Dec 29, 2009

Tradecraft: Night & Fog Movie

Well, this isn't really spy news in the strictest sense (although there are eventually spies in the story, amidst monsters and Nazis and all sorts of other stuff), but today's Variety reports that the comic book I wrote has been optioned for a film, which is (on a personal level, anyway) cool enough news that it bears mentioning here!  Anyone who's poked around here a bit or clicked on my profile or corresponded with me probably knows that my real name is Matthew Bradford, and that I wrote a comic book last year along with Alex Leung called Night & Fog.  (No, nothing to do with the holocaust movie.)  Roberto Castro and Thomas Aira provided the wonderfully atmospheric artwork.  The trade, sadly, doesn't mention my name (or theirs), and it gets a detail from the press release wrong: the story is not set during WWII, although the catalyst for all the carnage is WWII-era Nazi experiments. They're right about the crucial details, though:
Producers Gil Adler and Shane McCarthy have optioned the sci-fi horror comicbook "Night and Fog" from publisher Studio 407.

No stranger to comicbook-based material, Adler has produced such graphic-based fare as Constantine, Superman Returns and the upcoming Brandon Routh starrer Dead of Night, which is based on the popular Italian title "Dylan Dog."
This has been in the works for a while now, and I'm glad it can finally be discussed!  The story is sort of Aliens meets Hammer movies (I even named a character Dr. Cushing), and it was a blast to write.  It will make a cool movie, so I hope (for this and other obvious reasons!) that this film actually comes to fruition.  In the meantime, pre-order the collected edition of the first four issues on Amazon and get a jump on future moviegoers!

Dec 26, 2009

Network Reveals Cover Art For Callan: The Mono-chrome Years

Network has revealed on their website the cover art for their upcoming Region 2 DVD release of the surviving episodes of the first two black and white seasons of Callan (first reported–in considerably more detail–here).  Callan: The Monochrome Years hits DVD Febrary 22, 2010.  This first-ever home video release of the formative seasons (including the ultra-rare Armchair Theatre pilot!) of the seminal Edward Woodward spy series is one of the most momentous events for spy fans to look forward to in the coming year.  I know I'm excited!  Read all the details on this release here.

Dec 25, 2009

DVD Review: Zodiac: The Complete Series

If Roger Marshall, the man often credited with introducing the trademark wit to The Avengers, felt that he still had unfinished business when he left that show (supposedly due to being fed up with Brian Clemens), then Zodiac was his opportunity to finish it. In 1974, Marshall created Zodiac for Thames TV: a hip, current series about a police officer teamed up with an astrologer. To me, the premise didn’t sound very promising at first. It brings to mind any number of dreary, subsequent American shows about police working with all manner of psychics, swamis, mystics and ghost whisperers. Luckily, Zodiac is nothing like those shows. Its premise is a mere jumping-off point, not its raison d’etre. The heart of Zodiac, like The Avengers, is the relationship between two unique and appealing characters: aristocratic male cop David “Grad” Gradley (Anton Rodgers), and beautiful, liberated female astrologer Esther Jones (Anouska Hempel).

Gradley is a very Steed-like upper-class copper (he has to be a working policeman in order to keep his inheritance thanks to a convenient clause in his father’s will). In fact, so long as one can overlook his appalling, standard-issue “Seventies British TV haircut” (when I was little, I used to think those do's had to be part of the joke on Faulty Towers and Are You Being Served?) and his questionable fashion sense (Steed might well go overboard with the cravats–especially in The New Avengers–but he would never show up at Mrs. Peel’s apartment wearing all denim!), Rodgers makes a wholly satisfying Steed surrogate. He shares Patrick Macnee’s seemingly effortless charm, self-effacing good humor and readiness with a witty comeback when verbally sparring with Hempel (who always addresses him as “you arrogant man!”). And Hempel herself, fresh off of her sex siren phase in movies like the entertaining spy farce Tiffany Jones and Russ Meyer’s plantationploitation flick Black Snake, actually makes a totally credible Mrs. Peel stand-in, quickly proving that her acting skills are, in fact, more than the sum of her breasts, and revealing an adeptness at witty banter that she never had the opportunity to demonstrate in her films. The New Zealand-born Hempel (with whom I must confess a minor infatuation ever since first reading her irresistibly exotic name) actually had quite an illustrious spy career, but the roles in which she kept her clothes on were generally (and quite unfairly, as evidenced by Zodiac) marked by their brevity. After appearing as one of the many girls (the Australian one) at Blofeld’s clinic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she went on to mostly small roles in Department S, The Persuaders!, The Adventurer and eventually a slightly larger one on Return of the Saint. The scant six episodes of Zodiac make it clear that she should have worked more in the Seventies.

