Feb 7, 2007

Review: Double Or Die

007 continuation authors have historically always had trouble with Book Number Three, if they made it that far. John Gardner produced the convoluted Icebreaker. Wedged between two very strong entries, Raymond Benson faltered with High Time To Kill. So how does Charlie Higson fare with his third Young Bond novel?

Double or Die* is structured like Fleming’s Moonraker, in three parts, here representing three consecutive days (although the first part contains considerable flashbacks, making the story actually play out over weeks rather than days). The action is limited to England, shifting from Eton to Cambridge to London.

James (as he is referred to in this series, rather than "Bond" as Fleming and his successors always identify the adult 007) and his roommate Pritpal receive a coded letter from a kidnaped Eton teacher, mathematician Alexis Fairburn. They have just a few days in which to decipher seven clues and figure out Fairburn’s whereabouts before he is spirited out of the country–or worse. Echoing The Da Vinci Code, the clues take James and his allies from landmark to landmark, encountering various eccentrics and villains along the way. As in Dan Brown’s book, this device keeps things moving along at an exhilarating pace and gives the reader lots of puzzles to work out, which he or she inevitably will long before the characters do (excepting the few that would be impossible because they don’t really work, given too much thought). Luckily, Higson is handier with prose than Brown, and he tells a good story as well as providing brain teasers. Double or Die may cash in on a successful formula, but it never feels like a rip-off.

Higson’s real gift, as in his two previous Young Bond novels, lies in his solid understanding of the character. Once again, despite the fact that this is ostensibly a children’s book, that it’s set before WWII, and that the hero is just fourteen years old, it feels like a Bond book. And James feels like Bond. While the basic conceit of the series (that Bond had incredible adventures as a child, long before he joined Her Majesty’s Secret Service) remains a bit difficult to swallow, I never doubted that I was reading about the same character that Ian Fleming wrote, albeit at a different age. That’s a feat that John Gardner never managed to completely pull off writing about the adult Bond! (Although, to his credit, he did write some great adventures for his own version of 007.)

Unlike the Bond of film, Higson’s Bond is even prone to the same fits of melancholy that Fleming’s frequently endures (often while flying, when his fate is totally out of his hands), and we witness the beginnings of Bond’s grim obsession with mortality. There is a sequence where Young Bond comes upon a fresh corpse and ponders the sudden finality of death, the absence of a soul that differentiates a living, breathing man from a mere husk, that nicely prefigures his similar meditation after killing the Mexican hitman in the first chapter of Goldfinger. Death is a subject that the adult James Bond probably dwells on too much for a man whose profession is killing people, but then that’s probably what keeps him human. Higson continues to develop this fixation throughout Double or Die, particularly during a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons, where James encounters an array of preserved body parts. James isn’t just a generic boy adventure hero, or Alex Rider clone; this really is the person who grows up to face Blofeld and Goldfinger, and Higson shows his personality forming, which is something no previous continuation authors have had the opportunity to do.

The most famous and oft-quoted criticism of Fleming, which accused him of peddling "sex, snobbery and sadism," also summed up the original books’ primary appeal, for better or worse. While you won’t find the sex (the obligatory "Bond girl" in this one isn’t introduced until the book’s final third, and though Higson delights in manipulating her and James into slightly risque situations, the young Bond remains frustratingly disinterested), you will get a touch of Fleming’s snobbery and a whole heap of sadism. Though current mores prevent even a benign kiss for the teenage Bond (the publishers claim that young male readers wouldn’t be interested, though I recall being plenty interested in girls in middle school!), there seems to be no limit to the amount of violence a young reader brought up on first-person shooter video games can be exposed to. (Not that I’m objecting, mind you, merely surprised.)

Like SilverFin and Blood Fever, Double Or Die is full of gruesome deaths, and once more James endures ghastly torture and bodily damage. It seems like Higson ups the ante in that department with each book, and here we have a henchman who comes out of each encounter with James missing another body part. Although it makes a nice running gag, the humor in these situations is so dark that he actually gives Fleming a run for his money in sadism. And all this in a young adult novel! (Not that there isn’t precedent. After all, You Only Live Twice screenwriter Roald Dahl created situations aplenty in his children’s books far more sadistic than anything Fleming ever concocted.)

