20 August 2009

Young Bond #1: SilverFin

By Charlie Higson (2005)

I’ve dealt with Ian Fleming’s James Bond (I’d love to re-visit all of his books to review on the blog eventually), and a bit with John Gardner’s and the one-shot from Kinglsey Amis. I’m overdue to discuss the rather unusual departure in Bond books that started in 2005—perhaps the biggest gamble in the world of the literary 007 since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964. With Raymond Benson gone after six mostly uninteresting novels, Ian Fleming Publications (formerly known as Glidrose Ltd.) changed its publishing strategy to more heavily promote Fleming’s original Bond books, bringing them back to print in beautiful trade paperback editions. Hallelujah! It was about time the focus returned to the original and still the best. However, that wasn’t the risky move. IFP still wanted to produce new Bond novels, so they developed a non-competitive series designed to penetrate into the crowd of young adult Harry Potter-readers: teen Bond… at boarding school.

My immediate reaction toward this when I heard it proposed was outrage and despair. What an asinine idea, I thought. I had visions of the awful 1990s animated series James Bond Jr. running through my head, mixed with nightmares of a smart-aleck teen throwing around gadgets and acting hip in the high school halls, like Secret Agent Cody Banks (okay, maybe not quite that bad).

But what a surprise: SilverFin is superior to any of the Benson and Gardner adult 007 novels. Although I cannot consider it a one-hundred percent Bond adventure because of its borrowing from other genres and the prequel nature of the character, SilverFin is the most accomplished fiction writing about the character that I’ve come across since Ian Fleming’s death.

Its success may have something to do with its removal from the mainstream conception of the adult Bond. The novels of John Gardner and Raymond Benson draw immediate, unfavorable comparisons to Ian Fleming because they take place in the familiar world of the British spy and try to walk an impossible tightrope between Fleming’s history of the character and the blockbuster action thrills expected from audiences more familiar with the film series. Young Bond, transported back to a period never associated with 007 before—the 1930s—suddenly has fewer points of reference for comparison. Readers can anticipate whatever sort of future James Bond they want, Fleming-style or Eon-style, based on this thirteen-year-old Scottish boy with sharp wits and courage. Charlie Higson gives readers the pulse-pounding exotic thrills of James Bond without distorting the character.

But how can the teenage James (he is always referred to by first name, unlike in the adult novels) engage in similar epic adventures? This is Young Bond’s toughest obstacle, but Higson manages to overcome it. The plot gets James into serious trouble during his vacation from Eton in the highlands of Scotland, which is both a natural stomping ground for a half-Scottish lad and also a strange setting where anything might lurk in one of the old castles perched above the mysterious lochs. The adventure charts its course halfway between adult Bond and the British Boy’s Own story paper. To American readers, the closest comparison would be the Hardy Boys books: youthful detectives investigate what the creepy grown-ups are scheming. This mixture keeps the book from turning into an unbelievable tale that tries too hard to make its thirteen-year-old hero into a miniature simulacrum of the adult Bond, while still providing the thrills a reader would expect from the label “A James Bond Adventure” found on the cover.

After a cold opening with a surprising amount of horror, we meet adolescent James as he starts his first term at Eton. His parents died two years earlier, an event James keeps hidden from others who know him, and now lives with his Aunt Charmian. School starts roughly, and James finds himself with an enemy at school in George Hellebore. When Bond goes on vacation with Aunt Charmian to Scotland to see his ailing uncle Max, he finds that George’s father, the upstart Lord Randolph Hellebore, has ghastly plans brewing in his castle on Loch Silverfin. The curiosity of Bond and his new pal, roguish Red Kelly, turns to mortal danger in the depths of Hellebore’s castle.

The opening section at Eton is the poorest of the book. It is here that fan fears that Young Bond will be nothing more than an espionage version of Harry Potter might seem justified. Hopefully, these anxious readers get past this section to the meat of the book. Eton soon vanishes and Bond sprints off for vacation in Scotland and wild adventures in Lord Hellebore’s demesne. Bond’s time in Eton has points of interest, such as Higson’s adaptation of the standard Bondian device of meeting an adversary in a competition filled with cheating (a foot race this time), but feels a bit more like marking time until the real action begins. The plot deals with Bond starting school, as it must, and then tosses it out. Only George Hellebore of the Etonian extended cast makes it into the rest of the novel. The others will have to wait their turn in the sequels.

This does mean that Higson introduces some characters to simply serve series functions but aren’t germane to this particular story. Aunt Charmian, Mr. Merriot, and Pritpal Nandra appear for a span, and then vanish once Bond and Red Kelly start to investigate Lord Hellebore. Higson does better with story-specific “color” characters, like the Pinkerton detective Meatpacker—a part that sounds tailor-made for Paul Giamatti if SilverFin were adapted to the screen. (It won’t be.) Another well-developed character is James’s uncle Max Bond, who inadvertently plants in the boy the idea seed of being a secret agent. Max worked as an intelligence agent during the Great War, and almost died for it. His story is meant to foreshadow the tortures that James will face, both in this book and in the even nastier ones to come in adulthood.

In a strange move, Higson writes a lengthy technology discussion between Max and James about the workings of the automobile. Not a specially designed automobile, mind you, just a standard issue motorcar. Max goes into great deal to explain the internal combustion engine to his nephew. I can’t for the life of me understand why Higson included this sequence. Perhaps he felt that it explains adult Bond’s fascination with cars and resembles Fleming’s trademark detailed descriptions that Kingsley Amis called “The Fleming Effect.” However, nearly everyone reading the book knows how cars work, since they’re part of our daily lives. A step-by-step explanation of pistons and spark plugs makes tedious reading. Most of this could be glossed over and still convey James’s automobile-fixation using a couple of driving sequences. Thankfully, Higson doesn’t over-explain any other familiar subjects during the book. It does make me wonder what will happen when Bond finally encounters a television (uh, I mean a telly).

One element of the classic Bond that doesn’t find a correlation in the young adult genre is sex. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the age of the target audience and James himself. This is the only element that couldn’t translate. However, some romance is possible and desirable, but Higson does not follow through. Wilder Lawless, the “Bond Girl” of the book, only shows up sporadically and the attraction between her and our hero comes in nothing more than hints. She’s a bland character—and her horse “Martini” is too cheeky a joke. Red Kelly has more the hots for Wilder than the red-blooded future secret agent.

Higson’s writing is smooth, much more so than the other Bond writers, who get awfully self-conscious in their writing and often trip over gag-worthy phrases. Higson’s style is fleet, engaging, and doesn’t make the error of trying too hard. He does a few quotations of Fleming, such as a Casino Royale paraphrase that opens the second Chapter 1 (“The smell and noise and confusion of a hallway full of schoolboys can be quite awful at twenty past seven in the morning.”), but otherwise he keeps his readers focused on a world that might be Fleming’s but isn’t slavishly pretending to be. SilverFin is a fun start to a series that will hopefully bring a new generation to the joys of James Bond on the page. In other words: kids, if you like this one, hie thee to a bookstore and buy some Ian Fleming!