Hempel’s Esther is a suspect in the first episode (“Death of a Crab”), but quickly befriends the urbane gadfly Gradley. It looks at first as if their relationship might be romantic (ala Moonlighting), but the final scene of the episode twists it into a friendship with plenty of sexual tension, ala Steed and Mrs. Peel. Even so, the sparks continue to fly through subsequent episodes, and it’s quite disappointing that the two should-be lovers don’t even come together in the finale. Of course, one has to assume that Marshall intended for the show to go on beyond that point, and understood from his tenure on The Avengers that the tension could propel it much better as an ongoing series than a relationship ever could. Anyway, Esther writes horoscopes and does astrological readings (and, apparently, palmistry) for high-end clients. Judging by her apartment, she seems to make a pretty good living at it. Despite insisting to Gradley when they first meet that “I’m an astrologer, not a spiritualist or a medium,” Esther seems to possess whatever sort of psychic powers any given episode calls for. In one she reads Tarot cards, and she frequently demonstrates hints of second sight. Gradley is an open-minded skeptic, the Scully to her Mulder. He may be skeptical, but he keeps her around long after “Death of a Crab,” and finds her skills useful. That said, it’s interesting to note that none of the episodes actually depend on astrology really working to for the mystery to be solved. Esther is a smart lady, and her deductions could be right for reasons other than the stars. But the show is open-ended enough to please skeptics and believers alike. Besides getting our leads together, “Death of a Crab” is a notable episode for the appearance of a very young–and beardless–John Rhys-Davies, already able to convey effortless authority in his sonorous voice even so early in his career.

Most episodes, in fact, feature notable guest stars. (Or, more often, guest stars who went on to become notable after the series.) Michael Gambon turns up in “The Cool Aquarian” as a ruthless (or is he?) business tycoon. His ruthlessness is quickly demonstrated by his readiness to burn up a rare stamp for which he’s just laid down £30,000. When his aghast lackey points out the value, Gambon says he hasn’t lost £30,000; he’s just made £20,000. There were only two such stamps in the world, and now there iss only one, which he owns, so it’s now worth more. Hm, I’m not sure I buy his logic. Couldn’t he have just hidden the extra and achieved the same effect? Anyway, apparently he’s pretty ruthless. Which is why it seems odd that a kidnapper abducts a teenage girl from a poor family and then sends his ransom note to Gambon’s millionaire businessman. Will such a man part with his beloved cash to save the life of a girl he has no connection to? And why was he the target anyway? That’s what Gradley has to figure out, and once again he turns to Esther for help. Aiding matters, it turns out that Gambon is a client of hers. In fact, it turns out that almost all suspects and victims of crime in all of London are clients of hers, which proves very convenient throughout the series.

The actual plot of each episode (although they do generally come together in a satisfying manner) is pretty much immaterial. The reason to watch the show is for the hugely entertaining, Avengers-like chemistry between the two leads. The banter is better than the cases. And there’s plenty of banter on display–and humor. As Gradley dines with Esther in her apartment in “The Cool Aquarian,” he asks if a bell on her table is just for show. “Of course not,” she says, ringing it. A butler appears out of nowhere and serves the wine. The elaborate pouring ritual goes on for a few minutes, with Gradley just staring agape until he disappears back from whence he came. Pleased with his reaction, Esther finally explains that she’s “borrowing” this butler from some neighbors who went on holiday and wanted to leave him in a good home.

