‘Solo’ recaptures the magic of Ian Fleming

Posted Sunday, Oct. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Solo by William Boyd Harper, $26.99
The Ian Fleming essentials Here are five Fleming-penned 007 novels that uninitiated readers should consider: • Casino Royale (1953): The book that started it all, it’s memorable for Bond’s baccarat duel with Le Chiffre, a cringe-inducing torture scene and a surprise ending that involves lady love Vesper Lynd. • Live and Let Die (1954): It features classic bad guy Mr. Big, and a fantastic big finish at sea. • From Russia, With Love (1957): Best book in the series, it involves a SMERSH plot to destroy Bond and his reputation, with a shocker of an ending. • Thunderball (1961): This thrilling caper involves SPECTRE’s theft of nuclear bombs from a hijacked NATO plane, wrapping with a fierce underwater battle between armies of frogmen. • On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963): Bond falls in love, but the action highlight is his escape on skis from an avalanche.

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There are magical moments in Solo, the new James Bond-007 novel, in which author William Boyd accomplishes something extraordinary.

He goes beyond mere imitation and homage of the late, great Ian Fleming.

He creates something that often feels like it’s the genuine article.

Parts of Solo — extensive passages, in fact — feel so authentic that the reader can almost will himself into believing that this is a long-lost manuscript, recently recovered from a secret desk drawer in Fleming’s old office in Jamaica, where he wrote the original Bond books in the 1950s and ’60s.

Boyd, the latest writer chosen by the Fleming estate to keep the series going, nearly 50 years after the master’s death in 1964, comes mighty close to crafting a perfect match.

Released more than a week ago in the U.K., Solo (Harper, $26.99) will be out Tuesday in the States.

Here’s hoping there were more manuscripts like this one stashed in that hideaway drawer.

The first thing Solo gets right is that it doesn’t tamper with elements that made Bond and his lifestyle so memorable: This is a man who, when not putting everything on the line for queen and country, led a life of excess. Here, Bond’s appetite for food, drink, cigarettes, fast cars and fast women is as insatiable as ever.

The next thing the book gets right is it doesn’t move Bond to another era where he doesn’t belong. It’s 1969, only a few years after the last of the Fleming novels, and the British superspy is sent to Western Africa with vague instructions about single-handedly ending two years of civil war and genocide.

Mind you, his gadget-free mission to stop the fighting between the officially recognized government and the breakaway nation of Dahum isn’t wholly humanitarian. Not surprisingly, it has more to do with protecting English oil interests in that part of the world.

With a beautiful female agent as his guide (is there any other kind in a Bond adventure?), 007 must wend his way past the combat and suffering so that, while posing as a foreign correspondent, he can get close enough to the charismatic rebel leader to take him out of the picture, by whatever means possible.

Sweeping travelogue was an integral part of the Fleming novels, and Boyd gets that part of the formula down pat, too. He paints a vibrant portrait of Africa that clearly comes from having spent time there.

Suffice it to say that Bond accomplishes his objective with stealth and subtlety, but he barely gets out of Africa alive, thanks in large part to a trusted ally’s unexpected double-cross.

That’s when our hero decides to “go solo,” embarking on an unsanctioned quest for revenge against the greed-driven villains who orchestrated the war, left him for dead and got away free and clear.

And that might be the most delicious payoff of all. It’s almost as if the second half of Solo is a bonus Bond story in what still is a slender 320 pages (which is yet another thing Boyd gets right: Fleming books were short and sweet, unlike the bulky doorstops that generally pass for espionage novels today).

Bond’s rogue trip to America ends in an explosive showdown with a particularly nasty (and nasty-looking) bad guy who can pretty much only exist in a 007 story: a Rhodesian mercenary with a milky eye that drips unending tears down what’s left of a battle-scarred half of a face.

This psychopath gets a charge out of stringing up his dead with a giant fish hook secured beneath the victim’s chin. He’s precisely the kind of baddie that makes a worthy adversary for James Bond.

And it’s precisely the kind of adventure that will take Fleming fans back to another time.

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