GUEST REVIEW: Solo by William Boyd


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

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.

More (belated) HMSS reviews of Skyfall part I

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image

First in a series of reviews intended for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Peredur Glyn Davies

Skyfall is the worst Bond film in a long time.

The standard pattern of the Bond film plots, characters and narrative arcs that have sustained Eon’s 007 franchise for 50 years has been largely eschewed by director Sam Mendes and scriptwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, in favour of a film that goes places and does things that anyone familiar with classic Bond films will find unusual and even alien.

Just look at it. The gunbarrel sequence is in the wrong place. Bond is actively refused an exploding gadget by Q –and this Q is barely out of short trousers. The main Bond girl is a septuagenarian. The final act, which should involve Bond infiltrating the villain’s lair, is the exact opposite of that.

The climactic sequence takes place, not in a tropical locale, but in a wintery Scotland (even the funeral sequence in The World is not Enough was more glitzy). James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Skyfall is, rather than the superhuman quipmeister audiences are accustomed to, a frail, dejected shell of his former cinematic self, a man who can hardly do pull-ups and misses a stationary paper target five yards away. For goodness’ sake, he can’t even be bothered to shave.

What kind of a Bond film is that?

I could go on — and will. Scarcely recognisable, here, are the stock characters we are all familiar with: the expository boss, the comic relief gadget-master, the doomed beauty with a cute name, the burly henchman with no dialogue, the main villain who wants to blow up the world (and it doesn’t really matter why he does).

All right, Mendes has made some effort to include something close to them, but he too often goes wide of the mark and, instead of the two-dimensional characters that we are used to in a Bond film, characters who fulfil a role and help propel the film to its classic denouement with Bond and Girl 3 aboard a stranded boat in the middle of the sea (it is usually a stranded boat in the middle of the sea), Mendes and the writers give us a bevy of characters who actually develop and change over the course of the film. Our opinion of them changes and matures during the course of our time with them, and they end up as characters we actually care about.

What kind of a Bond film is that?

Take Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). He is surely meant to be the Admiral Godfrey character — the stuffy bureaucrat who stands in Bond’s way and who will get his red-faced comeuppance when Bond proves he can save the day just fine without any help from Whitehall, thank you very much. But Mallory, in relatively little screen time, subverts our expectations, makes us realise that he is not just some suit but a savvy war veteran with a compassionate heart and, I’d warrant, damnably clear grey eyes. When he takes his seat behind the mahogany desk at the end, it actually makes sense—we understand why he is there.

Or look at Severine (Berenice Marlohe). The sacrificial lamb character — Jill from Goldfinger, Aki from You Only Live Twice, Plenty from Diamonds Are Forever, Solange from Casino Royale — who is supposed to turn up, shag Bond, and pay the piper so that we the audience know how very naughty the villain is, that he would engineer the death of even his beautiful concubine if she stood between him and his villainous scheme.

But Severine, in her brief scenes, reflects an inner torment and depth of character that makes us understand why she behaves the way she does. Of course, Severine meets the end that her type always do, and perhaps it was not warranted here, given Bond’s promise to her to save her—but remember that our man Bond is a cold bastard and that what he does is get the job done, regardless of the price.

And then there’s good old Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whom we first meet, not behind her desk á la Maxwell, Bliss or (Samantha) Bond, but out in the field being efficient and lethal, wielding guns and driving cars as if women can somehow be Bond’s equal in this universe.

They even call her Eve to pull the wool most cruelly over the audience’s eyes. When she finally takes her expected place in our little jigsaw in the final scene, I suppose we do now know why she’s there, why she prefers to work behind the scenes rather than in front of them, and why she and Bond have the flirtatious relationship that we know they do. By the final scene, all our players are in their appropriate positions, the green light above the oak door flickers on and we know we are back in familiar 007 territory. But it takes a hell of a time to get there.

And what kind of a Bond film is that?

As noted, M’s Judi Dench screen time is greatly increased in Skyfall over previous iterations (even more so than in The World is not Enough), so that her role becomes more than just the exposition that viewers expect. She certainly holds the leading female role over Eve or Severine. So instead of Bond and his lady sharing body warmth in a remote chalet in front of a roaring fire, we find Bond and M skulking in a dusty Scottish manor with the threat of doom hanging over their heads. There is little romance in this film.

What’s all that about, Mendes? Bond is shown to respect and perhaps even (after a fashion) love his boss, and we are shown how this urge to protect her leads him to risk everything in an almost hopeless gambit of luring his enemy to him.

Ah yes, the enemy. Silva (Javier Bardem) is certainly camp enough for a classic Bond villain, but again he almost ruins the Bondness of the film by making us sympathise with his point of view.

Silva is indeed Bond from a parallel universe, a Bond that might have been, an agent gone wrong through the fault of others. His deformity — he has been hideously scarred by hydrogen cyanide which he administered himself — makes him appropriately vile for the rogue’s gallery, but rather than monopolising on this deformity, Mendes and the writers don’t use it as the sole character prop for the villain, which is what one might often expect.

Instead, we are allowed to focus on what makes this man tick, and are given the chance to consider why he would do the things he does. Mr. Silva is truly a criminal genius. He almost makes succeeds in making Bond look foolish: he is ahead of him almost throughout the film, revealing that Bond too can fail. Do we want a James Bond who can fail? Bond in Skyfall’s latter half is frantic, desperately trying to stop a dozen threats happening at once, and the coolness and calmness that we expect of the world’s greatest secret agent is hardly there. He even needs help from Mallory and Moneypenny in shooting baddies during an attempt on M’s life!

A fleshed-out villain? A genuine relationship between 007 and M? A Bond whom we think might actually not succeed this time?

What kind of a Bond film is this? It is a long time since we have seen a James Bond film that subverts the expectations of what one presumes a James Bond film should be. Really, only in a film like From Russia with Love do we see a movie where Mr. Bond can be his own character and where we cannot predict where the next scene or sequence will take us. Of course, that film was made before the template was truly set out. That 1963 film was made before the expectations of what makes a Bond film were seared onto an international consciousness, before the scriptwriters felt shackled by convention.

Hundreds of wannabe 007s have splayed over cinema screens since Bob Simmons (doubling for Sean Connery’s Bond) first turned and fired into a bleeding gunbarrel in 1962. Some of the wannabes even outbonded Bond, and perhaps, in doing so, the template that Eon constructed has become stale, the expectations of audiences have been being met rather than shaken and stirred, the endless repetitions satisfactory only in a clinical, functional way.

Perhaps it really was time to take Bond out of Bond, and make, not a Bond film, but a film with James Bond in it. Start at the core, trim the excess.

Ian Fleming gave the world a character and the world played around with it. Strip away the expensive suits, the ludicrous cocktails, the funny gadgets and the wisecracks, and you can then start afresh. You can start from the beginning with James Bond and remake his world.

“Into the past,” Bond says to M, and, as they leave behind them the trappings of the 21st Century world and head north for the misty fells of Bond’s homeland. So too the filmmakers can leave behind the gilt-edged excesses of 50 years and wipe the slate clean. Build a new template by challenging the old one. Maybe if you did that you would end up with a film like Skyfall.

So, yes, I would call Skyfall the worst of all the Bond films.

But, on the other hand, would I call it the best film in the canon?

Yes, I would. With pleasure. GRADE: A+

(C) 2013, Peredur Glyn Davies