Gradley offers a characteristic (and decidedly Steed-like) comeback, claiming, “You’ll never get rid of him now!”

Esther continues the exchange, explaining that the butler is just dying to polish some silver and adding, hopefully, “You haven’t got any, have you?” It’s all very Avengersy humor, with great repartee between the leads.

Later on, considering his chief’s opinion of him, Gradley declares that “you’re only as good as your last arrest, you know.” Zodiac is full of great lines. If you enjoy the banter on The Avengers, you’ll definitely find something to like here.

Gradley demonstrates even more of his Steedishness in “The Strength of Gemini.” He likes to peep through the telescope on Esther’s rooftop patio (on which she’s prone to lounging around in her bikini top, which I guess was a popular pastime in the Seventies). When the girl he once saw through it yet again proves not to be present, he makes the same exaggerated noise of disappointment that Macnee often did. He also displays Steed’s typical lack of modesty when formulating his plan to catch a con man (Norman Eshley) who’s seducing and taking advantage of well-to-do young women like Jenny Hanley. “It’s very simple,” he declares, realizing that the con man is connected to a flower shop. “Someone personable, like myself, goes in and requests flowers...”

The con man in question gets the women’s birthdays from his accomplice at the flower shop, then writes to Esther and asks her (under a different name each time) to do their birth charts. Then he swoops in, all Eurospy-worthy suave sleaze, and tells them all about themselves based on Esther’s charts. Gradley appears to recognize somewhat of a kindred spirit in the suave trickster, making the man a good nemesis.

“Saturn's Rewards" has a couple of guest stars who will be familiar to spy fans, including Hammerhead villain (and frequent spy show guest star and two-time Rival of Sherlock Holmes) Peter Vaughn and the future Saint himself, Ian Ogilvy. Vaughn plays an MP who witnesses a murder through a window while in the arms of a woman not his wife. Naturally, he doesn’t want to come forward as a witness for fear of compromising himself, but what does he do when he recognizes the man his daughter is dating (Ogilvy) as the very murderer he witnessed? Despite a heavy reliance on coincidence, this is one of the more tightly-plotted episodes, and Ogilvy is entertaining as a mustachioed pimp.

A familiar spy face also turns up in “Sting, Sting Scorpio” as well, and Sandbaggers fans will get a laugh when they recognize that show’s CIA agent Bob Sherman as the guitar-strumming hippie beachcomber with a Byrds haircut, a leopard skin vest and beads(!) who tries to sell Esther some pot. He even sings a song. A terrible, terrible song. It rips off Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as “Hey, Fortune Teller, draw a card for me...”

Despite the song, this is one of the series' darker episodes, which finds Esther filling in for a murdered friend of hers as a fortune teller in the seaside resort town of Brighton. The friend, an old lady, made an unfortunate prediction to two hotel maids regarding a string of recent hotel robberies. Whether it was actual psychic talent or a lucky guess, that revelation got her killed, and Esther is determined to prove it. Gradley, naturally, takes a holiday and follows her down (after refusing her original entreaties to do so). His vacation wardrobe, it should come as no surprise, contains an article of fashion even worse than the all-denim getup (which also reappears): a shirt with a collar that can only be described as clown-like, at least six inches wide on each side! Together with the ubiquitous cravat, the effect is truly worthy of the big top. The bad guy in this episode is also a future spy guy: Robert Powell, who would later go on to play Richard Hannay in both the 1979 remake of The 39 Steps and the TV series Hannay. Here he sports a very un-Hannay-like–and very Seventies–fro. He’s a Scropio, and one need only watch a few episodes of Zodiac to realize that all Scorpios are bad news. (Sorry, Scorpios!)

