Oct 31, 2006

5. Anthony Horowitz and Charlie Higson

Spy kids’ books! Higson and Horowitz have cornered a market I didn’t even realize existed. (I wish it had existed when I was a kid!) Both of them write best-selling adventures of teenage spies. Well, that deserves a clarification: Higson writes the adventures of a spy as a teenager; Horowitz of a teenager as a spy.

Anthony Horowitz came along first. Presumably seeing the success of Harry Potter, he hit on the idea of a Potter-like series about an orphan boy who, instead of being taken in by wizards, is taken in by a spy agency. (Although that’s an over-simplification of the Alex Rider backstory.)

Horowitz’s basic formula was to rewrite Ian Fleming Bond books replacing Bond with his teen spy, Alex Rider, and upping the outlandish action to the level of the 007 movies. His first book, Stormbreaker, is Fleming’s Moonraker, beat for beat, even down to the rosonant title.
You all know the plot of Fleming’s Moonraker, right? (Hint: it’s nothing like the movie!)

Well, here, instead of a half-English foreigner bent on revenge against his adopted homeland building a rocket called the Moonraker as a gift for England, we have a half-English foreigner bent on revenge against his adopted homeland building a computer called the Stormbreaker as a gift for England! Horowitz eschews Moonraker’s exciting-but-overly-serendipitous card game, but retains the idea of a British security man dying mysteriously on the villain’s compound. Here, that security man is really Alex Rider’s uncle, spy Ian Rider. Like Bond, Alex is sent out to the rural compound as a replacement (Cornwall instead of Dover), and, like Bond, Alex discovers that the villain is receiving a deadly extra ingredient for his project from a foreign power via submarine. (Now a deadly virus to come out of the computers instead of a nuclear warhead for the rocket.) The plots follow the same basic beats, both leading to a climax in which the villain is joined by British officials and makes a head-scratching public speech full of double-meanings only to be thwarted by the hero in his hour of triumph.

The second Alex Rider book, Point Blanc, whose clever pun of a title was changed for the American edition (Point Blank) to no longer be clever and no longer be a pun, is based on Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With Moonraker, Horowitz could likely assume that his young adult audience would be familiar only with the movie, which had a completely different plot, and not with the book. He took a slightly bigger gamble with OHMSS, since the movie follows the book quite closely, but probably wisely assumed that not many of his readers would have seen Lazenby’s sole outing.

I don’t mean any disrespect to Mr. Horowitz by implying he borrowed his plotlines; I suspect that he would be the first to admit it. Rather, I think it was an ingenius idea. Fleming generated wonderful plots; why not reuse them in kids books for readers not yet old enough to graduate to the real thing? Both Stormbreaker and Point Blanc are fun, ultra-fast reads, but Point Blanc is far better. I’ve read as far as the third book in the series so far, Skeleton Key, and Horowitz seems to have abandoned his formula. Skeleton Key isn’t based on a single Bond book, but certainly incorporates elements from Doctor No, Live And Let Die, and lots of the movies.

Another thing I should mention about the Alex Rider books is that they’re surprisingly, refreshingly dark at times. Alex doesn’t choose to be a spy; instead he’s basically blackmailed into it by MI6, like Harry Palmer. And Horowitz doesn’t shy away from death and violence. Sure, this is fantasy, but not of the Spy Kids variety. Even though Alex’s superiors refuse to arm him for his missions, he does find a way to actually shoot a gun by the climax of Stormbreaker.

Anyway, Ian Fleming Publications, the current literary rights holder to James Bond, seems to have seen the success of the Alex Rider series and gotten a bit jealous, wondering "Why didn’t we think of that?" The regime had changed since their days as Glidrose Productions, and a new continuation author hadn’t been named since Raymond Benson stopped writing new original Bond novels in 2002. Also influenced, no doubt, by the publishing phenomenon that is Harry Potter, they decided to take 007's literary adventures in a new direction and hire someone to write a series about young Bond. Like many others, I cringed when I first read about this. It sounded like a bad idea through and through. Sure, I love the Harry Potter books, and they’ve made me realize that good children’s fiction still exists (something I’d long ago given up on, having sold hundreds of Goosebumps titles while working at Borders during high school and college). But that’s not right for James Bond!

Well, then the details got more interesting. IFP’s Young Bond series would be set in the 1930s! So they’d be about Fleming’s Bond as a boy, not "young Pierce Brosnan"! Very promising. After apparently going after Horowitz to write the series and being turned down, they announced Charlie Higson as the writer. Since his most famous TV work, The Fast Show, had never been broadcast in America, I was completely unfamiliar with him.

When SilverFin, the first adventure of young James Bond, came out in 2005, I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it. Then, the next year, I enjoyed the second one, BloodFever, even more! Charlie Higson seems to have been the perfect choice. He’s made it clear in interviews that he and IFP were on the same page in that Young Bond should be set in the ‘30s when the future 007 was at Eton and that under no circumstances should Young Bond be a teenage spy. (Thank goodness!) So we’re not asked to believe that Bond was already working for the secret service as a boy. (Although I guess that would make some of Fleming’s ever-changing continuity make sense!) We are asked to believe that the teenage James Bond happens to stumble into amazing adventures on his own every school break, like the Hardy Boys, but let’s write that off as a conceit of the genre.

Higson really writes the best stories about a Young Bond we could possibly hope for. He gets Fleming. Fleming’s books are, after all, Boys’ Own Adventures for grownups. And Higson’s books have the same exact feel to them. Best of all, he really, really gets the character of James Bond! I actually do feel like this boy could grow up to be the same man whose adventures I’ve read of in Fleming. It was the chapter in SilverFin that deals with the orphan Bond’s feelings about his parents’ deaths that really won me over. Furthermore, Higson really does his best to make these books work within established Bond continuity. He elaborates on just about every scant detail Fleming provided about his hero’s youth. (Although I can’t imagine he’ll be able to keep the bit about Bond losing his virginity and his wallet to a Parisian hooker at 15!)

Yes, the sex is certainly toned down quite a bit (though Higson still manages to get away with Bond and the "Bond girl" washing up naked on the beach together at the end of BloodFever!), but the books are still surprisingly violent. (One villain dies an especially gruesome death involving sea urchins in BloodFever.) I guess that’s more acceptable in the realm of children’s fiction. "Nothing compared to the video games," I suppose, as the cliche goes...

Higson’s first two Young Bond novels rank among the very best of the non-Fleming Bond continuation titles. (For the record, my other favorites include Amis’s Colonel Sun, Gardner’s Nobody Lives Forever and Benson’s Doubleshot, but that’s a topic for another time.) I can’t wait to read the rest of Higson’s Young Bond adventures.

The Charlie Higson books are a bit classier than the Anthony Horowitz ones. They’re a bit more educational, I guess (not to say that they’re ever anything less than thrilling), a bit more realistic, and certainly offer better prose. They’re overall closer to the original Bond books, whereas Horowitz’s stories are closer to the Bond movies, even if they lift their plots from the books. Horowitz had the idea first, but then he wouldn’t have had his idea if it weren’t for Ian Fleming, whose estate commissioned the Higson series...

It’s probably not worth comparing the two series. Both are worthwhile and recommended reading for spy fans.

7. Elke Sommer
6. Mark Gatiss
5. Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz
4. Nick Fury
3. Greg Rucka
2. Roger Moore
1. Daniel Craig

No comments: