Book Review: James Bond – Carte Blanche

The second new James Bond novel of the twenty-first century was published in 2011. It’s taken me quite a while to get round to it, but recently I picked up Jeffrey Deaver’s take on a James Bond novel in both paperback and audio forms. Unlike Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Cry, which is set following Flemings novels in the 1960s, Deaver sets about creating a James Bond for the new world. In this review, I give my take on how successful this move is.

AUTHOR: Jeffrey Deaver (Read by Toby Stephens)
Hodder Paperbacks / Hodder & Stoughton Audiobooks
£7.99 / £17.50

Thousands will die.

It is not known where, or how, or who is behind the threat.

007 is given carte blanche to do anything necessary to protect his country, but there is no blank slate when innocent lives are at stake.

The only suspects are career killers with no care for civilian victims.

Bond must find out who is paying them, what they plan, and stop them.

And he has five days to do it.

This review is of the unabridged audio version which is available on Audible.

Read by Toby Stephens (Black Sails, James Bond: Die another Day), this is an unabridged version and I listened in chunks of about an hour at a time on my drive to and from work. My first impression is that Stephens is pretty much a perfect choice to narrate a James Bond novel. His voice exudes suave sophistication and he has the range to pull off the various characters in the book, making each distinct. On top of this, the producers made an excellent decision with the sound of the book. Whenever Bond is talking to someone over the phone or other means of communication, their voice is given a distant-quality which really adds to the dialogue. It’s not taking sound design as far as the full on blaster and ship effects in the Star Wars audios, but it’s a nice addition and good use of the medium.

Jeffrey Deaver took a bold approach here, re-inventing Bond and the organisation he works for in the modern world. No longer officially part of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Bond works for a second group that MI:6 can utilise while maintaining plausible deniability. As with MI:6, the group has no jurisdiction within British borders. Deaver manages to craft a – and I use the term loosely – believable secret organisation, fleshed out with characters familiar to James Bond readers or viewers but also with memorable new characters as well.

The book takes place over the course of a week. Bond travels from Serbia, to England and then to South Africa in an effort to stop “incident 20” – a threat to thousands of lives and British interests that the GCHQ intercepted intelligence for. While in the UK, Bond has “Carte Gris”, having no official standing, but once back overseas, his “Carte Blanche” to do whatever is necessary to protect British interests is restored.

The book is filled with interesting characters, locations and detailed insights into the world of Spy-craft that Deaver creates in the book. His Bond is thoughtful and relies on his training. There are constant references to training adages like “Purpose, response” and “count the bullets” to remain aware of how many rounds are remaining in one’s clip.

The plot proceeds at a good pace and is never boring. I love detail in books, and Deaver’s descriptions of devices, their operation and usage is wonderful to read. While there was perhaps one twist too many in the plot, each was hinted at previously and so didn’t come from nowhere. The threat as revealed over the course of the novel is credible and the villains are in true Bond villain style, though I must say they are more grounded in some respects. This is no bad thing!

The book reminded me somewhat of Spooks with its mix of events that feel like they could happen in the real world mixed with a healthy dose of pseudo-technology that helps the proceedings along. Since Spooks is one of my all-time favourite shows, this is high praise indeed!

I have three main criticisms of the book, though none was enough to stop me enjoying the proceedings as a whole.

Firstly, the James Bond encountered in this book is somehow missing an element or two that make the character distinct. The Bond here is perhaps too pleasant to be around and thinks of the repercussions of his actions in advance. He is not the reckless blunt instrument who manages to get out of trouble by luck, wit and skills alone. It almost seems that Deaver was in the process of writing this plot for another character and slotted Bond in when asked to produce a novel featuring Fleming’s creation.

My second criticism is that there are far too many times during the course of the book where Bond is removed from danger by having arranged events to his advantage “off-screen”. These passages – and they usually formed the end of chapters – seemed like the old cliff-hangers from television serials, which were resolved the following episode with “and in a single bound he was free!” or other such nonsense. While none of the situations is particularly ludicrous and it shows the new Bond to be someone who plans ahead – laudable in a secret agent – it just doesn’t ring true of James Bond and becomes slightly irritating to read. By the end, I was expecting Bond’s pre-counter to a situation by virtue of it having happened so often before in the book.

James Bond - Carte BlancheThirdly … and the most minor. Deaver incorporates what I can only call unnecessary back-story for James Bond’s parents. I can only assume this was a plot strand that Deaver intended would be continued for this new, twenty-first century Bond if his adventures continued. As with the back-story in the recent Amazing Spider-Man films, it just doesn’t seem to fit nicely into the narrative and is an unnecessary addition to the Bond character and even to the plot of this book on its own.

Overall, this is a pretty solid thriller. While it may not be the Bond we know and love (in any of his incarnations), it is certainly one I could get behind if more novels were published in this vein. With William Boyd’s Solo returning Bond to the 1960s of Fleming, it seems unlikely we will see more of this version, which I think is a shame. The setup has great potential for further developments and I would love to see more of this Bond, or at the very least, this organisation.

Rating: 4 / 5

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