I've been reading "Solo" recently, the new James Bond novel by William Boyd. It's a fairly decent read, although surprisingly lacking in thrills. However, while it's a decent novel, it's just not a very good James Bond novel.
I've been thinking about just why this is, and I have a theory. Unfortunately, if correct that theory means that nobody can ever again write a good new James Bond novel. Indeed, even Ian Fleming couldn't write a good new James Bond novel at this point (if he were alive, of course).
The issue is what I call 'markers'.
In certain series there are distinct markers that are used as a shorthand to the audience to put them at ease and make them comfortable. A Superman film will never deviate very far from the classic suit design, will have Clark Kent as Superman, will have Lois Lane as the love interest, and Lex Luthor will never be too far from the scene (as I understand it, he's in the sequel). Similarly, Batman is Bruce Wayne, the orphan billionaire. Similarly, when casting the new Star Trek movies, there was a need that Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto bore a certain physical resemblance to Shatner and Nimoy, respectively. A Star Wars movie pretty much must include lightsabers (and, probably, two particular droids).
And so on.
With the James Bond movies, the set of markers has become quite extensive, indeed to the point where pretty much anyone could write a (really bad) James Bond movie: take two or three exotic locations, three gadgets from Q-branch, a car packed with all sorts of gadgets, three attractive women (he's been upgraded - it used to be two), a bad guy with some sort of obscure physical defect, "vodka martini", "Bond, James Bond", the Walther PPK, some terrible puns... give them a good shake together, and it's done.
(And, yes, "Casino Royale" didn't use all of these, and subverted some others, but actually that was rather the point in that movie. But with "Skyfall" we're back to business as usual.)
The thing is, though, that the James Bond novels also have a set of markers. And these are both subtly different from those in the movies and also, in a few cases, they're incompatible with the ones in the movies - for instance, Bond drives a different car, and drinks a different drink, and is very particular about such things.
The problem is that the majority of readers of a new Bond novel will be people who have only ever seen the films. They will, therefore, expect the novel to contain the various markers that they're used to. And for commercial reasons, therefore, the novel needs to match those expectations.
Conversely, people who have read the novels will expect any new work to serve as a companion piece - they'll be looking for the markers from the novels.
In order to succeed, therefore, a new Bond novel needs to satisfy both. But since the markers are incompatible, this cannot be done.
There have been three recent attempts to write a new Bond novel, and thus three attempts to square that circle. Of these, I've read one, skipped one, and am reading the third. (I skipped Deaver's attempt as I have no real interest in a "literary reboot" of Bond. I find the notion of a continuing adventure, set in the 60's, interesting, but not any update.)
For much of its length, I found "Devil May Care" by Sebastian Faulks to be an excellent read - for about 200 pages it's almost indistinguishable. Unfortunately, it completely goes to pieces in the last third, turning into a bad Roger Moore Bond film in tone. Such a shame.
William Boyd has taken a very different tack, though. Where Faulks tried to write "as Ian Fleming", Boyd has instead absorbed the existing novels and then written his own novel. Essentially, he's doing a work "inspired by" Fleming's novels. Which is a fine approach, I guess, and it gives me reason enough to consider looking up his other works. But the truth is that I wasn't looking for a William Boyd novel; I was hoping for a James Bond novel, and by that metric it fails. Again, a shame.
I will be interested to see if they do another attempt at a new James Bond novel, and if so in who they choose to write it. Assuming it's again set in the 'classic' time, and assuming it's a continuation rather than another reboot, I'll no doubt pick it up and give it a read... and then complain about it again. Still, I do think it's a worthwhile exercise; if nothing else, it helps me identify authors that might be worth giving a look in their own right.
#36: "Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space Limited Edition Rulebook", by Cublicle Seven