Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book – Octopussy and The Living Daylights – was published in 1966, two years after his death. Since then a variety of authors have taken up the 007 mantle, including Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Jefferey Deaver. The latest novel, Solo, comes from the pen of William Boyd and follows Deaver’s modern-day update with a return to 1969 and the classic era of Bond stories.
From the very beginning this feels like vintage 007, Boyd tapping directly into Fleming’s style to give us a tale that could have easily come from the man himself. The key elements are all there – not the gadgets or the ridiculous enemies that bog down many of the films but the descriptions of everything from meals and clothes to cars and women that reflect Bond’s complex mixture of narcissism, nihilism, chauvinism and honour. Ironically though, given the increased palate that today’s audiences have for antiheroes, here Bond actually comes across much more positively than in other books. Manipulative and determined, sexist and often patronising, but Boyd for the most part steers him clear of being outright cold and callous.
Maybe it’s a reflection of Bond getting older; there’s a definite feel about this book that Bond is feeling his age a little and seeing things differently to when he was a younger man. A vivid dream early on sets the tone of the book, giving us an insight into a pre-MI6 Bond and prompting him to ponder the choices he made. It’s soon forgotten as his mission begins, but there’s a sense throughout that he’s questioning himself, his abilities and his role in the grand scheme of things. As the mission takes him to a small corner of West Africa to try and put an end to a vicious civil war, and he finds himself as usual in and out of tight scrapes and women’s beds, one thing is clear. He might be getting old, but he’s still got what it takes.
There have been considerably more Bond stories written since Fleming’s death than he wrote himself, but you would be hard pushed to find many people who could name them. While the previous two novels before Solo were excellent additions to the canon, this might just be the first non-Fleming novel to take a deserved place alongside the classics and stand proud. For Bond fans this is an absolute must read, and it might just turn a few non-aficionados back onto the early classics. Going on recent form there’s no indicator that Boyd will write any more Bond, but there can be few other authors out there capable of equalling this so it’s going to be a hard act to follow.