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Literary License to Kill: James Bond and the Rise of Bookish Reboots

Sean Connery in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, in 1962

Photograph by Everett Collection

Sean Connery in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, in 1962

It’s 1969, and James Bond has a hangover. He’s squeezed into a seat on a dimly lit passenger jet bound for war-torn West Africa. In his mid-40s, with flecks of graying hair and a smoker’s cough, the secret agent described by author William Boyd in his new book, Solo, feels a lot more like Don Draper than Daniel Craig, whose muscular onscreen 007 raked in more than $2 billion at the box office in recent years.

Boyd’s literary version of James Bond is mellower, more polite. To pass the time aboard his flight, he nurses a brandy and soda and opens a copy of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, a story about a British spy in Africa. “Greene had served in Sierra Leone during the war—as a spy moreover,” the narrator explains. “And Bond was hoping that his West African novel might furnish some shrewder insight into the place.” The reference is fitting, and not just because Boyd has been compared to Greene in the past; Boyd’s first book, A Good Man in Africa, won both the Whitbread Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award in the early 1980s. The detail is also faithful to Ian Fleming’s original character: Bond likes to read. The first page of 1957’s From Russia, with Love, for instance, mentions a discarded copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Little Nugget.

With Solo, Boyd goes full Fleming: The story is set in the Cold War, a time when MI6 boss “M” is a pipe-smoking man, Moneypenny a dowdy secretary, and Bond a soul haunted by his traumatic experiences from World War II. The closest thing to an exploding pen is a tasteless talcum powder-like solution that can induce a coma. Armed with only the latter and fake press credentials, Bond flies to the African nation of Zanzarim, which has erupted in civil war. Massive oil deposits were discovered in the region’s river delta, and the army is fighting for the spoils with its tribal south, a heavily outnumbered underdog that manages to endure because of the tactical genius of a shadowy warlord named Solomon Adeka. The conflict, a messy cauldron of tribal factions and bloody jungles, is complicated by the clandestine presence of Western governments—including Bond’s. His mission is to kill Adeka and “end the war.” Her Majesty’s government is allied with Zanzarim proper—not its rebel southerners—and Britain expects a windfall from the crude. In typical fashion, Bond encounters duplicitous women and disfigured villains, and he eventually discovers that his mission isn’t as simple as he previously had thought. As the title indicates, he goes rogue.

Solo rides into bookstores this month on something of a nostalgia wave in the U.K. October also marks the publication of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, a new comedy written by the British writer Sebastian Faulks “as P.G. Wodehouse,” the author who invented the infinitely resourceful valet in the 1930s. And this spring, Agatha Christie’s family announced that crime writer Sophie Hannah will write a new mystery starring detective Hercule Poirot, the hero of 33 novels that have sold more than 2 billion copies. Hannah’s will be considered, “officially,” the 34th Poirot book.

If this feels like reboot overload, remember that there is no such thing. Just as Hollywood discovered that viewers never tire of their favorite characters—according to some accounts, there are at least 57 remakes and reboots currently in development—publishing houses, at least in the U.K., have caught on. In 2008, to celebrate the late author’s 100th birthday, the Fleming estate commissioned Faulks to write Devil May Care. The James Bond book sold nearly 45,000 copies in four days, making it one of the fastest-selling hardcover novels in British history, and cemented Faulks’s singular status as Britain’s most esteemed literary impressionist. (What’s next? Maybe Flashman?)

As for Solo, readers expecting a shoot-em-up with a whiff of gin and perfume will ultimately be pleased, even though the book is largely devoid of campy glamour—its main backdrops are boiling Africa and a pale, suburban Washington, D.C.—and the book’s first act moves at a crawl, much of it devoted to chronicling Bond’s pre-quadruple-bypass diet. (Which ranges from bacon and eggs to more exotic fare such as “malfouf—stuffed cabbage rolls—followed by shish tawook—a simple chicken kebab with salty pickles.” At one point, Boyd details the entire recipe of Bond’s favorite salad dressing.)

One caveat for fans of the films: In Solo, you will have unfiltered access to the character’s innermost thoughts and you may be surprised at the content. In one passage, Bond marvels at his companion, a slender and beautiful Zanzari woman named Blessing. “He found himself imagining her naked, wondering what her youthful firm body might be like beneath the—Stop right there Bond!—he issued a stern instruction to himself. Don’t go down that road.”

Wait—James Bond, an over-the-hill prude? Well, not exactly. But it’s a different era, after all, and it’s certainly not a steamy shower scene with Daniel Craig.

Mayo is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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