Revoking 007’s license to thrill
Simon & Schuster 432 pp.
For James Bond purists an American bringing 007 to the page might be more scandalous than a blond portraying him onscreen. For those with limited knowledge of or attachment to the character however mystery writer Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche can be assessed on its merits alone.
There are certainly some major differences from past books. The action has moved from the 1960s to the 21st century but Bond is only in his early 30s. On a superficial level though Deaver seems to have the details right — his Bond drives a Bentley rather than an Aston Martin and he works for a specially created post 9-11 counterterrorism agency rather than MI-6 but he still takes his martinis shaken not stirred.
The British lingo is pitch perfect: characters carry “mobiles” rather than cellphones and “read” history at Oxford. Still there’s a sense some intangible element is missing from the novel. If its protagonist had another name it’s unlikely this book would stand out from the pack.
The story begins with Bond — here an employee of a covert operational unit of the Foreign Office called the Overseas Development Group — intercepting a plot to derail a train carrying toxic chemicals through Serbia. Disaster is averted but evidence from the scene suggests another attack is imminent. Back in London Bond traces the conspiracy to Severan Hydt a shady waste disposal magnate whom he subsequently trails to Dubai and then South Africa. Bond then teams up with local police to pose as a mercenary with a business proposition and successfully infiltrates Hydt’s Cape Town offices.
Although the storyline is engaging enough its unlikely most readers will find themselves racing through the pages. Bond’s life is in danger multiple times throughout the novel but there’s no doubt he’ll survive and it’s more a question of how he’ll avert the attack than whether he’ll succeed in doing so. The twist near the end is genuinely surprising — although some clues are obvious in retrospect — but it’s not half as clever as Deaver seems to think it is and there are few other surprises.
The author is no more successful as a linguist. His description of the secretary Moneypenny as having “eyes that could flick from stern to compassionate faster than a Formula One gearbox” is just one of several clunky similes sprinkled throughout the novel. There are also attempts to inject some humour but these often feel lazy. In one such example the mere mention of a real-life Zulu-language sitcom ’Sgudi ’Snaysi is apparently intended to provoke gales of laughter.
Were it not a James Bond novel Carte Blanche would merely seem middling but Deaver can’t escape comparison to Fleming. In a review of 1956’s Diamonds are Forever Raymond Chandler described Fleming’s style as “neat clean spare and never pretentious.” That’s a pretty good summary of everything Carte Blanche is not.