Critics May Care – Part I
Exactly one month ago, Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care surfed into bookstores the world over, riding a massive wave of centenary publicity: extravagant launches, lavish publication parties, theme songs, posters, media appearances and special editions upon special editions upon special editions.
The result? An unadulterated success. Devil May Care has become Penguin’s fastest selling hardback fiction title ever and has made its mark on bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. As of last week, it was still topping the UK charts.
In this two-part debrief, CommanderBond.net’s Matt Weston looks at the critical reaction to Sebastian Faulks’ one-off James Bond novel. Firstly, the UK press.
“Bond turned the car into the right-hand bend on the racing line and just missed the apex he was aiming for as he came out of the left-hander. He was out of practice, but it was nothing serious. This is more like it, he thought, an early-summer day in London, the wind in his face and an urgent meeting with his boss.”
Sebastian Faulks, Devil May Care
It’s been a while since the literary 007 last had an “urgent meeting with the boss”. Not since Raymond Benson’s one-two punch of The Man With The Red Tattoo and Die Another Day, in fact. In the six years since, Bond’s early years have been explored in Charlie Higson’s hugely popular Young Bond series, while Samantha Weinberg has given fans her unique (and sadly overlooked) take on the 007 saga with The Moneypenny Diaries. But it’s been six long years since Bond fans have been treated to a true adult James Bond novel.
Released to coincide with the Ian Fleming Centenary, Devil May Care became one of the most publicised and most reviewed 007 continuation novels of all time. While the sales figures spoke for the novel’s commercial success, critics were largely divided when it came to Sebastian Faulks’ stab at James Bond – particularly in light of the hype.
“Not since Kingsley Amis – under a pseudonym – stood in for a one-off after Ian Fleming’s early death has a writer of his calibre taken on the mantle of perpetuating the 007 mythology. And messing with myths is as risky as dicing with death.” – Peter Millar, The Times
The Times, which published the first world exclusive extracts from the novel, offered a series of mixed reviews, which were indicative of the critical reaction to the book. Peter Millar, whose review is published on Times Online, gave the novel a middling three stars (out of five), concluding that “[Devil May Care is] a ripping yarn, but don’t take it seriously”. Millar notes the awkward compromise Faulks makes between Ian Fleming’s original creation and his filmic counterpart: “Blending the tradition of the hard-nosed original novels with the blockbuster movies leads Faulks to push the plot to Dr Strangelove proportions that would stretch credibility even without some lamentable lapses in Cold War geography.”
In a separate review on Times Online, Millar concedes that while the tail run of Fleming’s novels deserve higher critical acclaim than they get (he cites the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice as examples), “the franchise … is about making money”.
“The trouble with writing post-Fleming Bond,” Millar writes, “is that the ersatz author has to choose how he falls between the two stools of the original books and the self-perpetuating movie franchise.
John Dugdale’s Sunday Times review (also available on Times Online) concludes that Devil May Care “is a novel of teasing proponents” insofar as the James Bond staples of sex and violence are absent for much of the book. Dugdale argues Faulks “deftly if rather dutifully” spends the novel’s first half checking off a list of recurring characters and mandatory scenes. “Although not flawless,” Dugdale writes, “Devil May Care is intelligent, expertly plotted and engagingly playful … and eventually finds a way to be at once a homage to Fleming and a Faulks novel.”
“Fascinatingly, it both testifies to our current nostalgia for the cold war – underlined by it coinciding with the new Indiana Jones film – and subtly challenges it, with a skein of references to Algeria, Vietnam, Mau Mau and the Shah’s secret police.” – John Dugdale, The Sunday Times
A number of critics commented on Faulks’ decision to write Devil May Care in six weeks, as Fleming himself did with each Bond novel. Most reacted negatively, yet the Daily Telegraph‘s Sam Leith argues Devil May Care “is all the livelier for it”.
Leith believes Devil May Care takes some time to get moving. He writes that several of the book’s earliest events, including a dog being flattened by a car and Bond and M’s conversation about Julius Gorner’s “monkey paw” were evidence of Faulks “allowing himself [a] pantomime wave at the cheap seats”. Leith’s ultimate verdict was similar: “Faulks clatters Bond enjoyably through the mechanical absurdities of the plot, and – in the best tradition of trying to have your cake and eat it – makes fun of him too.”
Elsewhere in the Daily Telegraph, John Preston writes that Devil May Care “is infinitely better than any of the previous attempts to resurrect Bond. Apart from anything else, Faulks plainly sees Bond’s contradictions.”
“The atmosphere is rich, the narrative taut yet elegant. He’s also got Fleming’s style just right – particularly his habit of inserting arcane bits of information into his descriptions.” – John Preston, Daily Telegraph
Like Bond fans, reviewers have also been critical of the move to market Devil May Care as “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming”. The Guardian‘s Toby Litt writes, “The author of Devil May Care, it says, is ‘Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming’. But Sebastian Faulks can’t write as Ian Fleming because he doesn’t write anything like as well as Ian Fleming – not as elegantly, vividly, wittily, excitingly. It’s a bad mistake because, if it weren’t for this act of hubris, you’d probably say he’d pulled it off. Just.”
