23 June 2017

A Bond By Any Other Name?


By Art Taylor

I'm writing this week's post from Atlantic Beach, NC, where my son Dash and I are spending the week visiting with my parents and my brother. It's almost squarely the middle of our trip as I'm beginning this post, and it's been a fine, fun week already—and fine and fun also describe nicely the beach reading I brought down with me.

While most of my reading throughout the years relates to work of some kind or another—texts on my syllabi, a book I'm slated to review,  readings for an anthology I'm helping edit or a contest I'm helping judge—I do try to balance out those stories or books with a few solely for pleasure. For our getaway this week, I packed Forever and a Death by the late Donald Westlake. The book began as a film treatment by Westlake, who was asked to contribute a story to the James Bond film franchise—but when elements of the book proved too political for the filmmakers, the film itself was never made, and Westlake wrote a novel instead, one never released during the author's lifetime. Hard Case Crime finally published the book just last week—the third of Westlake's previously unpublished works to be released by Hard Case since the author's death.

Donald Westlake and James Bond?!?! As a fan not only of Westlake's writing but also of the Bond series in both books and film, how could I resist? I snapped it up immediately.

Before we get to that Westlake + Bond equation, I want to mention the Bond + beach equation. My family has had a home somewhere along North Carolina's Crystal Coast for most of my life, and even the anticipation of reading a new Bond novel in this setting brought back several fond memories, since I discovered so many of Fleming's original books at the beach and then too the subsequent series by John Gardner, who began writing his own Bond novels when I was in my early teens—perfect timing for me as a reader. I distinctly remember being in our house in Emerald Isle one weekend during the school year when I was supposed to be pushing through Homer's Odyssey (at left is the cover of the W.H.D. Rouse translation we'd been assigned) and yet being drawn instead to Fleming's Spy Who Loved Me, such an unusual and fascinating book in the series as anyone who's read it knows. (As I recall, I balanced things out by rewarding myself with a little Bond for each section of Odysseus's journey I pushed through. And thinking about it now, aren't there many similarities between Odysseus's travels and Bond's own travails? Tempting Circe, the threatening Cyclops, twists and troubles at every turn of an international adventure.)

Speaking of Gardner: Though I don't remember his books as clearly, I do remember enjoying them very much, and I should add that I'm generally fascinated by what other authors have done with the character and the series. I still haven't read Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun, the first non-Fleming Bond book, and I never got around to Raymond Benson's contributions, but in recent years I've very much admired the various treatments offered by Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, and William Boyd—the ways each of these authors have balanced the iconic character/story against their own interests and aesthetic temperaments. (I leave Anthony Horowitz out of the list here only because I haven't read it yet either.)

So it was with some mix of both nostalgia and anticipation that I opened up the new Westlake—and found myself immersed immediately in what seemed familiar terrain: a powerful, wealthy villain in the first stages of a diabolical plan that would ultimately prove catastrophic for millions of people. Between Westlake's deft prose, the short chapters cross-cutting between several characters' perspectives, and cliffhangers at every turn, Forever and a Death has proven a joy from the start—and yes, the perfect beach read, even without the fact that so much of the novel's thrilling opening section takes place on the water.

And yet, more than 200 pages into it as I write this post, one perhaps key element of a James Bond novel seems missing—namely, James Bond himself.

Having read only small bits of advance press on Forever and a Death—more about its backstory than the story itself—I'll admit that I did expect some Bond-like figure here in one form or another. Maybe not Bond by name, of course, and who knew whether the character would be more Connery or more Craig or more Moore? But certainly he would be a secret agent of some kind, missioned and skilled and licensed to kill, right?

Whatever those expectations, however, my enthusiasm for the book hasn't waned a bit, even as Bond himself has failed to show up. On the contrary, I'm actually finding myself intrigued in fresh ways by that central character's absence—imagining the process by which Westlake must have reworked this story from the original film treatment, the decisions he must have made in translating that original story into this new one.

I understand that there's an afterword here by a producer from the Bond franchise, and I've hesitated so far looking at it for fear of plot spoilers. But I'm hoping that the essay will offer some glimpses at the original treatment and some insights into how it became this.

In the meantime, though, I'm just enjoying the ride. 

I know many of my fellow SleuthSayers are devoted Bond fans too from previous posts here—so how about a quick question: What's your favorite Bond book not written by Ian Fleming? From what I'd read myself (see exceptions above), I'll vote William Boyd's Solo, and my review at the Washington Post detailed the reasons why. Your choice? 

