Dec 11, 2009

Book Review: Crocodile Tears By Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz’s latest Alex Rider novel, Crocodile Tears, is another solid entry in the phenomenal teenage spy saga. It’s not first-rate Rider like Point Blanc or Eagle Strike, but it’s a good deal more enjoyable than some of the series’ weaker entries. Alex Rider, for the uninitiated, is a fourteen-year-old schoolboy pressed into service for MI6 thanks to the unique skill set secretly taught to him by his late uncle, who was a spy. "Pressed into service" is the key phrase here, rather than "recruited." Alex Rider is not an eager volunteer, setting him apart from most of the fictional teenage spies who have gone before him. In the tradition of Harry Palmer and David Callan, he very much belongs to the "reluctant spy" school of literature. Alex had no idea that his uncle was a secret agent, or that their mountain-climbing trips, scuba expeditions or jet-ski holidays were his way of preparing Alex to follow in his footsteps. He only discovered that after his uncle’s death, when Alan Blunt and Mrs. Jones, the enigmatic spymasters of MI6's Special Operations Division, manipulated him into doing some of their dirty work. A child operative offered them a lot of advantages. Alex could get into certain places that adults couldn’t... and draw less suspicion. All that Alex wants is a normal teenage life: school and sports and friends and Playstation. But no matter how many times he tries to leave it behind, he keeps getting roped into missions by MI6.

Unlike his fellow reluctant agents Palmer and Callan, however, Alex Rider tends to find himself on missions of Bondian proportions, getting into scrapes that only daring stunts and improbable physics could get him out of. (In this entry, Alex plunges to the bottom of an icy Scottish Loch in an SUV, tangles with crocodiles and blows up a giant dam–while he's standing on it–to catalog just a few of his many amazing feats.) In fact, the first two Alex Rider novels had plots borrowed wholesale from Ian Fleming. Stormbreaker was a loose retelling of Fleming’s Moonraker (very different from the Roger Moore film version, and therefore unlikely to be known by Young Adult readers), and Point Blanc (Point Blank in America, where the art of the pun is under-appreciated) rather brilliantly drew on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even the flaws in Horowitz’s books can be traced to Fleming. Crocodile Tears, like Goldfinger, relies far too much on coincidence. (Numerous instances of it, no less.) I’m of two minds about all of this. On the one hand, Horowitz shows good taste in his literary influences, and he very creatively reworks the stories for children. On the other, though, I hate to think that the Alex Rider books might spoil Fleming for young readers. Like many of my generation and even more of the few that came before it, I suspect, I was already reading the real thing at the 12-15 year-old "Young Adult" age that Horowitz’s novels are geared toward, under the covers in bed with a flashlight. Will readers of this generation discover Moonraker one day and lose interest because they’ve seen it all before? I hope not. I prefer to think things will go the other way, and Alex Rider will provide a good stepping stone from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to 007. In any case, Horowitz abandoned the practice of directly basing his story structures on those of Fleming after the second book, instead opting to borrow certain elements here and there for subsequent volumes. Overall, I like that approach better.

The only direct Fleming element to pop up in Crocodile Tears is a modern-day version of Dr. Shatterhand’s Garden of Death from You Only Live Twice. (Again, it’s an element not present in the film, and consequently unlikely to be recognized as a reference by young readers.) Alex’s adventures fending off deadly plants and animals in the "Poison Dome," as it’s called here, in fact, make for one of the more harrowing chapters in the novel. Besides that, some elements from the films Goldeneye (action on a dam), Licence To Kill (method of villain’s death) and even The Living Daylights (bad guys’ method of smuggling our hero out of the country after kidnapping him) do pop up. The connections are tenuous enough that they would be easy to chalk up to coincidence were it not for the author’s obvious and admitted previous debts to James Bond. Film references are in some ways more appropriate, for although the Alex Rider adventures are quite different in tone from most of the Bond films, they always feature the huge, over-the-top action setpieces for which the films are famous.

While he openly acknowledges the influence of Fleming’s novels on his work, the inevitable comparisons to Charlie Higson’s hugely successful series of "Young Bond" novels seems to irk Horowitz a bit. As the author is quick to point out when the comparison is made, the two characters are quite different in that Higson’s young James Bond is not a spy. He is merely a teenager (who will one day become a spy) with a knack for getting into trouble–of the adventurous variety. Furthermore, the Young Bond novels, adhering roughly to Fleming’s timeline for his character, take place in the 1930s, a world far removed from the gadget-heavy one of Alex Rider, which is full of enough kid-friendly brand-name references (Playstation, Assassin’s Creed, Condor bikes and, in this instance, even a Simpsons pencil case!) to please Fleming himself (the ultimate brand name dropper and as such proud purveyor of snobbery). Although Horowitz and Higson (who both share backgrounds in the British television industry) are clearly friendly competitors (they even did a joint interview recently with the Times), Horowitz isn’t above working in a little good-natured jab at Young Bond in the opening chapters of Crocodile Tears:

Alex Rider took one last glance in the mirror, then stopped and looked a second time. It was strange, but he wondered if he recognized the boy who was looking back. There were the thin lips, the slightly chiseled nose and chin, the light brown hair hanging in two strands over the very dark brown eyes. He raised a hand and, obediently, his reflection did the same. But there was something different about this other Alex Rider. It wasn’t quite him.

