Shiny Shelf

Carte Blanche

By Lance Parkin on 07 September 2011

I loved the last James Bond novel, ‘Devil May Care’, a sly not-quite parody of Ian Fleming’s writing style and outlook on life by Sebastian Faulks. The new one, ‘Carte Blanche’ goes for a much more straightforward approach and represents a modern day ‘new’ James Bond, who’s about thirty and who fights in a post 9-11 world. It’s written by another name author, Jeffrey Deaver, a very popular American thriller writer. It’s not half as interesting.

To its credit, it does manage to reboot James Bond for a modern era differently from the Daniel Craig movies (although it’s not difficult to see Craig playing Bond), and despite the premise it does avoid making him Jack Bauer except with a penchant for cucumber sandwiches. There are occasional tin-eared Britishisms – ‘So it’s Percy and James. Sounds like a stand-up act at a ‘Comic Relief’ show’ – but not all that many.

It does rather set itself up for a punchline by having a villain who’s made a fortune recycling rubbish, but the book isn’t rubbish and it’s not a lazy rehash of existing Bond elements. Some of the references will age as well as a banana (Bond carries an iQphone), but it does feel like an honest attempt to tell a Bond story set in 2011.  There are sexy ladies and nasty villains with specific psychological quirks. There’s globetrotting and fast cars.

It isn’t a witty book, and there are far more examples of clunky prose than moments of poetry (Fleming is a most peculiar mix of the two). Deaver’s clearly been told to avoid repetition at all costs, and sometimes he struggles for synonyms. The second time scrambled eggs are mentioned, they become the rather less appetising ‘steamed curds’. Every single thing that’s described is ‘like’ something from the movies or the telly – Bond knows a woman who looks like Kate Winslet, there’s some like a gangster from a Guy Ritchie movie, the car chase is like something off ‘Top Gear’.

The story has twists and turns, but it’s surprisingly light on big set pieces. After a fairly cinematic opening, it becomes much more small scale. And I say ‘twists’, but actually it’s always the same twist, over and over: ‘you’re led to believe it’s the man, but it’s actually the woman’. When modern authors do Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s always Moriarty behind it, so Holmes’ job becomes a matter of working out how Moriarty did it.

Towards the end of ‘Carte Blanche’, by the fourth or fifth time Deaver pulls the ‘ha! It’s not the man, it’s the woman’ twist, you can’t really understand why Bond himself hasn’t noticed the pattern. He’s a gambler, you’d think he’d recognise a stacked deck.

Oh, and the villain recounts his origin in a way that is unintentionally hilarious, Dr Evil from Austin Powers with a cockney accent:

“I had some difficult times in my youth. Ah, who didn’t, of course? But I was forced to start work young. It happened to be at a rubbish collection company. I was a London binman. One day my mates and I were having tea, taking a break, when the driver pointed to a flat over the road. He said “that’s where one of the blokes from the Clerkenwell crowd lives.”

The foreign locations: Serbia, Dubai and South Africa are nice 2011-y places to set a Bond story, although they do seem a bit calculated as choices: where hasn’t Bond been in the movies, where’s changed a lot in the last few years? I’ve no doubt that Deaver’s been to Dubai, but he does seem to have spent most of his time sat in his hotel reading a glossy brochure.

He never seems to get to grips with South Africa, and makes that section a sort of ‘Law and Order’-y police soap about jolly lieutenants and life-work balances. The local colour seems to have been plugged into the prose rather than driving it, as though the story was written and then a few references were slotted into place so we don’t forget where this particular scene is set. So the foreign locations end up as interchangeable backdrops. The book could go from South Africa to Serbia to Dubai, or Dubai to South Africa to Serbia without the story changing all that much.

The big problem with the book, though, is that it’s obvious what it’s about, but the author doesn’t seem to have noticed. Bond has ‘carte blanche’ to stop a terrorist attack on the UK. And this is hugely problematic. Thankfully, Deaver avoids some of the post 9-11 horror shows – Bond does not torture, it’s not all a bunch of Muslims behind it and there are no weedy liberals who just don’t get it.

There is a bizarre bit early on where Deaver has to rationalise the recent setting up of the 00 Section by saying that post 9-11 the British discovered this strange new thing called terrorism, and then makes it worse by suggesting that the difference nowadays is that the terrorists target civilians. But we glide past this, perhaps the worst Americanism in the book, pretty quickly. That’s the problem, though, we glide past everything in the book too quickly.

The notion of ‘carte blanche’ is horrifying. Anti-democratic. It is essentially evil to let killers loose, accountable to no-one. And the book seems almost desperate to swerve away from the bland thriller the author has in mind and to address that.

Early on, Bond is chasing leads in the UK. On home soil, he’s heavily restricted in what he can do, and has to follow the rule of law. Soon he’s in Dubai, though, and with carte blanche restored he’s contemplating letting a terrorist atrocity go ahead there in order to save British lives further down the line. And then to South Africa, where he teams up with the police and comes up with a plan to go in all guns blazing, no need for warrants or to seek permission from higher up, prompting the police chief to tell him:

“About a raid at Green Way, though? You must understand. Under apartheid the old police, the SAP and Criminal Investigation Department, did terrible things. Now everyone watches us, the new police, to make sure we don’t do the same. An illegal raid, arbitrary arrests and interrogations … that’s what the old regime did. We cannot so the same. We must be better than the people who came before us.” Her face taut with determination, she said, “I’ll fight side by side with you if the law permits, but without cause, without a warrant, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry.”

There’s a fantastic theme in there, about the ethics of all this, the underlying assumptions that British lives and laws mean more than foreigners’, that a terrorist threat means you can suspend all laws and human decency. Fleming’s original Bond doesn’t have ‘carte blanche’, rather the opposite, he’s a civil servant, utterly accountable. If you come to the books from the movies – and these days, who doesn’t? – it’s striking how troubled the Bond is by moral concerns.

He’s not exactly Hamlet, but read, say, the opening of ‘Goldfinger’, where Bond muses about the value of the life of the Mexican hitman he shot dead earlier in the day. Elsewhere he wonders about the state of Britain, its changing role now there’s no Empire. Bond has diagnosed himself with accidie, a condition not known since the middle ages, one of complete moral and spiritual deadness. But he understands it’s a failing.

Novels are perfect vehicles to explore the minds of the characters, play with the discrepancies between what they do and what they think. ‘Carte Blanche’ swerves to avoid anything of the sort. ‘Carte Blanche’s Bond responds to that South African police chief by musing that the ‘hardworking law enforcers of the world were 100 percent right in respecting the rules. It was he who was the outlier’ … and that’s it. End of subject. There’s nothing beneath the surface, at all. What you see is what you get. He then sneaks into the building and starts shooting security guards.

‘Carte Blanche’ is OK, but nothing special. It feels consistently underdeveloped, like it needs another draft to pep up the prose, develop the ideas in there more and to amp up some of the action scenes. We end up in the bizarre situation that of the two recent reboots of Bond, it’s the movies that develop the inner life of the characters more, it’s the book that seems constrained by budgetary considerations.

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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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