Carte Blanche

carte blancheThe Short Version: After a mission in Serbia leaves unanswered questions, James Bond is tasked to discover the reality behind an intended mass-destruction mission that will “adversely affect British interests.”  His trail leads him to Severan Hydt, a recycling magnate with a strange set of perversions, and sets him off around the globe.  The clock is ticking and the deck stacked against him, but Bond has carte blanche and will stop at nothing to ensure the safety of British interests everywhere…

The Review:  The Ian Fleming Bond books are quite astonishing, when you actually read them.  They’re short, they’re taut, they’re brilliantly plotted… but they’re also well-written in a way that you might mistake for simplicity.  Bond has become something else to us now, what with the movies and everything, but those Fleming books are quiet pieces of perfection in ways that I don’t think modern authors fully grasp.  Even Devil May Care, penned by Sebastian Faulks “as Ian Fleming” – a true pastiche – couldn’t quite match up.  Nor, to be totally honest, could Colonel Sun – although I’ll admit that book came closest to capturing the Fleming of it all.  (And I haven’t read the Gardner or Benson novels, although the recently reprinted Gardners are on my to-buy list).

That said, after the smashing success of Casino Royale as a reboot of Bond, I was intrigued at the prospect of a literary reboot.  The previous novels, from what I understand, have pulled Bond forward in time but left it very much like the films, where he’s always the same person.  This novel pitches us a Bond who is very much at the start of his career.  We see, in flashback, his recruitment to the Service – this isn’t his first big mission but it feels like early days.  He hasn’t invented the Vesper yet – instead, he invents a “Carte Blanche” (which admittedly sounds delicious).  Speaking of Vesper, this novel has an ungainly echo of that doomed relationship from Casino Royale… but I’ll get to that.

The first hundred pages or so of this novel felt so pitch perfect.  It was a sense of “YES, okay, this will be the beginnings of something wonderful – a new regular Bond series, set in the modern day.”  But the thing about Bond is… he isn’t meant for this world we exist in today.  That’s what makes the Daniel Craig Bond movies so fun, actually: he feels like he’s slightly out of sync with our world.  Not quite an anachronism or anything, but he isn’t quite of our time either.  This Bond is, you quickly realize, not James Bond.  Okay, fine, he can not smoke.  I dig that, that’s fine (although something like cancer isn’t going to take down James Bond, so can’t we all just let the PC slide on that?  no?  okay, fine, fine) – but I had a real issue when Bond opted not to take Philly home because she was on the rebound.

Does this scream out about some secret misogyny on my part?  Perhaps.  Might he’ve not taken Philly because he didn’t want to get tied up with someone at work?  Sure.  BUT JAMES BOND DOES NOT CARE ABOUT BEING A REBOUND.  This seems like a silly little item but it was irritating in the back of my mind long after the moment passed, like grit in my eye.  Perhaps this was because Bond kept fantasizing about Philly during the whole book.  Which, might I take an opportunity to point out, is over 500 pages long.  And I think the Philly moment was also the moment that I realized the book couldn’t sustain the proper pace… because at 100ish pages in, I was ready for the plot to ramp up and have us home in another 200 at most.  Instead, I had 400ish pages to go.  And that was just too much.  I don’t need monologues about recycling four different times, I don’t need the Serbs continuing to come after Bond for the mission from the beginning of the book, and I sure as hell didn’t need the double – or was it triple? – fakeout at the end of the novel.


So, okay, Ms. Willing (also, come on – what an awful attempt at an entendre name…) turns out to be the Vesper of this novel.  She and Bond are talking of proper romance… after spending like a night together, having known each other for like two days.  Vesper, it made sense: they went through enough and the connection was there.  I never bought for a second that Bond was into Willing for anything more than a fun weekend romp.  So the attempt to recreate the real emotion that comes from the end of Casino Royale (film or novel) felt like a cheap shot too far.

Too, the implausible realization that Incident Twenty has actually nothing at all to do with Severan Hydt.  We spend the whole novel hurtling towards this MacGuffin and it’s a pretty great conclusion when it looks like it went down and then you find out that Bond’s message got through and it was stopped – and then the near-death experience for Bond and the big shootout at Hydt’s factory in South Africa.  Whatever complaints I may have about the novel, this whole sequence was page-turning and pulse-racing.  I loved it.  And the brief pause that Bond has about the possible double agent… that felt plausible because the guy had disappeared and been weird the whole novel, but if anything I expected it to be a setup for another novel.  Not that Bond had known the whole damn time it wasn’t the case and he was really just trying to get the drop on Willing.  And that Incident Twenty was something else entirely: the start of major war in the Sudan.  It felt like WAY too much, plain and simple.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  That’s mostly how I felt about the novel as a whole, to be honest: way too much.  It was too long, it tried too hard, and it wasn’t remotely fulfilling because of it.  The first hundred pages, like I said, were pretty great.  It felt like the right introduction, right down to the ridiculous namedropping of everything Bond touched.  His watch, his booze, his cars, his suits.  But then you realize that this was Deaver checking off tickmarks of “how to write a Bond novel”.  While I appreciated the depth of plotting, I was reminded why I don’t necessarily enjoy modern spy novels (like the Bourne series): they all try too hard.  Fleming knew how to do it with ease and grace… and I guess that’s why we’re still trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to find someone who can write Bond all these years later.


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