“Horns of the Moon” closes the series out with all the same quality we’ve become accostumed to, but as I already mentioned, it is disappointing that there isn’t some sort of romantic conclusion. That main relationship is definitely the main reason to watch Zodiac, and I found it an awfully good reason. I would hazard a guess that most Avengers fans will as well. Fans of the two leads should also be sure to track this one down, as it showcases their talents to better effect than anything else I’ve ever seen either of them in. I was really sad to come to the end of this brief run. The chemistry between Hempel and Rodgers is wonderful (from his charming insouciance to her determined pluckiness), and I would have loved to see more of it. Zodiac is a very pleasant discovery, boasting an intriguing and unique premise, a parade of terrific guest stars and–above all else–that banter. It pulls it all off as a slightly more risque Avengers imitator that more than holds its own. It’s available on a Region 2 DVD from Network as a website exclusive. I wish there were some extras (Marshall is still around and happy to discuss his work; a commentary or two would have been nice), but just being able to see a rarity like this is worthwhile on its own.

Merry Christmas!

Best wishes to all for Peace on Earth, goodwill to man, and lots of spy presents under the tree.

Dec 24, 2009

Knight and Day Trailer

It's Fox's Christmas present to spy fans: the trailer is now online for the James Mangold-directed Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz spy romantic comedy action movie that was once known as Wichita and now as Knight and Day.  It's no Salt trailer, but it does look like it's got potential.  It's certainly got Tom Cruise, looking a bit older than when we last saw him, firing lots of big guns.  And swilling booze.  It's not up yet on the film's official site, so check it out on Apple

Dec 22, 2009

Judging A Book By Its Cover: Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker Limited Edition

While Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels are highly collectible thanks to the obvious, built-in audience of James Bond collectors, Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider books have sparked less of a collector's market.  That's certainly not to say that they aren't collectable, just that they inspire less of a mania than a nearly six-decade-old franchise like 007.  Like the Young Bond books, the early books in the Alex Rider series were first published only in paperback in their country of origin, and pristine copies of these first editions are rare and fetch a decent amount on Ebay.  As with any series, the first book, Stormbreaker, is the most sought after, and the most collectible editions (judging by the exorbitant prices on seem to be the American hardcover first edition (which was the only hardcover first, and had a small print run) and a slipcased, limited edition hardcover put out in 2005 by Walker Books in the UK.  While the first four Young Bonds have all been published in similar slipcased editions, to date Stormbreaker is (sadly) the only Alex Rider novel to receive this deluxe treatment.  There's very little information about this edition available on the web, so it seems like a good candidate for my occasional series, "Judging a Book By its Cover," in which I do exactly what the age-old adage cautions against and evaluate books based on their physical characteristics alone.

Starting on the outside, the slipcase itself is kind of ugly.  It's a flimsier cardboard than the Young Bond limited edition slipcases, and the lime green text across the front declaring ">> LIMITED EDITION >> STORMBREAKER << LIMITED EDITION" in a digital font (designed to look like the readout on a computer screen) isn't pretty.  The silver embossed Stormbreaker logo, however, with a lightning bolt through a globe, is cool.  The red bottom of the case is marred by a giant barcode, the original £20 price mark, and the assertion that "This special limited edition has been signed and numbered by the author."  Personally, I prefer it when barcodes and prices for limited editions come on a removable sticker outside the shrinkwrap rather than printed on the slipcase.  This edition was originally sold with an ugly cardboard band that wrapped around the book further emphasizing the fact that it was a limited edition.  While the collector in me couldn't reconcile throwing it away, I did remove the band for reasons or aesthetics and convenience of accessability. 

Inside the slipcase is a different story.  The book itself is very handsome indeed, with black boards and black endpapers.  There is no dust jacket.  The embossed silver logo appears again on the front cover and on the spine.  It and the letters in the author's name are presented in a subtler "digital" font that can really only be discerened by close scrutiny.  It works much better than the text on the slipcase.  The size of the book, the texture of the boards, the gilt embossment and the letters in Horowitz's name on the spine distinctly remind me of the Jonathan Cape Ian Fleming first editions.  The lettering isn't the same, mind you; it just reminds me of that.  And that's a good thing.  It's a nice looking book.  Unfortunately, it's bound with glue (the prevalent British preference of the moment, also afflicting the Young Bond limited editions) rather than sewn, but oh well.  That's hardly detremental. 

