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  1. Critics May Care – Part II

    Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care achieved precisely what it set out to do: place James Bond back on the bestseller lists.

    Matt Weston

    In Critics May Care – Part I, CBn presented extracts from the UK press reaction to the return of the literary 007: the good (“Among the now 33 post-Fleming Bonds, this must surely compete with Kingsley Amis’s for the title of the best.” – The Guardian), the bad (“Just plain dull, unless you’re a buff.” – The Daily Mail) and the ugly (“36 novels into the Bond story, the formula is stale. Perhaps it’s time to retire Bond.” – The Scotsman).

    In the second article of this two-part debrief, CommanderBond.net’s Matt Weston cherry-picks a selection of Devil May Care reviews from outside the UK.

    “Bond had not quite spent three months on the wagon, but if in M’s eyes he was fit to return to work, then … He poured himself a conservative two fingers of whisky into the glass, added a lump of ice and the same amount of soda.
    ‘Your good health,’ he said, then tossed the whole lot down in a single gulp.”

    Sebastian Faulks, Devil May Care

    In Devil May Care, James Bond endures a time of change; a rebirth. No 007 novel in recent memory had made much of a splash – neither critically nor commercially – and the literary series had long since been overshadowed by the colossal beast that is the cinematic Bond, itself reborn with the arrival of Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. This fact reverberated throughout many reviews for the novel.

    In light of an extensive promotional campaign (especially in the UK), the literary James Bond – Ian Fleming’s James Bond, as the Centenary marketing opportunity implied – was born anew.

    How, then, did the press outside the UK, react to arguably the most-hyped 007 novel of all time?

    Sebastian Faulks' 'Devil May Care'

    Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care

    The New York Times‘ Janet Maslin believes Faulks did an adequate job, but failed to truly seize the opportunity. “Mr. Faulks-writing-as-Fleming does not fall short of the rest of Fleming’s posthumous output. Nor does he tinker with the series’s surefire recipe for success. What he delivers is a serviceable madeleine for Bond nostalgists and a decent replica of past Bond escapades. But if you didn’t pick up Devil May Care convinced that Bond was an enduring pop-cultural landmark, you would not come away with that conclusion.”

    Maslin concludes: “If Mr. Faulks is less adventurous than his hero, and if he is mostly content to stick to the basic Bond blueprint, he may be doing precisely what was asked of him.”

    Elsewhere in The New York Times, Alex Berenson takes issue with the book’s lack of sex (“No, thank you? No, Bond, no! What’s next? ‘It’s not you, it’s me’?”) and argues “the villains are a B-movie writer’s dream […] Gorner does everything but laugh ‘Bwah-hah-hah!’ as he explains to Bond his plan to destroy England.” Yet Berenson concludes that the “scene-chewing villains” are often the highlights in a book where 007 is strangely underwritten.

    In particular, Berenson took issue with Gorner’s demise, arguing the book peters out three chapters from the end.

    Eric Felten (The Wall Stret Journal) provided an fascinating review, describing Devil May Care as “well written, entertaining, passably authentic – and ultimately unsatisfying”.

    Felten takes mixed views of the book’s villains: “Dr. Julius Gorner, is at first blush a pretty solid Bond adversary.” However, Felton writes, Gorner falls apart later in the novel: “Once he has Bond in his clutches, he delivers the obligatory dissertation on the aesthetics of power. But unlike Dr. No – who explains Clausewitz to Bond while serving a meal that begins with Caviar Double de Beluga and ends with Sorbet à la Champagne – Gorner fails to give his adversary a handsome dinner first.”

    “Without a leisurely meal, Gorner never has the chance to grow expansive. He blurts out his megalomaniacal agenda in a forced and perfunctory manner that is implausible even by the apsychological standards of Fleming’s originals.”

    Surprisingly, he does praise the controversial tennis sequence (“The pacing and the detailed description of the unfolding match are superb […] As a strategic battle of wills between the protagonists, the scene is a worthy rival to Fleming’s card-table contests between Bond and Drax and Bond and Le Chiffre.”), but argued it felt tacked on in the overall scope of the novel: “Unlike the Drax and Le Chiffre contests, the tennis match serves no narrative purpose. Gorner has already been identified as a villain before the contest on the clay court, so we don’t learn anything about him from his game, as we do about Goldfinger or Drax from theirs. Nor does the match decide anything of importance, unlike the climactic baccarat game in Casino Royale, by which Bond bankrupts a terrorist financier.

    “The villain’s cheating in Devil May Care, then, seems to be little more than a way for Mr. Faulks to put down a marker documenting his thorough study of Flemingisms.”

    Sidin Vadukut of The Wall Street Journal’s livemint.com scathingly writes: “Faulks has delivered a book unworthy of the hype and anticipation. He famously announced that Devil May Care took him just six weeks to write. It will take you less than 6 hours to read and remain with you for less than 6 minutes.”

    On the other hand, Forbes‘ Michael Maiello is glowing in his praise for the book: “If James Bond’s creator and the author of 14 Bond books were alive to read Devil May Care, he might well believe that he had written it.”

    Maiello takes issue with CIA Agent JD Silver’s character arc (“The story is set 40 years ago, but to a reader in 2008 it seems a pretty thin rationale that’s unintentionally offensive.”), but otherwise describes the novel “a delight. The over-the-top villain, the massive weapons, the grandiose plans and schemes, Bond’s ability to bounce back from the most savage beatings, and the collisions and explosions are all on display.”

    Patrick Anderson, a self-confessed non-fan of the Bond novels, is expectedly unimpressed. His Washington Post review concludes: “All this social and culinary guidance seemed more urgent to me in my youth than it does today. For me at least, the Bond fantasy has not aged well. Faulks has said he intended to write a ‘lighthearted’ novel, and Devil May Care has its amusing and entertaining moments, but there were other moments when I thought it would never end. My advice is to invest your $25 in a good bottle of wine and wait for the movie.”