Despite the violence, I still think Higson’s young spy series offers more benefits for young adult readers than Anthony Horowitz’s. For one thing, you learn a lot reading his Young Bond novels. Like Ian Fleming, Higson has a talent for lecturing the reader while entertaining at the same time. While Fleming’s best lectures tended to be about cars, cards, food and drink, Higson covers a wide variety of topics in Double or Die. In the course of James’s whirlwind journey, you’ll pick up nifty nuggets of information on neuroscience, crossword puzzles, early computers, Alan Turing, the impoverished living conditions of pre-war London’s East Side and, yes, cards and drinks. As often happens in Fleming’s novels, James first encounters a possible villain over a game of cards. In this case, it’s Hearts. Fleming had a special talent for writing gambling sequences that were exciting even to non-card-players, but I suspect it’s impossible to duplicate. Like Fleming, Higson does a good job of explaining the rules of the game, but has trouble sustaining its momentum over a chapter and a half. And he’s not entirely successful at lecturing about drink either, because his is a Lecture with a capital L.

Throughout the series the author has found ways to make subtle references to James Bond’s famous bad habits without encouraging them. In one, James decided that he would never smoke. That worked because it set a good example for younger readers, but rewarded older ones with a level of irony, as we all know Bond eventually goes on to consume an appalling three packs a day. This time he tries the same trick with alcohol, and it doesn’t really work. The villains torture James with gin, pouring it down his throat until he’s drunk in an attempt to kill him with alcohol poisoning. This leaves him with a massive, cautionary hangover for the final third of the book, which works fine from the perspective of modern kid readers, but not so well for adults. I suppose Higson is trying to show the roots of an amazing tolerance, but having experienced my share of hangovers bad enough to put me off certain drinks for good, I can’t really see anyone ever wanting to drink gin (or any alcohol) again after what James goes through. (And, yes, Bond does sometimes drink gin martinis in Fleming’s novels, despite being famous for preferring vodka. It's even an ingredient in the famous "Vesper!")

Other than that quibble, though, I thoroughly believe that Higson’s character could grow up to be Fleming’s. Higson’s Bond already dreads boredom–accidie, Fleming called it, a spiritual term literally meaning "absence of caring"–more than anything, partially explaining his compulsion to seek adventure wherever he can find it, even at a young age. Readers bear no risk of succumbing to accidie, though; there are no boring moments in Double or Die. If you’re a fan of Fleming’s Bond or the continuation novels, but you’ve been holding off on this latest series because it sounds like a bad idea, do yourself a favor and give it a try. The writer and the publishers are very reverential to the original source material, and these books are some of James Bond’s best post-Fleming adventures in any medium. Happily, Higson even avoids the Third Book Curse. Double or Die doesn’t quite achieve the heights of his last book, Blood Fever, but it certainly comes close, and makes a worthy addition to the Bond canon.

There is still no publication date for Double or Die in the United States, but it can currently be ordered from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca.

*Double Or Die, a title voted by readers, sounds vaguely Bondian but doesn’t end up fitting the book as well as the other choices (The Deadlock Cipher, N.E.M.E.S.I.S.) would have. I admit, I voted for it, but I think it’s proof that people who haven’t read the story shouldn’t choose book titles! The most appropriate title of all would have been the one Higson was bandying about as a working title, "Shoot the Moon." Oh well. C’est la guerre.


David said...

Another great review. I loved this book. I thought it was the best of Higgson's three so far...and I am really looking forward to book 5, where Bond leaves Eton after an 'incident' with a maid.

Number 3, has appeared to be a 'hump' book with the continuation authors. I thought Icebreaker was the second worst of Gardner's books (I rate Win, Lose or Die as the worst).

And Raymond Benson, though very knowledgable about Bond, and filled his novels with subtle asides, suffered from the fact that he just couldn't write. I read his books, more out of duty, than enjoyment. The Man With The Red Tattoo was tripe.

So from that point of view, I really appreciate Higgson's book. They are well written, and they flow nicely.

It will be interesting to see who is the author of the Fleming Centenary Bond novel?

Tanner said...

I'm with you on Icebreaker being one of the worst, but not Win Lose or Die. Granted, it's been nearly two decades since I read it (yikes!), but I remember liking that one a lot. Maybe it's worth a re-read to see if I still feel the same way. Gardner's last one, Cold (or Cold Fall her in the US), left me exactly that. I'd rate it as one of the worst. My favorite Gardner was definitely Nobody Lives Forever.