The copyright page reads "First published 2000 by Walker Books Ltd," then adds "This special limited edition published 2005."  The signature page is the first one after the endpaper, coming before the title page or copyright information.  The edition is limited to 750, and signed by Anthony Horowitz in blue ink. 

The book fits snugly into the slipcase, but not so snug that it becomes a challenge to remove it, an annoying factor affecting some of the Young Bond limited editions.

All in all, the Stormbreaker Limited Edition is a very handsome volume packed in a slightly less handsome slipcase.  A crucial cornerstone of the series, it's certainly worth seeking out for Alex Rider and spy fiction collectors.  And as Alex Rider is one of the most influential spy series currently being published, it will only appreciate in value. I wish there were more Alex Rider limited editions.

Dec 20, 2009

Spies In Video Watchdog

The next issue of Video Watchdog Magazine has plenty to offer for spy fans!  Tim Lucas has posted the cover of issue 154 on his blog, and it's, frankly, irresistable.  The issue covers the new Optimum Entertainment Region 2 release of The Avengers' second season (and the few suriviving episodes of the first).  This remastered special edition, loaded with bonus features, is one of the major, major spy DVD releases of the year, and to my shame I haven't covered at all yet.  It caught me by surprise in the fall and I've probably got several unfinished posts about it and one day I'll finish one of them, but in the mean time pick up this issue of Video Watchdog.  I'm sure you couldn't hope for more in-depth coverage than Kim Newman provides.  (Personally, I can't wait to read it!)  Furthermore, this issue also examines the Matt Helm movies and the recent Region 1 release of the obscure Sixties Japanese spy film 3 Seconds Before Explosion (yet another one I've been meaning to post a review of but haven't had the chance).  On top of all that and totally un-spy-related (but of great interest to me) it also covers Bob Dylan's epic 1970s film Renaldo and Clara, filmed on his amazing Rolling Thunder Tour.  I watched all four plus self-indulgent hours once on crappy bootleg VHS while I was home sick, and found it to be a unique and rewarding experience.  (Granted, it helps to be a huge Dylan fan, and it probably also helped to be running a high fever.)  Anyway, Dylan aside, there are more than enough reasons for spy fans to pick up this issue of the best cult movie/home video magazine out there!  It hits newsstands January 2.

Dec 19, 2009

Bond-Inspired Poster Art For FX's Archer

Archer, the animated FX spy comedy I mentioned last September when the cable network previewed the series, is debuting for real next month and publicity has been racheting up in the past few weeks.  The official site has some amusing video clips that will give you an idea of the series' (adult-oriented) sense of humor, and, even cooler, artist Martin Ansin has posted on his blog the full version of some promotional art he created for the network!  (Details from it are used on the official site.)  The main design is clearly inspired by Robert McGinnis's
famous poster artwork for Live and Let Die, while simultaneously drawing from other spy posters, noticeably Some Girls Do and The Living Daylights.  It's a very cool image!  Head over to Ansin's site to see the details in higher resolution.  Archer, which follows the exploits of jerky superspy Sterling Archer and his dysfunctional family of fellow spies (a literal family, as his boss is his mom), debuts January 14 on FX.

Dec 18, 2009

Tradecraft: Smart, Undercover And Red All Over

No, I'm not talking about Kim Philby; I'm talking about the spy news from today's trades... 

Variety mentions in two stories that Warner Bros. has once again delayed the sequel to Get Smart.  Star Steve Carell can only fit in two movies a year during his hiatus from The OfficeLast year, the studio postponed Get Smarter (I'm just calling it that... but don't you think they will, too?) so he could make Date Night with Tina Fey.  Now they've put it off a whole other year.  Carell is considering several films in its stead, including a reteaming with Fey.  Personally, I'm not exactly chomping at the bit for a sequel to 2008's theatrical Get Smart film, but I'm not against it either.  I still believe that Steve Carell should be right for the part, and perhaps if they take a page from OSS 117's book, the second time could be the charm...  The delay is mentioned in separate pieces about director Peter Segal's attachment to Neighborhood Watch and one of the other films Carell is thinking about.

