.

–Earlier, in August 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported the movie’s script “isn’t ready” and, at that point, not even sent to MGM for review. This, after Eon announced in June 2009, more than six months after Quantum of Solace debuted, that Purvis, Wade and Peter Morgan had been hired to write Bond 23. But the release also noted that Morgan wouldn’t start writing until he completed other scrips.

Eon has mined all of Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories. Wilson has ruled out, on multiple occasions, basing a film on any of the Bond continuation novels. (CLICK HERE FOR ONE EXAMPLE.) So Eon is pretty much on its own to develop stories.

Wilson’s stepfather, Albert R. Broccoli, lived to make 007 films and, after ending his partnership with Harry Saltzman in the mid-1970s, cranked out Bond films on an every-other-year schedule from 1977 through 1989. Wilson isn’t Broccoli. We take him at his word that he finds it a grind; he has said it for too long and on too many occasions to doubt it. He’s either 69 or 70 (different reference sources place his birth year as 1942 or 1943) and he’s been involved with the film series longer than Cubby Broccoli was.

So, maybe, Eon should follow the lead of Ian Fleming Publications. Starting in 1981, IFP (previously known as Glidrose) published 007 continuation novels mostly on an annual basis, first with John Gardner, later with Raymond Benson. That ended in 2002 as new management took over. Since then, IFP has come out with other projects such as the “Young Bond” novels. Meanwhile, its last two regular continuation novels, 2008’s Devil May Care and 2011’s Carte Blanche, were done more as “events” rather than part of a regularly published series. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks was done as a period piece, Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver featured a rebooted 21st Century Bond, who would have been born around 1980.

Perhaps Eon should view its Bond films as “events,” with a gap of four years, maybe more, between movies, each a stand alone. Studio marketers have hyped “the return of Bond!” before after a hiatus (1995’s GoldenEye and 2006’s Casino Royale).

In any event it’s clear Wilson & Co. aren’t enthusiastic about an every-other-year schedule. Skyfall had scripting delays that had nothing to do with MGM’s financial problems. As long as Eon controls half the 007 franchise, it’s going to be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole for MGM to have Eon come out with 007 adventures every other year.

ADDENDUM (Feb. 20): Just to be clear, as a matter of personal preference, we’d like Bond movies to come out more often than called for above. We call this a “modest” proposal because it calls for no changes in the cast of characters.

To get Bond movies more often, one of the following is going to have to happen: 1) Eon agrees to use continuation novels (because you’d at least have a starting point, something that would save time in story development); 2) Michael G. Wilson retires (though that alone doesn’t guarantee it); 3) MGM, or Sony or somebody else buys out the Broccoli-Wilson family (something that would be unpopular with much of the fan base), causing a jump start in the frequency (again not guaranteed).

Something has to got to give in the MGM/Eon dynamic: either MGM backs off an every-other-year schedule or Eon accelerates the pace of movie development or some combination of both. Maybe every third year, but *no* backsliding (Casino Royale was originally supposed to be released in 2005, but was delayed a year). The modest proposal above is a compromise that could occur without taking more far-reaching steps. Essentially the “modest proposal” is more or less the status quo of the past decade, simply recognizing it for what it is.