07 August 2009

Colonel Sun: A Forgotten James Bond Novel

Colonel Sun (1968)
By Kingsley Amis writing as Robert Markham

I’ve tackled some of the James Bond novels by the late John Gardner, and even took a very lengthy look at one of Bond-creator Ian Fleming’s more unusual 007 adventures, The Spy Who Loved Me. However, I don’t hear enough about Colonel Sun, a one-off novel that has fallen off the edge of the world-map of Bond in the decades since its publication—and which doesn’t deserve the dishonor of tumbling through the void.

It was a mere four years after Ian Fleming’s death and two years after the publication of his last book, the anthology Octopussy and The Living Daylights. In the midst of 1960s spy mania, the literary rights holders to James Bond, Glidrose Ltd., published the first work to continue the adventures of 007 in print. After rejecting the manuscript of Geoffrey Jenkins’s novel Per Fine Ounce for reasons that remain unclear today, Glidrose inaugurated a new series of adventures that would be written by different authors under the house pseudonym “Robert Markham.” The experiment lasted all of one volume: Kinglsey Amis’s Colonel Sun. Glidrose wouldn’t try another Bond for thirteen years.

So Colonel Sun stands as something of the odd-Bond-out of the books and perhaps the least known. That’s unfortunate, since the late Mr. Amis wrote one of the best of the non-Fleming Bonds. Amis already had a relationship to the master spy from writing The James Bond Dossier, the first serious examination of the novels, and he had impressive writing credentials as the author of the critically-acclaimed 1954 novel Lucky Jim. Amis possessed the greatest pure writing talent of any of the later Bond authors, and his literary musculature does credit to the world’s most famous spy.

The plot wastes no time getting underway. To grab readers’ attention and distract them from the fact that a new author is behind the typewriter, the opening incident is a shocker: M is kidnapped from his home, Quarterdeck, and the abductors murder M’s domestics in cold blood. James Bond, while making a visit to his bed-ridden crusty boss, almost gets nabbed in the process. It was apparently the kidnappers’ intention from the beginning to snatch both 007 and his boss, but Bond makes a grueling escape before collapsing from the drug the abductors partially shot into him. It makes a striking opening and has some of the daring that Fleming put into the first chapter of his last completed book, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Bond sets off for Athens on the trail of a planted clue found in one of the kidnappers’ pockets. It looks like a trap, but 007 must take the bait if he wants to rescue M. He walks into an even more obvious trap (the man just can’t resist that kind of thrill!) when he meets fetching Ariadne Alexandrou in an Athens restaurant and realizes that her sexual charms are fronting for men who want to grab him. But after a sudden reversal, Bond and Ariadne join forces and hook up with her uncle Niko Listsas to pursue the men masterminding the kidnappings. They sail for Vrakonisi, an island where the sadistic Chinese agent Colonel Sun plans to demolish the détente between the British and Soviets with a fiendish piece of terrorism.

After a thrilling underwater assault on an enemy ship, Bond & Co. arrive at Vrakonisi. At this point the book starts to slow down and lose its forward momentum. Colonel Sun has to divide the bad guy focus with von Richter, a German villain introduced hastily in a bit of dialogue, and the interfering Russian general Arenski. Amis dedicates an entire chapter to George Ionides, the fisherman who serves as an unwilling decoy for Bond and Litsas. The chapter serves no purpose and slows the action down before the finale. At least the conclusion restores the book to its former explosive pace. The violence is intense, and the torture that Sun inflicts on Bond is so gruesome that it’s an act of mercy Amis tones downs his descriptions.

Bond himself is in top form here and sticks closely to Fleming’s creation. In fact, he looks back more to the earlier, more cold-blooded version of the character in Fleming’s first set of novels. Bond dispatches his adversaries ruthlessly and often bloodily, with no trace of the irony or whimsy that was already infecting the “family-oriented” movie series. Bond is all about the dirty business, and he does what must be done.

Colonel Sun is an adversary in the model of Fleming’s Doctor No and, by proxy, the “Yellow Peril” baddies of the pulp era like Fu Manchu. He makes a strong impression for the most part, but he does rattle on too long with didactic gloating and explanations when he finally has Bond in his power. The reader is likely to agree with Bond when he tells Colonel Sun, “Bring our your thumbscrews and your hot irons. They can’t be much more painful than having to sit here listening to you.”

Niko Litsas is an effective ally with similarities to From Russia, With Love’s Kerim Bey. Litsas has his own personal vengeance quest tied into the narrative. He also has a bit too much of the “political speech fever” that bogs down some of the characterization. This is a major difference between Colonel Sun and Fleming’s books. Amis dedicates significant space to discussions of politics and allegiances. Although Fleming cast his plots against the backdrop of the Cold War and frequently pitted 007 against the Soviets, his stories have small interest in the “whys” of the conflict. James Bond doesn’t fight against communists, he fights against the Russians. He works for the forces of good, his opponents for evil, and that is that. It’s an unexcused fantasy setting: an organization like SMERSH seems more comfortable in a pulp adventure than in real-world espionage. Amis, on the other hand, had a life tied closely to politics, first as a member of the British Communist party, then as an outspoken conservative. Almost unavoidably, his version of James Bond’s world places political affiliations at the front, as shown in this speech from General Arenski to Ariadne:
“. . . it’s true that our leaders have been properly severe on the ideological mistakes of the Chinese. But it would be disastrously un-Marxist to jump to the conclusion that their pride, their ambition and their envy of the U.S.S.R. could ever drive them to the attempted used of violence against our conference tomorrow night. That would be gangsterism; gangsterism of the same kind as you have twice been involved in, though of an infinitely greater degree. And gangsterism is the typical resort of Western warmongers.”
Such additions might have made Colonel Sun timely and realistic when it was first published, but today it dates the writing much more than Fleming’s fantasy environment. It also feels as if the author is taking time to inflict his own views on the reader at the expense of the story, which is intrusive whether one shares the author’s views or not.

Ariadne Alexandrou is one of the better Bond girls to appear in the post-Fleming books. She’s strong-willed and capable, and even if given to some ideological spouting, her belief in her political philosophy makes her an interesting foil for Bond. The sex scenes are heated and as extreme as any of the novels ever get. Certainly in the ‘80s and ‘90s the steamy side of James Bond was far tamer than the athletic activity going on here.

Thirteen years later, James Bond would return in License Renewed by John Gardner, but he would never again be as tough as he is in Colonel Sun, a last glimmer from the era of Ian Fleming, even if it isn’t his name on the cover.