Following yesterday's news that Gerald McRaney was playing the boss, now the male lead has been cast in J.J. Abrams' Undercovers.  According to The Hollywood Reporter, it's Boris Kodjoe.  Rather surprisingly in this day and age, this casting is apparently big news because Kodjoe is black.  According to the trade, "Kodjoe is a bold choice for a leading man on a network drama as broadcasters have stuck predominantly with Caucasion leads."  Kadjoe, who previously starred on the Showtime series Soul Food, will play Steven Bloom, half of a husband and wife team of spies.

Variety reports that Summit has set and October 22 release date for the Bruce Willis spy thriller Red.  With such a stellar cast, this is shaping up to be one of the most eagerly anticipated espionage films on the horizon.  The trade refreshes our memories on the plot: "Red, based on the WildStorm/DC comicbook, follows a former black-ops CIA agent who lives a quiet life in retirement until the day a high-tech assassin shows up intent on killing him. With his secret identity compromised and his love interest in danger, he must reassemble his old team to figure out who is out to get them."

Dec 17, 2009

Aston Martin Unveils New Micro Car

It's always a pleasant surprise to see James Bond in unexpected places.  The front page of Yahoo! was such an unexpected place, being as there's no new movie on the immediate horizon or new actor being cast in the role or anything like that.  But Yahoo! used a picture from the Casino Royale press junket of Daniel Craig standing in front of Bond's DBS to illustrate a news story about a very different kind of Aston Martin: the new mini-car, the Aston Martin Sygnet.  (Have they abandoned all sense of tradition?  Shouldn't that have been Vygnet?)  It's a basically a luxury version of the Toyota iQ, but with Aston Martin styling, including the company's signature grille.  It's only the styling, unfortunately; the car is thought to retain the Toyota's 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine.  That's too bad, because Aston Martin didn't used to be about luxury as much as performance.  This stunt seems like more like a Jaguar or Mercedes move. Just imagine how zippy that little thing would be with a powerful Vanquish engine in it!  There would be no keeping it on the ground.  Oh well.  At least this means there will be one Aston on the market that regular people can afford, at just $32,000.  (Er, still not exactly a bargain for the size...)

The Yahoo! article, furnished by U.S. News & World Report, naturally makes Bond jokes.  "How can James Bond recover the control disk for the dual GoldenEye satellite weapons driving something like this?" wonders the author.  Well, that's because he's not thinking creatively.  While I wouldn't want to see a Cygnet become 007's primary mode of transportation, I feel like Purvis and Wade must be salivating at the possibilities this little package affords!  Just imagine that thing turning into a mini-sub or getting a Man With the Golden Gun-style wing fixture affixed to it!  I can picture a great chase sequence built around this thing.  I guess it all feels more Roger Moore than Daniel Craig, but personally I wouldn't mind seeing this little car pop up in a Bond film...
Alex Rider Gadget Contest

Fellow COBRAS site Mister 8 points the way to a very cool Alex Rider contest for kids and teens aged 8-18. Hosted by MAKE Magazine, the contest calls for entrants to design their own spy gadgets! You can see some neat schematics that people have already created at the Alex Rider Flickr Group, where entrants are encouraged to upload any schematics they create. From the MAKE website: "Design your dream Alex Rider gadget, inspired by an everyday object (i.e. an iPod, toothpaste, a pen). The winning gadget will be built right here at the MAKE Labs. Send us a schematic of what your gadget is made from and how it works. (Your schematic can be a diagram, a drawing or an explanation by you)." I'm afraid you don't have long to do it in now, though. The contest began last month and ends next week, just before midnight, Pacific Time, on December 22. The grand prize pack includes a signed collection of hardcover Alex Rider novels, an iPod nano with a personalized message from author Anthony Horowitz, a backpack full of goodies and gadgets from the Maker Shed and the opportunity to have the winner's dream gadget produced in the MAKE Labs and featured on Make: Online! Wow. Runners-up will receive a signed hardcover copy of Crocodile Tears and an Alex Rider t-shirt, which, frankly, are also pretty cool prizes. Head on over to MAKE Magazine for the contest rules and all the details on how to enter.

