Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
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My name: Brian Martin
Kingsley Amis, writing as Robert Markham, produced this, the first James Bond book written after Ian Fleming's death in 1964. Published in 1968, it sent the franchise into a 13-year coma, until John Gardner's License Renewed in 1981.
All right, it isn't that bad. But it isn't that good, either.
It is, in fact, superior to Gardner's early books (I haven't read them all) both in terms of the quality of the writing and in not having been influenced by the movies, with all that technological "gimcrackery" that so impressed Gardner. On the other hand, Gardner was occasionally rather fun, and this novel is...not.
It starts off well, with Bond playing a round of golf, unaware he is being watched by a killer. At this point, the plot could have gone anywhere, and almost anywhere would have been better than where Amis sends it. Within a few pages (and presaging the movie Skyfall), M is kidnapped and Bond narrowly (conveniently) escapes the same fate. But (unlike Skyfall) M's capture isn't personal: the Chinese want to use him (and Bond, if they can get him) in a plot to discredit the British government.
To say that Amis has turned Fleming's spy thrillers into his own political thriller would be to imply that Amis does more than nod in this direction. The politics of this book can be simply summarized: Chinese, bad; British, good -- with a few equivocal Russians thrown in for good measure.
One of those Russians isn't a Russian at all. Most of the novel takes place in Greece or on one or another of the Greek islands. Ariadne Alexandrou is a Greek citizen working for the Russian G.R.U. She's young, she's gorgeous, and she's clever, too. Bond falls for her almost as fast as she for him. But in the non-Fleming world, they both know that love leads no further than the nearest bedroom. Which makes them ideal allies in the fight against Colonel Sun Liang-tan, with his pedestrian plan to disrupt a high-level international conference hosted by the Russians.
At any rate, that's the plan stamped onto his marching papers. But it's of as little interest to Amis as it is to his readers. What Amis appears to really care about is the psychotic Sun's secondary goal: personal growth through torture. Sun, building upon a couple of quotations from everyone's favorite sadist, the Marquis de Sade, goes on and on about the supposed mind-and-soul-expanding benefits of torture -- for both perpetrator and victim. Naturally he wants to test these theories on Bond. As improbable as this sounds, it is reason itself next to its eventual resolution.
Colonel Sun is weak tea next to Fleming's books. The plot, it's periodic disentanglements (except one, involving an innocent man caught in the crossfire), and Bond himself all fail to satisfy. Bond here is more self-reflective, but the clouds in his intellectual mirror hide anything deep or meaningful. His early, almost childish, celebration of physical activity later becomes a superficial distaste for the violence of his profession. Much less self-reliant, he is now a man who needs all the help he can get -- from circumstance, his allies, and from total strangers.