The Short Version: Shortly after the events of Goldfinger, James Bond is back in London (with Pussy Galore still in tow) – but not for long. He’s quickly dispatched to the Nürburgring to keep an eye on an English racer who is being targeted by the Russians, only to discover a larger plot in the works between the Russians and a Korean scientist to sabotage a rocket test. With an intrepid Secret Service agent by his side, Bond must stop a disaster that could (at the very least) destroy all of Manhattan!
The Review: I’ve never been fond of the more ridiculously named Bond stories (be they novels or films) and honestly that’s why it took me so long to pick up this latest installment. Trigger Mortis is one of those achingly bad puns, one that doesn’t even pass the “so bad it’s good” test. I worried that Anthony Horowitz, the latest in a line of modern authors to pick up the Bond mantle (following Sebastian Faulks’ so-so Devil May Care and Jeffrey Deaver’s modern update Carte Blanche [also so-so], not to mention Warren Ellis’ excellent comic series [beginning with Vargr] – oh and William Boyd’s Solo, which I admittedly haven’t read), would be as disappointing as his novel’s title.
As it so happens, just about the only disappointing thing about this book is its title. Finally, after a few false starts and fitful reimaginings, literary Bond has found its footing again – and not a moment too soon. Ellis’ modern take on our hero fits wonderfully into the realm of comics but Deaver proved that a modern Bond can be a tough fit on the page. It feels right that Horowitz sends us winging back to the late 50s, dropping a new adventure into the midst of Fleming’s stories – similar to the way many new Sherlock Holmes stories take place sometime in the midst of Holmes & Watson’s long storied career. Bond isn’t trying to adapt to a new era, he isn’t getting older, he isn’t having to do anything but his job: look good in a suit and save the world.
The simplicity of this arrangement cannot be overstated, especially in an increasingly complex time. Call it escapism if you want – but I think most readers are canny enough to know that this is not a realistic way to solve the world’s problems. But Bond’s longevity, in the face of a shifting geopolitical stage (not to mention some questionable aesthetic choices on the part of his handlers on page and on screen), proves that sometimes escapism can be exactly what we need, as it can refresh and revive us. Trigger Mortis does what no modern continuation author and only a few of the films since the end of the Cold War have managed: to provide that thrill of charming adventure while also not letting us forget that he’s still only one man, human as anyone else.
To this end, it should be noted: Bond here is the bastard he always has been. Fleming famously called him a blunt instrument and he is cocky, arrogant, cruel, and dangerous – even as he is suave, handsome, intelligent, and relentless. His behavior towards women is questionable at best, his taste for violence sometimes bordering on the sociopathic, and his disrespect for authority matched only by his talent and privilege in being able to get out from under any trouble. Yet he is nearly unflappable in the face of certain death, takes joy in his adventuresome lifestyle, and maintains an impressive amount of that nearly inexplicable quality known only as ‘cool.’ He is James Bond and Horowitz must be commended on getting him just right.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this particular continuation novel is that it contains some actual unpublished work by Ian Fleming – including some actual Fleming-writ dialogue that Horowitz apparently interpolated into an early chapter. The fact that the Fleming is indecipherable from the Horowitz is damned impressive and it feels (to this reader, anyway) like a mark in Horowitz’s column as an author of pastiche. Sebastian Faulks had on the cover of his novel that he was “writing as Ian Fleming” but Horowitz just does it, and better. The dialogue is as sharp as a good martini, the pacing swift and sure, and even if the villain isn’t quite up to the level of Le Chiffre or Goldfinger or Blofeld… well, who is? Actually, Sin Jai-Seong is an interesting addition to Bond’s rogues gallery: he is a product of modern Western imperialism, driven out of his home in South Korea and nearly murdered by the very Americans who were supposedly meant to protect him. He has his own unique little quirk (his deck of murder-tarot is a great invention) and while his plan is absolutely unnecessarily convoluted, he has committed to it 100%.
Oh and what a plan it is. I won’t spoil the big showdown too much, but a portion of it takes place on an F train speeding through Brooklyn… past my own neighborhood train station. Needless to say, I was riding the train to work this morning with a little more of a glint in my eye than normal.
I should also note that the first half of the novel, devoted to the racing operation – the whole thing that puts Bond onto Sin’s trail – is a schoolboy’s dream. Bond meets a sexy driver who puts him through his paces, he hangs out with some of the greatest racers alive, and then he gets to race at the Nürburgring in a Maserati 250. When I mentioned this to my dad (a fan of racing and of Bond), he started immediately talking about the old Nürburgring, the state of racing in the late 50s/early 60s, and rattling off facts about the cars that were racing alongside the Maserati. I also convinced him to read the chapter that’s set during the race and I later found him reading the rest of the book – something I haven’t seen him do with fiction in a long, long time.
“Reminds me of the old Fleming books,” he said with a smile. Sounds about right to me.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. There are a few moments where the novel drags and I wouldn’t’ve minded a little less of the Pussy Galore holdovers from Goldfinger – but I also, in the same breath, appreciated seeing a bit more of what happens “in between” adventures for Bond. It makes sense that he’d ‘give it a shot’ with some of these women, even if his heart wasn’t in it. Regardless, I deeply enjoyed the thrill of this novel and the various escapes that Bond must make from almost certain death. The ending provides just that right amount of “James Bond will return,” too – and for the first time maybe ever, I find myself eagerly awaiting the next Bond novel written by the same person. Here’s to you, Mr. Horowitz. I’m looking forward to that next bit of adventurous escapism, whenever you have it ready.