Stay tuned to Double O Section for more reviews, interviews and other goodies in the ongoing Alex Rider Week (which will actually turn out to be about two weeks).
Tradecraft: Simon Goes Undercover

One of the Simons from Simon & Simon is the first actor to be cast in J.J. Abrams' new spy series, Undercovers. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Gerald McRaney, more recently of Deadwood and Jericho, will play the spy couple's CIA boss. The trade also gives us a teeny bit more information on the show itself than we've previously had: "Undercovers, described as a mix between Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity, revolves around spouses Samantha and Steven Bloom, who work together as spies. McRaney plays their boss, a CIA operative who recruited the couple and serves as the agency’s liaison with then." So the new information is that their name is Bloom and Abrams has apparently squished together a couple of Doug Liman movies. No, obviously that's nothing but network shorthand. J.J. Abrams is way more creative than that; I'm sure he'll give us another cool and original spy series. Abrams co-wrote the pilot with Josh Reims and, last we heard, was hoping to direct it as well if his busy feature film schedule (which includes new entries in Paramount's Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises) permits...

Dec 16, 2009

Book Review: Eagle Strike By Anthony Horowitz

Book Review: Eagle Strike By Anthony Horowitz

Skeleton Key, the third book in the Alex Rider teen spy series, left me a bit cold. In fact, after tearing through the first two books, Skeleton Key slowed me down so considerably that it put a halt to my initial Alex Rider kick. I’ll discuss my issues with that book another time, though. When I finally resumed the series, more than a year later, I found the next book, Eagle Strike, to be a real return to form. In fact, it was (and still remains) the most enjoyable Alex Rider book I’d read yet.

Once again, author Anthony Horowitz turns to Ian Fleming for inspiration, but this time he refrains from retelling a single story wholesale as he did with Moonraker in Stormbreaker and OHMSS in Point Blanc. This time he happily borrows piecemeal from Goldfinger, Doctor No and other sources, cobbling sequences together (along with plenty of wholly original ones) to suit his own story, a strategy that works very well for Alex Rider. And, as in the first two books, the sequences that are lifted from Fleming are reworked and updated appropriately (and skillfully) for a modern Young Adult audience.

Eagle Strike begins with Alex on a well deserved and much needed holiday in the South of France. He’s tagging along with the family of his friend Sabina Pleasure, first introduced in the early chapters of Skeleton Key. Sabina’s father, Edward Pleasure, is a journalist who’s rented a cottage in order to do some work on a big article he’s writing. While he works, Sabina and Alex spend most of their time at the beach or exploring the coastline. On one such outing, however, Alex spots an old enemy: professional assassin-for-hire Yassen Gregorovich. It was Yassen who killed his uncle, spy Ian Rider, and Yassen who aided Herod Sayle, the first evil mastermind Alex faced. Alex is certain he’s up to no good, so he follows him. It’s a great representative sequence from the series, because it combines so well all the best ingredients of good, escapist spy fiction: the right setting, the right characters, exciting tradecraft and excellent suspense. Alex weaves through the tony Mediterranean seaside town following his quarry, then ducks into an upscale café. But Yassen comes into the same café to take a phone call in private! Alex hides, and overhears some crucial bits to get the plot moving. And, of course, Yassen suddenly seems to sense his presence. The suspense ratchets up.

Desperate to leave his spy life behind him, Alex ultimately (and with some difficulty) decides to turn his back on Yassen. It’s not his job to find out what he’s up to. This, of course, backfires terribly. The cottage where the Pleasures are staying blows up, and Edward is badly injured. The authorities say it was a gas main, but Alex knows the truth. It was Yassen. It had to be. And if Alex had acted on his instincts sooner, he could have prevented this tragedy. He blames himself, and he goes after Yassen on his own. He sneaks onto his yacht, determined to assassinate the assassin. Of course, when the moment comes, he can’t pull the trigger. Alex isn’t cold-blooded. This gets him caught. Somehow, though, Yassen is reluctant to kill Alex, even though he’s never shown any hesitation about killing before. Instead, he engineers a death trap the teen is unlikely to escape... but Yassen seems to know he will. The unlikely deathtrap involves dressing Alex up as a matador and unleashing him, with no training or experience, into the ring during a major bullfight. It’s ludicrous and improbable... and perfect. Not only does it (probably inadvertently) recall the great sequence in Fathom in which Raquel Welch finds herself in similar, but it’s just a great spy deathtrap.

