Oct 21, 2007

The Authorised Biography of 007... And A Long Lost Young Bond Appearance

The Authorised Biography of 007... And A Long Lost Young Bond Appearance

I've only briefly mentioned the recent British reissue of John Pearson’s James Bond: The Authorised Biography (as it's now titled), seeing it as just another edition of the book, hardly worth noticing. True, it’s been out of print for nearly twenty years, but it wasn’t too difficult to track down used copies. (It was issued at least twice in paperback in the US, and once in hardcover; there was also at least one of each in Britain.) However, Century, the publishers of this newest hardback edition, have managed to promote the 1973 book better than Ian Fleming Publications or John Murray have done with the latest official James Bond continuations, Samantha Weinberg’s The Moneypenny Diaries.*

CommanderBond.net has been tracking the reviews in the British press, and there have been at least two prominent ones so far, which is sadly two more than the very deserving first instalment of Weinberg’s series, Guardian Angel. Century seem to be pushing The Authorised Biography as a new novel (no doubt to cash in on the UK success of Charlie Higson’s similarly-themed Young Bond series), and their misleading campaign managed to fool The Daily Mail’s critic at first. Writing for the paper, Marcus Berkmann admits, "It's all really a huge extended gag, but meticulously and lovingly researched," but goes on to conclude, "The problem, curiously, is Bond himself. Pearson writes wonderfully well about the charismatic Fleming, but his 007 is strangely colourless. This is, after all, supposed to be literature's ultimate Alpha Male, but Pearson's Bond comes over as a collection of mannerisms and slightly bufferish attitudes. Even David Niven got closer to the character than that." Ouch!

Sinclair McKay of The Telegraph was far more impressed, praising Pearson’s effort as "a clever, bittersweet disquisition on what becomes of our heroes. But more than this, it is also a shrewd running critical commentary on Fleming, going some way to explain the outbreaks of bleakness and sourness in the original novels, and also ingeniously explaining away a lot of their absurdity. It is an enjoyable exercise in having cake and eating it." That latter review frankly made me want to revisit the book myself! And it makes me think that this new edition is a little bit more important than a simple reissue (even from a collector’s standpoint) if its garnering such attention. I can’t imagine IFP are very pleased about that, since Pearson’s book directly contradicts events in their two current Bond series, Young Bond and The Moneypenny Diaries, and probably in Sebastian Faulkes’ highly-publicized upcoming Bond novel. (At least that one’s sure to get noticed by the critics!)

James Bond: The Authorised Biography by John Pearson (author of The Life of Ian Fleming) is now the only continuation novel in print other than those in the two aforementioned series put out by the new regime at IFP. None of Kingsley Amis, Christopher Wood, John Gardner or Raymond Benson’s books are currently available. Personally, while I fully appreciate the focus on Fleming’s own works, I believe all the books should be reprinted. Omnibus editions would be a good idea (since there are so damn many of them!), with markedly different covers from the current Fleming line, so as to avoid confusion with the official, canonical, original product.

It should be noted that James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007 (as it was originally published in England by Sidgwick & Jackson, complete with the American spelling) was not the only fictional spy biography published in the Seventies, nor the only one to feature James Bond! In 1977, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published John Steed: An Authorized Biography: Volume I: Jealous in Honour by Tim Held. At Eton, the young Steed encounters not only Patrick Macnee (invoking the same sort of deceptive co-existence of the real and the fictional found in Pearson's book), but also a very different James Bond than the one portrayed in Charlie Higson's books or Pearson's:

One factor which seems to have contributed to John's unhappiness at this time was the bullying which was an unfortunate feature of life in the school - or at least in those circles in which Steed moved. The main bully was a boy called Bond, later to achieve a certain notoriety in a career not totally unlike Steed's. Indeed their paths were to cross several times in adult life, seldom with profitable results. Although Bond was only two or so years older than Steed (a fact which will doubtless be disputed by Bond and his cronies) he was a great deal bigger. One of his fetishes was to make smaller boys stir his evening mug of cocoa for him, just as in later life he was to make a laughable affectation out of his insistence on dry martini cocktails being stirred rather than shaken. One day he demanded that Steed perform this service. Steed refused. Bond again insisted.

'Who the hell do you think you are?' enquired Steed, suggesting at the same time that he should pick on someone his own size.

'Bond, James Bond,' replied the bully, clearly expecting young Steed to fall grovelling at his feet.

'Well, Bond,' said Steed evenly,'If you'd like to present yourself behind the Fives Courts by Jordan in half an hour's time I'll show you in the only language you apparently understand, precisely why I have no intention of stirring your rotten cocoa.'

Alas, poor Bond! He had never heard of the Bodger business at Lydeard Lodge. Thirty minutes later he was waiting behind the fives courts, aglow with cocky truculence. Thirty-five minutes later he was being half dragged home by two of his familiars, his jaw and his ego both equally badly bruised. Yet even this success made little difference to Steed's happiness. He continued to find Eton not to his taste.
John Steed: An Authorized Biography was only published in one edition, never to be reprinted. It is very hard to come by today, and sought by both Avengers and Bond collectors.

*I chalk up the lack of critical interest in The Moneypenny Diaries to an idiotic initial marketing strategy that backfired horribly. For some reason, IFP let John Murray pretend like they had acquired "real" documents, belonging to the "REAL" Miss Moneypenny and telling the "truth" about James Bond. While the literary conceit works in the context of the books (a conceit established by Ian Fleming in a jokey throw-away line in You Only Live Twice, and first exploited by Pearson), attempting to fool mainstream media and the public into believing such a ridiculous story was a grievous error in judgement. I suspect it led instead to critics writing off Ms. Weinberg’s impressive novel as a joke, or something for die-hard Bond fans only (many of whom were also alienated by the lame ploy), and not for general consumption. Both beliefs are fallacies. Weinberg’s Moneypenny Diaries (published under the pseudonym of "Kate Westbrook") are legitimate novels worthy of critical notice, and excellent additions to the Bond canon.


The Book Bond said...

Hey, I didn't know about the John Steed book. Thanks.

For the record, I really enjoyed James Bond The Authorized Biography.

matt said...

Excellent stuff - and I feel your analysis of The Moneypenny Diaries is spot-on. Worse, I fear the books may drift into oblivion following the third one, and never get the recognition they definitely deserve.

Tanner said...

I really hope that doesn't happen with The Moneypenny Diaries, because they're excellent books, but that's certainly the direction they seem to be heading in right now. Hopefully the American publisher will do a better job marketing them than the British one (which certainly hasn't happened with Young Bond...), and they may actually get some critical attention and find the readership they deserve!

Craig Arthur said...

Ahh, I saw a copy of TIm Heald's fictional John Steed biography at a local public library book sale last Friday for $1. I didn't really know anything about it, so in the end decided not to purchase it. Now I discover how big a fool I was! Grr.