Shiny Shelf

Devil May Care

By Lance Parkin on 03 June 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

I’ve been saying ‘main de singe’ a lot the last couple of days.

It’s because the new James Bond novel, ‘Devil May Care’ has the following exchange between M and Bond, about the villain.

“I don’t think you’ll have much difficulty in recognizing him.”
“Why’s that?” said Bond.
“His left hand,” said M, sitting down again, and staring Bond squarely in the eye. “It’s a monkey’s paw.”
“An extremely rare congenital deformity, a condition known as main de singe.”

And this is the key to the book, an absolutely first-rate, brilliant piece of James Bond that I suspect is going to be massively misunderstood and underrated. The ‘main de singe’ thing is so ridiculous, such nonsense that you just know it’s got to be a real medical condition. Turns out it isn’t.

That has always been the joy of Bond. The Bond series exist in a liminal space, somewhere that’s just about plausibly what could have happened, while clearly being a load of old tosh. The craziest things turn out to be the ones that Fleming and his pals (including, legend has it, Christopher Lee) tried out during the war. Faulks – like Fleming before him – is smart enough to realise just how much real-world weight a Bond story can bear.

Sebastian Faulks is a renowned novelist, but this is not a Sebastian Faulks novel. If you want a Cold War novel by Sebastian Faulks, read ‘On Green Dolphin Street’, a great book. But it’s not James Bond, and having James Bond characters wandering around a Faulks book, or a James Bond adventure told like ‘Birdsong’ or ‘Engleby’ would be downright peculiar.

‘Devil May Care’ is Faulks ‘writing as Ian Fleming’. Not pastiching Fleming as some technical exercise, or doing any silly fanboy stuff, or imposing a modern ironic perspective on a period piece, but somehow capturing the spirit of Fleming’s work. Faulks does what Fleming did – he stuffs a story with a huge amount of detail, thrown it along at hundreds of miles an hour.

I don’t think of myself as a James Bond fan, at least I think of myself as someone who likes James Bond, but only as much as everyone else. This may be (is) an unsustainable position – I do have all but three first editions of Ian Fleming’s novels, Bill Tanner’s book and both retitled American paperbacks. I’d seen ‘Casino Royale’ twice before nine in the morning of the day it was released. I recently compiled a CD of rejected Bond themes, like Alice Cooper’s ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ and Blondie’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’. I have a copy of Umberto Eco’s James Bond book. I don’t think of myself as a Bond fan because, ultimately, I don’t make lists, I’m far more interested in the spirit than the letter.

Faulks has captured the real spirit of the Bond books, that sense that reading it we become men of the world … and that the world is a place where men have henchmen and they’re called things like Chagrin (‘the word means both pain and grief in French. Remarkable that a language should use the same word for both, don’t you think?’); Britain isn’t Top Nation but really ought to be; women are there mainly to allow glimpses of their stocking tops and have red mouths that fall hungrily; when it comes down to it, little bits of esoteric knowledge or secreted everyday items; or just being quite good at tennis or able to mix a drink are enough to tip the balance in favour of the free world. It’s the sort of thing people call a ‘guilty pleasure’, but who really ever actually feels guilt? Deep down, everyone wishes the world was more like ‘Top Gear’, and if there are a few misguided people who think otherwise they are almost certainly, if not fully-trained agents, dupes of SMERSH.

While Faulks has been explaining ever since the book was announced exactly what he’s been planning to do, I suspect not everyone will get it. I suspect that the people who appreciate his literary fiction won’t get the joke (which is on them, to an extent – the villain of the piece is more obsessed with the injustices of British imperialism than a whole panel of Booker judges – he justifies keeping slaves with a dismissive ‘everything I learned about slavery, I learned from the British Empire and its colonies’) and I’m not sure the fans will see what the fuss is about and file it next to Raymond Benson, both physically and mentally.

I think the ‘main de singe’ thing is the touchstone. I laughed like a drain when I read that bit, had to put the book down and go and get a drink. In a good way. My gut reaction was that it was so much more Bondian than a lot of the post-Fleming stuff has been, just exactly pitched right. If you think it’s far too silly, or you’ve simply incorporated it into a list of ‘Bond Villains, deformities of’, then this may not be the novel for you. Ultimately, I don’t want to second guess what other people think about the book. Faulks has written a James Bond novel that’s on my wavelength, one that I like a great deal. Monkey thumbs up.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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