Time-traveling James Bond

With a nod to Ian Fleming, 007 takes on Tehran.

Devil May Care By Sebastian Faulks Doubleday, 278 pp., $24.95

Only Doctor Who can boast more reincarnations than James Bond, though the latest 007 can now claim to have traveled back in time, too. In a bid to relaunch the superspy book franchise, respected novelist Sebastian Faulks (“Charlotte Gray,” “Birdsong”) has written a Bond novel set in 1967, picking up immediately after the events of Ian Fleming’s final work, “The Man with the Golden Gun.” Faulks’s Devil May Care isn’t a reimagining or a reboot, however. It’s pure homage and, as such, is credited to “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming.”

This isn’t the first time that a well-known author has dispatched Fleming’s hero on a new mission. Kingsley Amis wrote “Colonel Sun” in 1968 and then, in 1980, thriller writer John Gardner penned the first of 14 Bond novels, updating the spy for a new era by cutting back Bond’s cigarette intake and even disbanding the double-O section inside MI6. But in Faulks’s “Devil May Care,” M is still a man, the most feminine thing about 007 is his signature “ladylike” Walther PPK pistol, and Bond and Miss Moneypenny exchange inappropriate workplace banter that would make even Austin Powers blush.

Thankfully, the double-O’s double entendres are kept to a minimum. And for once, the female character names wouldn’t embarrass a priest uttering them at a christening. Even more surprising: Bond is remarkably chaste, his hotel bedsheets unrumpled until the final scene.

Faulks’s largest departure from the original books is the setting. In a first, Bond ventures into Tehran, described as “a nest of spies” because of Iran’s position as a hinge between the East and West. The secret agent’s mission: Find Julius Gorner, a multimillionaire businessman who has made his fortune turning poppies from nearby Afghanistan into illegal drugs. Bond is partly on a personal vendetta because his new flame, Scarlett Papava, has enlisted him to rescue her identical twin sister, whom Gorner has purportedly imprisoned in his vast underground complex in the desert. (Go ahead, it’s OK to titter.)

Indeed, the standard 007 conventions are present and accounted for. (Well, almost. Faulks sidesteps the obligatory “shaken, not stirred” reference by mischievously noting that Bond prefers his black pepper “cracked, not ground.”) Like so many villains before him, Gorner has a deformed appearance – in this instance, a genetic throwback has given him a hairy ape’s hand that is incapable of a proper grip – and he employs a formidable henchman. Of course, Gorner is also bent on Britain’s destruction via a maniacal plot that he brags about once he captures his opponent. Disappointingly, there’s no shark pool in Gorner’s underground lair.

However, this is no Roger Moore caper. The author injects too much no-nonsense grit into the proceedings and doesn’t allow Bond to use any gadgets. Another welcome touch: For the obligatory early contest between Bond and villain, wherein 007 sizes up his foe and invariably discovers that he’s up against a cheat, Faulks is canny not to resort to the setting of a casino. In “Devil May Care,” this joust of wills transpires on a tennis court. It’s a gripping scene. The epic game between Gorner and Bond is so fierce it makes the 1980 Wimbledon final between McEnroe and Borg seem like a friendly round of Ping-Pong. Elsewhere, Faulks serves up cinematic action set pieces such as a car chase, an underwater sequence, and a climactic battle inside a pilotless plane.

Since this is a tribute to Fleming, Faulks adopts the author’s spare prose as well as Fleming’s predilection for detailed descriptions of settings, clothing, and food. In fact, there are so many tantalizing descriptions of Bond’s cuisine that you’ll want to read “Devil May Care” within a 20-meter radius of your fridge.

The novel goes down as easily as one of 007’s bon mots. It’s enjoyable as an exercise in mimicry, but it could have been so much more. Bond’s personality is dossier thin, and there’s no character arc to make the reader feel invested in the hero’s exploits. Even the new Bond movies starring Daniel Craig recognize that audiences want more than comic-strip action these days.

Fleming once wrote, “The target of my books ... lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh.” To make the literary Bond relevant to the 20th century, Faulks should have targeted his book for the mind.

Stephen Humphries is a Monitor staff writer.

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