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William Boyd’s novel “SOLO” is James Bond by way of Graham Greene, with a bit of the film “The Wild Geese” thrown in for good measure. This is Bond at his most ruminative; a solitary, moody Bond, haunted by dreams of his violent experiences in WWII. The novel opens on a melancholy note, depicting Bond celebrating his 45th birthday alone at the Dorchester Hotel. The mission he’s soon tasked with is a dirty one: fly to the middle of an African civil war, cozy up to a Brigadier whose military successes are prolonging the conflict and “find a way of making him a less efficient soldier.” Polite code for assassination.
This morally and politically complex spy thriller is much closer in spirit to Fleming’s gripping short story “The Living Daylights” than to the pulpy extravagance of “Dr. No.” As expected, Boyd’s writing is razor-sharp, and contrasts nicely with Fleming’s somewhat reserved prose style. That’s not to say he doesn’t follow the Fleming template for adventure, however. The two women in the book couldn’t be more different from each other, or more interesting. The fact that one of them appears to be a thinly disguised version of real-life British horror actress Ingrid Pitt makes this a particularly fun read for fans of Hammer Films.
Aside from the occasional use of the word “fuck,” which never appears in any of the Fleming books, “SOLO” is a pitch-perfect continuation of the classic series. I loved the subtle references to the original novels, as when Bond remembers that the only other time he’d spent in Africa was a brief trip several years before to shoot a helicopter out of the sky (which happened in the final chapter of “Diamonds are Forever), or when Bond is given a new alias and recalls that he used a similar one in the early 1950s when he took a train from New York to Florida (which occurred in “Live and Let Die”).
The lack of a truly epic villain is the only place where the novel stumbles. Kobus Breed, a hideously scarred mercenary given to stringing his victims up with meat hooks, is probably the closest Boyd comes to creating a Fleming-style antagonist. He’s a very good one, scary and realistic, but he’s not on the world-class level of a Red Grant or a Francisco Scaramanga.
Hopefully Boyd will be allowed to continue writing the next few entries in the 007 series, because I suspect he’ll take it in some fascinating directions. Bond could use someone with his skills guiding him into the future.