    The Dallas Morning News‘ Edward Nawotka regards Devil May Care as “no literary landmark [though] it comes commendably close to the original and, provided you know what to expect, provides some real, retro pleasure.”

    Devil May Care cover

    Devil May Care cover

    Bloomberg‘s Matthew Lynn shares his opinion, stating: “If you want a Bond book, pick up From Russia, With Love. If you want to sample Faulks, read Birdsong. And if you want a modern hardware-and-babes thriller, try Andy McNab or Chris Ryan. Stranded somewhere between these three genres, Devil May Care will fail to satisfy avid readers of any of them.”

    Gregory Kirschling of Entertainment Weekly claims the novel “reads more like a novelization of a super-progressive old-school Bond film than a long-lost original by Fleming, whose books were generally tougher and more literary than Faulks’ more cinematic re-creation. That said, the new book is a near-effortless read, and considerable fun.”

    Kirschling recognises that “it’s probably impossible to write a 007 thriller today without being influenced by 45 years of franchise movies”, which is both a blessing and a curse.

    Sebastian Faulks

    Paul Davis (The Philadelphia Inquirer) describes Faulks as “a literary gun-for-hire who does not write thrillers” and thus “a poor choice”.

    “Faulks’ workmanlike effort will entertain the casual Bond fan and the first-time Bond reader, but Fleming aficionados won’t like the book,” writes Davis. “Devil May Care lacks Fleming’s pacing and punch, and Faulks lacks Fleming’s ability to spark the reader’s interest and imagination in new and exotic places, people and things.”

    Jeffrey Westhoff of the Chicago Sun-Times is merciless in his criticisms of the book, arguing Devil May Care “disappoints on nearly every level”, particularly in light of comparisons to Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun.

    “Faulks’ greatest failure is the plot’s randomness,” Westhoff writes, citing Gorner’s heroin scheme as pointless. “It’s as if Goldfinger announced that instead of robbing Fort Knox, he would use radio signals to knock American rockets out of the sky.”

    “Worst of all,” he concludes, “Devil May Care is dull most of the time. Nothing much happens until the midpoint. The plot picks up after that, but the action sequences are confusingly written and inert.”

    In the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten unfavourably compares the opening and closing paragraphs of Devil May Care with those of Fleming’s Casino Royale. Of the former, Rutten writes: “One of those is postcard exposition; the other is an MRI of the spirit.”

    “Most of all,” Rutten writes, “what one misses in the work of the Fleming impersonators is the unsentimental confidence of a writer willing to describe his one and only protagonist.” He summarises: “[Devil May Care] belongs more to the cinematic Bond tradition than to the one Fleming tapped out on his Remington.”

    Outside of the United States, reviewers were equally split regarding Faulks’ stab at James Bond. In Canada’s National Post, Randy Boyagoda heaped praise on Devil May Care: “Faulks’s novel is over-stuffed with the sort of things you get to enjoy guilt-free only when they come under cover of the Bond brand: dry puns, mostly about killing or sex; an eccentric-genius bad guy who is helpfully detailed about his plans for large-scale destruction; a bruising, soulless henchman sidekick; a beautiful, secretive woman in distress; lots of double- and triple-crossing agents; peripatetic country-hopping; fine wine, punch-ups, gunplay; elaborate killings and chase sequences and ridiculous vehicles and weapons of the sort that schoolboys like to dream up when they’re supposed to be reading Anne of Green Gables; a loud, convoluted climax; and all of it presided over by an unflappable, unbeatable hero.”

    Mark McGuinness in Australia’s Courier-Mail argues that “Faulks has been remarkably faithful to Fleming” and describes Devil May Care as “a fitting homage to Bond’s creator”.

    Devil May Care poster

    Over 1,000 Devil May Care posters were displayed at London Underground and National Rail stations

    India’s Daily News & Analysis also felt Faulks missed the mark. Sidharth Bhatia writes, “Faulks, who is no mean writer, has chosen to play it extremely safe. Everyone – from the villain to the girl to the plot – is a pastiche of characters and stories of time past. The villain cheats at sport (Goldfinger), he has a rare deformity (Le Chiffre, Scaramanga) his sidekick is an expressionless Oriental (Oddjob), and so on. The villain’s lair is the usual large hangar with an amphibious craft and lots of platforms (untold number of films) and Bond has to swim underwater (Thunderball, et al) to get there.”

    “It is an enjoyable book, make no mistake and the formula is down pat; but that’s about it. But this reviewer for one couldn’t picture Connery or Craig in the lead role and that can only mean this is a lifeless, soulless Bond. This one is best left to Brosnan. The rest of us diehard Bond lovers will wait for Quantum Of Solace which will once again bring back the genuine article.”

    Finally, website RopeOfSilicon.com draws a similar comparison to the filmic James Bond, albeit the opposite one. Brad Brevet writes, “Devil May Care reads almost like a trashy romance novel, but that is part of its charm. Instead of steamy sex scenes you get the down and dirty action and to use a movie metaphor in this case, it’s R-rated action and then some. Decapitations and brain matter are common place as this reads more like a bloody sequel to 2006’s Casino Royale than any of the Sean Connery or Roger Moore Bond flicks.”

    Brevet, a self-confessed fan of the films who has never read one of Ian Fleming’s original novels, succinctly summarises what seems to be the true appeal of Devil May Care: “This book isn’t going to give you more than five or six hours reading time considering it is only 280 pages, but the quick pacing makes for a fun and worthwhile read should you have any interest in James Bond whatsoever.”

    Matt Weston @ 2008-07-13
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