(Or for folks who aren't Bond fans, what author continuing another author's series ranks as your own favorite?)  

11 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

I have to admit, Art, that I haven't read any but the Fleming Bond books. There's something about a different writer taking over that sort of puts me off. But as one might say in a relationship, it's me, not them. I did, however, read Poodle Springs, which Robert B. Parker finished for Chandler. And I actually liked it well enough. So maybe I should try some of the other Bond books. On the other hand, I've bought Perchance to Dream by Parker and The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville/Benjamin Black, where they carry on the Marlowe character, but haven't been able to bring myself to read them yet......

Art Taylor said...

Hey, Paul — I haven't read either of the Parker books, but I did read the Black-Eyed Blonde, and I'd advise you to leave that one on the shelf. Here's my review of that one in the Washington Post as well.

John Floyd said...

Art -- I enjoyed this column. I've not read Westlake's book, but I heard about it a week or two ago and it sounds interesting. I've read a few of the post-Fleming Bond novels and found them pretty good, though of course I prefer the "real" ones.

Paul, I too enjoyed Poodle Springs, and Perchance to Dream also--I've not read The Black-Eyed Blonde. And I do think the authors who took over Parker's three series have done a good job, especially Ace Atkins (Spenser) and Robert Knott (Virgil Cole).

Art Taylor said...

John, the new Westlake is much, much fun. He's a terrific storyteller, of course, and I think you'll enjoy. Just don't expect James Bond anywhere.

And yes, Fleming's are the best, of course. How can you top the originals? But I do feel lucky to see a character who's had such a much longer life because of the enthusiasm and interest of others, too.

Haven't read those continuations of Parker's three series, though have heard good things there too, of course.

Jeffrey Marks said...

I've read continuations of other series and I've never found any of them to live up to the original, though it's fascinating to see these authors (many whose non-continuation works I enjoy) try their hand at working in someone else's universe.

If you had to choose a continuation series, which series would you want to continue (with your own efforts)?

Bill Crider said...

The Westlake book is fun, but it's sure not Bond. The only non-Fleming Bond book I've read is COLONEL SUN, and that was long, long ago, when it first appeared in paperback. I remember nothing about it other than I didn't like it as much as the Fleming books.

Art Taylor said...

Hey, Jeffrey and Bill --
Thanks for chiming in!

Bill: You're right on both counts with the Westlake. Not Bond but sure fun. I have a copy of Colonel Sun at home and need to read it one of these days--just one of those I haven't gotten around to.

And Jeffrey: Still down in Atlantic Beach, and every time (EVERY time) I'm at the beach, I think how much I'd love to write a series set here... which takes me back to one of the first adult series I ever read, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books. Would be much fun to write one of those, of course! (Alas, the author's estate has refused opportunities by anyone to continue the series....)

B.K. Stevens said...

I read all of Fleming's Bond novels when I was in high school but haven't read any by other authors. Like Paul, I'm not completely comfortable with other authors taking over a dead author's characters. (When I was a teenager, though, and disappointed with the less-than-completely-happy ending of Gone with the Wind, I did think about writing a sequel called Back with the Breeze. Luckily, the project never went anywhere.)

Eve Fisher said...

I read all of Fleming's Bond books (and nearly got thrown out of junior high for doing so - girls weren't supposed to be reading that back in the 1960's). I tried one of the post-Fleming Bond books - probably Colonel Sun - and thought it was awful and never checked out any of the others.

If I could do a continuation series, I'd continue Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse series (medieval nun, related marriage to Geoffrey Chaucer). I like the time period, and the reality of life she presented.

I have done a sequel short-story to Jane Austen's Emma - "Truth & Turpitude: Murder at Abbey Mill Farm", narrated by the most unreliable narrator in Emma, Mrs. Elton. I think it's pretty funny, and some day I'm going to find a home for it...

O'Neil De Noux said...

Excellent article. I sure learn a lot from SleuthSayers. I didn't know most of this. Cool. (Ah. A faux pas. According to a recent study from some professor at some batwing college, the use of the word "Cool" is no longer cool. It is an anachronism. Since I am an anachronism, I'll still use it).

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Bonnie, Eve, and O'Neil --
I've been on the road but back home now, and thanks so much for the comments here!

Bonnie: I'd read "Back with the Breeze" for sure--fun title!--but only if your name was on it.

Eve: I'll look forward to reading "Truth & Turpitude" when it finds a home!

And O'Neil: I say cool too! ....though not sure if that makes you feel any better. :-)