Just as no prophet is recognized in his own country, James Bond always incarnates to cries that he is not James Bond. Sean Connery, in the view of Ian Fleming, was not Bond but rather “an overgrown stunt-man,” though Fleming would turn heel and revise Bond’s ancestry to match Connery’s. George Lazenby objected as Bond that he wasn’t Bond: “This never happened to the other fellow,” his version said, measuring itself against Connery. Roger Moore was too soft, Timothy Dalton too hard. Pierce Brosnan says he can’t watch himself as Bond, was “just never good enough,” and Daniel Craig is blond.
For all that we debate who is and isn’t Bond, the stakes have never been very clear. This much we know: it isn’t nice to use Bond as a way of drawing bright, racial lines around British identity. Sir Roger Moore was faulted for doing as much when, asked in an interview with Paris Match about Idris Elba, he shared the opinion that Bond “should be English-English.” Anthony Horowitz, OBE, made a similar stumble when he called Elba “probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond.” It was an especially unfortunate gaffe for Horowitz, seeing as he’s written a new Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, an effort that you’d hope takes a certain attention to who 007 is and what he can mean.
Horowitz, also the author of a spry, charming series of young adult spy fictions, was tapped by Fleming’s estate to write the latest in a line of Bond books not by Fleming. Jeffrey Deaver wrote one; so, long ago, did Kingsley Amis. For reasons that cry out for more thorough psychoanalysis, questions of authenticity are always at the fore of the conversation on these books. Readers continue to care about fidelity to a certain representation of Bond, in a way few care how naturally a new writer inhabits the voice of Robert Ludlum. It helps Horowitz in this contest that his book is fortified with a dose of Fleming’s unpublished material, taken from a teleplay called “Murder on Wheels.”
Within the straitjacket of those expectations, Trigger Mortis is smart, artful, and less uptight than the Elba comments might suggest. The title is silly, but no more so than Octopussy. The plot feels very Fleming, since Fleming planted the seed: Bond is dispatched to foil the assassination of a champion English driver during a high-speed motor race. Horowitz ornaments the premise with a murderous Korean tycoon, Jason Sin, and a convoluted plot to undermine the American space program. Pussy Galore features, M appears, and Bond romances a US Secret Service agent named Jeopardy Lane.
All of this sounds very authentic, and in reading the novel it continues to feel so. But what pushes the book beyond pastiche is a measure of critical distance from the Bond mythos. Horowitz plainly has fun writing for the secret agent, and some of it comes at 007’s expense. Take Bond’s obsession with brands, as well as his more general pickiness, which border together on the pathological. In Horowitz’s hands, he’s constantly observing that 1950 was “one of the great years for claret,” that Sin “lacked the expertise even to make a decent martini cocktail,” that the Plaza Hotel “was a little too pleased with itself for his taste, a little too ostentatious.” These distinctions, Horowitz suggests, are less classy than they are defensive, and a little sad. When Galore has the audacity to make Bond’s usual breakfast for him in advance, the narrator remarks, “Yes, he had his fads. He liked things done a certain way. But he didn’t like to be reminded of it, and he certainly resented the slight mocking quality in her voice.”
He probably wouldn’t like Trigger Mortis very much. As affectionately as it engages with its heritage, it also intimates that the impulses that make Bond Bond are faintly embarrassing. As noted, he’s exceptionally finicky. His moral psychology is lazy, and his brief reflections on the ethics of his work are unconvincing. He’s a fan of snap judgments, whether they be ethno-national (“the cold-bloodedness and contempt that seemed to be built into the Slavic race”), gendered (“only a woman drove that way”), or simply uninformed. Horowitz revels in them. As 007 scrutinizes a counterfeit banknote, the book relays, “There was a building named as Independence Hall on the back but it occurred to Bond that he had no idea where it was situated. Washington, presumably.”
Bond’s appeal is no more or less sinister than childish joy always is, and no more or less fun.
Ego, violence, ignorance: Do those flaws make Bond a “neo-fascist gangster,” as John Le Carré controversially suggested? If they do, how much of an aesthetic criticism is that? Fleming himself told Playboy that his spy has “his vices and very few perceptible virtues, except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway.” But on the whole the judgment is too harsh, and in a way too glamorous. Bond—let’s be frank—is a bit of a geek. Fleming was, after all, a writer who happily diagrammed a game of bridge in Moonraker. So Bond is a violent, ravenous, lethal geek; it’s much of what we love about him, and something to keep in mind while loving him.
As sketched in Trigger Mortis, the net impression is that Bond’s masculinity is less toxic than childish. When Bond is forced to hide for a moment behind a curtain, Horowitz writes, “He had an image of a little boy who already had fantasies of being a spy, caught in his father’s study, rifling through incomprehensible letters from Vickers Aviation in search of super-weapons.” Describing photos of American rockets, the book notes, “Each one had that slim, sexual quality that made the whole world of rocket science so attractive to scientists and schoolboys alike.” It’s a note that Horowitz, who’s written for schoolboys before in the Alex Rider series, is well equipped to strike. It makes a definite sense that Fleming authored Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang alongside the Bond novels. Bond’s appeal is no more or less sinister than childish joy always is, and no more or less fun.
Many of these critiques have been worked through more thoroughly in other media, especially Kingsman: The Secret Service, though to see them play out inside a Bond novel marks a new level of traction. That said, they don’t necessarily make for a stronger work of fiction; a winking approach to adaptation can’t substitute for the gifts that helped Fleming last. Though the book’s prose is sometimes stylish, mostly it just does its job. The sense of time and place are generally thin. After the villain’s nearly 20-page, practically uninterrupted monologue, the plot goes slack. Most of the rest of the novel is taken up by an extended action sequence, executed professionally but without great inspiration.
But how much inspiration could a Bond novel accommodate without bursting, anyways? The genius was in Fleming’s original invention; the rest is revision. And if Horowitz has a keen command of who Bond is, Trigger Mortis is much less creative in its use of Bond to create new meaning. How novel is it really to cut Bond novels, those gleeful cartoons, with self-awareness? Ours is already a culture wary of liking things for the wrong reason.
So why write and rewrite Bond? Fleming had a blunt way of describing his motives: “I’m very glad that people say kind things about my books—because, naturally, if they didn’t say so, I shouldn’t make any money, and consequently I shouldn’t enjoy the writing so much.” The same attitude seems to keep on generating Bond novels. But if that logic produced iconic work for Fleming, a sort of flypaper to which the era’s psyche stuck, it loses force over time. “No agent had ever survived long in the Double O section,” Trigger Mortis points out, “and one day someone, somewhere would have the edge, and it would be [Bond] lying there dead, flat-out in the rain.” It might be time to admit that prose Bond is a spent bullet. The movies, in any case, have always been better.