Mark Lawson, also in The Guardian, argues that “the very unconventional author credit … suggests the contemporary novelist is somehow channelling the writing of his dead predecessor. This hint of spiritualism proves to be appropriate to the plot, which persistently picks up whispers from the books Fleming left behind.” Lawson ultimately reaches the glowing conclusion that Devil May Care ranks alongside Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun as one of the best 007 continuation novels.
“In fact, Faulks’s main take on the world’s most famous spy is that he’s getting on a bit and that – heavens! – he may be slightly worried about impotence. Only this seems to explain why he repeatedly refrains from seducing the young ladies who present themselves to him.” – Toby Litt, The Guardian
Faulks also came under fire from some reviewers for seemingly looking down on the centenary project. The Observer‘s Euan Ferguson says writing for Bond must be every forty-something novelist’s dream: “Full backing of the Bond estate, to celebrate the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth, and the biggest marketing push since the last Harry Potter; yet Faulks says he wrote it in six weeks. Had to be persuaded to do it, had to be begged. Over long lunches. And now can’t wait to get back to ‘real’ writing. Goodness, how some jealous souls must have wanted him to fail with a clatter.”
However, he doesn’t, Ferguson concludes. “It’s good. Which is to say it’s better than it could have been. It is not, however, that good. Faulks has done in some ways an absolutely sterling job. He has resisted pastiche.”
“Bizarrely, almost every character seems drawn more roundly than the hero. When you read in passing of the working lunch of his Sécurité pal René Mathis (steak tartare with frites, Côtes du Rhône, double cafe express, Gauloises filtre, worries about his mistress), you’re there, on a quiet morning in Sixties Paris, pregnant with smells and possibilities.” – Euan Ferguson, The Observer
London’s Evening Standard, whose news stands around the city proudly boasted reviews of the novel on the evening of its release, was similarly enthusiastic, giving the novel four stars. “Mostly the book’s a proficient compendium of everything Bond,” David Sexton writes.
London’s business freebie, City A.M. was also positive: “Devil May Care never goes beyond poking gentle fun at Bond. At heart, it is a romp, a beautifully put together page-turner that is destined to be read on many beaches over the summer. Rollicking fun.”
“Devil May Care has been put together about as well as any addition to the Bond oeuvre possibly could be, at this stage of the game. Faulks has not attempted to modernise Bond one whit. Instead, he has carefully added a stylistically appropriate lean-to on to the existing structure.” – David Sexton, Evening Standard
Joseph Connolly of The Daily Mail, and other critics, criticised the book’s tennis sequence. “Just plain dull, unless you’re a buff,” he writes. “It’s a page-turner, though, and – despite a lack of frisson – the voice is largely authentic.”
The Scotsman‘s David Robinson is similarly unimpressed: “If you forget the hype, there’s not the slightest thing special about this book … 36 novels into the Bond story, the formula is stale. Perhaps it’s time to retire Bond.”
“What should have been done with the Bond novels? I doubt that Devil May Care will be a movie, and this nostalgia is too beholden to its creator to successfully re-energise the characters. I’d prefer a Bond novel by someone who can fully ret-con the series, to use a comics term. The Fleming estate needs a Mark Millar or a Denise Mina, not a slavish ventriloquist.” – Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
The Scotsman’s Sunday edition, published an equally negative review. Stuart Kelly of Scotland on Sunday writes, “Fleming may have created the icon, but his skills as a novelist were more scrambled egg on toast than omelette fines herbes, to use a Bond analogy. To his credit, Faulks has imitated the haphazard plotting, sloppy characterisation, Colonel Blimp politics, sexist guff and basic incredulity of Ian Fleming to a tee. It’s a Nuremberg Defence of a novel: Faulks was only following orders.”
The Financial Times‘ Christopher Hitchens – who, in compiling a list of nods to Fleming, argued the novel’s torture scene was lifted from Amis – sensed Faulks was bored by the project: “A recurring phrase, employed by a Persian version of Darko Kerim, is that the true hero is ‘a citizen of eternity’. Even those who might withhold that noble title from James Bond can object to his being cheapened as he has been here.”
“Only inattention, after all, not haste, could make a writer of this stature describe a telephone call as having been put through ‘without demur’.” – Christopher Hitchins, Financial Times
The Spectator‘s Charles Cumming, on the other hand, offered one of the most glowing reviews of all: “Devil May Care [is] an almost faultless replica of Fleming’s Bond, right down to the Arnott supercharger in 007’s customised Bentley and the three gold rings on his Morland Specials. With an unnervingly accurate ear for Fleming’s bracing dialogue and taut, energetic prose, Faulks has given Bond fans a hugely enjoyable entertainment, expertly paced and cleverly imagined.”
How did the press react elsewhere in the world? Stay tuned to CommanderBond.net to find out.