Of course, the clothes he was wearing didn’t help. In a few minutes, he would be leaving for a New Year’s Eve party being held at a castle on the banks of Loch Arkaig in the Highlands of Scotland–and the invitation had been clear. Dress: black tie. Reluctantly, Alex had gone out and rented the entire outfit . . . dinner jacket, black trousers, and a white shirt with a wing collar that was too tight and squeezed his neck. The one thing he had refused to do was put on the polished leather shoes that the shopkeeper had insisted would make the outfit complete. Black sneakers would have to do. What did it all make him look like? he wondered as he straightened the bow tie for the tenth time. A young James Bond. He hated the comparison, but he couldn’t avoid it.

No, he couldn’t. Not when his own adventures owe so much to the famous superspy! That very description in the mirror, in fact, appears to be based on Fleming’s own description of Bond, simply plugging in slight differences: hair hanging in two strands instead of a "comma," thin lips but no "cruel mouth," etc. I know, I know; a face is a face and there are only so many variations an author can use in describing it, but I would bet money that Horowitz had Fleming in mind when he wrote that description. And that’s the brilliance of the concept. Take a Bondian adventure, pull out James Bond himself and plug in a fourteen-year-old boy. That’s pretty much what I was doing myself as I read the novels as a kid. It’s what all kids do. Escapism at its best. Horowitz’s successful formula has spawned many imitators since it debuted, from the popular CHERUB series to Fledgling to Young Bond himself. (Young Bond, of course, quite amazingly manages to be much more than a mere imitator of the character who was already imitating Old Bond, which is quite an accomplishment on Higson’s part.)

The one aspect that these teen spy series don’t borrow from Ian Fleming, however, is the sex. No, of course I’m not advocating that these teenage characters should be having sex in books for children, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be thinking about it, at least on a teenage level. I’ve seen Higson make the argument that teenage boy readers aren’t interested in any sort of love story, and so he doesn’t include them. I think he gets that mandate from his publishers, and Horowitz or his publishers seem to believe the same thing. But you know what? I can remember being in middle school, and that’s simply not true! Young boys think about girls all the time, and I think all of these series would benefit from the addition of a chaste romance or two. Alex has something of a girlfriend in Sabina Pleasure (whose name, of course, is another nod to Fleming), but she’s only ever presented as a friend, save for a brief kiss as she and Alex part company at the airport. The prevailing school of thought, however, is that boy readers are much more interested in action (and I’m not saying they’re not!), and there’s certainly plenty of that to be found.

While any hints of romance may be carefully pussyfooted around, Horowitz (like Higson) isn’t afraid to face violence head on. Of the three sins that Fleming was accused of peddling in the Fifties (sex, snobbery and sadism), Horowitz eschews the first but gladly latches onto the latter two. Alex definitely doesn’t glide through his adventures unharmed by the dangerous scrapes he gets into. On the contrary, he gets as battered and bruised as Fleming’s 007 always ends up. Even having been shot in the chest before, Alex probably has the worst time of it yet in Crocodile Tears. Besides his encounter with deadly flora and fauna in the Poison Dome, he’s put through anguishing torture, drugged, shot at, banged about and burned. His encounters with villains are often deadly. While Alex has yet to shoot one at point blank range or anything like that, there can be no denying that he is usually responsible for their deaths. (Granted, they are always trying to kill him at the time, but it’s still a far cry from Spy Kids or Cody Banks.) And he’s no stranger to death; other people in the books are killed around him all the time–often quite brutally. Furthermore, Horowitz is not callous or irresponsible in his treatment of violence in these books. Everything that happens to Alex, and everything he witnesses, takes a toll on him. At the end of Crocodile Tears, Alex's MI6 controllers are worried about his mental state. His guardian is worried about how much of this he can take–not physically (which is clearly a lot, even if he does wind up in the hospital), but psychologically. While it may be brutal, the violence is no worse than anything kids are exposed to in video games. The consequences, however, cannot be handled properly in that medium; but they can–and are–in these novels.

At their heart, though, despite the seriousness of the themes and tone, the Alex Rider books are, like Fleming’s novels, pure escapism. And for that, they’re great, for children and adults alike. I enjoy these and the Young Bond novels as much as any adult spy fiction currently on the market. If there’s a tweenage boy in your life who likes action movies and video games but can’t be bothered to read, Alex Rider is probably the ideal thing to get him hooked. But even if you don’t have a kid to give them too, I still highly recommend checking out Horowitz’s series of Alex Rider novels. Fans of Bondian spy fiction are likely to enjoy them. Although the books flow best read in order, there is no reason that one couldn't pick up Crocodile Tears and plunge right in. If you have the choice, though, I would recommend starting either at the beginning, with Stormbreaker, or with the best, Point Blanc or Eagle Strike. Wherever you start, you're likely to become hooked, so chances are you'll end up at Crocodile Tears sooner or later anyway.

4 comments:

bish8 said...

I don't think you've tried the CHERUB books yet, and I think you'd enjoy them. Sex is much more prevalent than in Alex Rider or Young Bond. You might also enjoy reading "Home" an unpublihsed novel Muchamore has on his website. I can see why it didn't get published (way too much violence and sex involving kids), but its an excellent story of an English schoolboy surviving a plane crash in a worn torn section of Africa and has to join the rebels in order to continue surviving as he tries to get home.

Tanner said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Bish! No, I haven't tried CHERUB yet. I've been intrigued by what you've written about them on Bish's Beat, and I will give them a try. And not just because they have more sex! I hope I don't come off as some sort of sex-crazed maniac making that point again and again; it's just that I don't think the idea (as Higson puts forth) that teenage boys aren't interested in that has any merit. But I'm perfectly capable of enjoying a book with zero sex as well, thank you very much! :)

David said...

Great review / overview of the series. I have still to read some of the later entries - I have them stacked up in the pile ready to go - but you know, so much to read, so much to watch!

Christian said...

Great recommendation and Summary.