From the whole excellent opening in the South of France, the plot proceeds apace with other Riders and, of course, with Bond. All the boxes are checked. Alex has his briefing with MI6, though this time they don’t believe him. He’s on his own, forced to go rogue. He meets the villain, rock star/philanthropist/entrepreneur Damien Cray, at a very fancy private party, and engages with him in a game of skill. Cray, true to his kind, cheats. The game of skill, however, is not baccarat, but a new video game for a new game system being launched by Cray’s company. True, James Bond has played video games as well, in Never Say Never Again and John Gardner’s Role of Honor, but whereas for Bond it’s cool because it’s out of place, for a teenager like Alex, it’s cool because it’s entirely appropriate! Perfect, in fact. Horowitz describes the action in the fictional game with the same skill that Ian Fleming wrote about card games. Personally, I hate sitting around watching other people play video games, but I was entertained reading Horowitz’s description.

The video game pays off later in the book, in a sequence that nods (rather vigorously) to Fleming’s Doctor No. Cray has a pain maze, just like the good doctor, and it’s accessed in the exact same manner. As soon as Alex realized that he could escape from his prison cell through a small passage, I knew what was coming. This has its plusses and minuses. On the downside, there are many moments in Alex Rider books in which readers familiar with Fleming know exactly what comes next. But speaking for myself, that makes me smile. I settle in and turn the page, eager to see what unique twist Horowitz adds to a situation with which I am already familiar. Once again, this practice does raise the concern that these books might be spoiling Fleming for young readers, but going in the other direction, I enjoy the references.

After facing the same initial obstacles that Bond endured, Alex doesn’t find himself sharing a tank with a giant squid (pity); instead he finds himself trapped inside a real life version of the very video game he played earlier. Apparently Cray developed his game’s unique "pain synthesis" by, er, synthesizing actual people’s pain. The game and the obstacle course have an Aztec theme, which is a rather strange parallel to Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novel Hurricane Gold (published four years later), in which Young Bond endures similar torment with a Mayan twist. Higson was also referencing Doctor No, but it’s an odd coincidence that both Young Adult writers should introduce the same peculiar South American Indian element that doesn't come from Fleming!

The other primary Fleming scene that Horowitz utilizes in Eagle Strike is Bond’s reconnaissance of and subsequent break-in to Goldfinger’s Geneva complex. Alex’s actions at Cray’s Dutch factory compound, where he makes his game system, very much mirror those scenes. Instead of a gadget-laden Aston Martin, Alex has a gadget-laden bicycle at his disposal, courtesy of the corpulent Smithers, his very own Q. (Unsurprisingly, the gadgets on Alex’s bike more closely echo the movie’s DB5 with ejector seat–natch!–than the book’s DBIII with its rather less spectacular dimming, color-changing taillights.) His break-in and escape are both exciting, as is that real-life video game that comes in between. But the best is yet to come in a terrific chase scene (reminiscent of Bond and Tracy’s escape in the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) in which Alex’s bike is pursued by Porsches and motorcycles. This is yet another scene that epitomizes the appeal of the Alex Rider novels. Isn’t a gadget-laden bike what every schoolboy dreams of? I know I did. I can’t remember how many times I pretended my bike had Bond-like gadgets (or tried to create some with varying success) and fantasized about using it to elude thugs. And Alex does exactly that. It’s the same escapist appeal as James Bond, but on young reader’s exact level. What they dream, Alex does. Hence the unlimited appeal of the series.

The only real drawback to Eagle Strike is the villain, Cray. The idea of a rock star villain is a great one, but Horowitz doesn’t really take advantage of it. Cray’s biography will thoroughly amuse music fans, who will recognize chunks borrowed from the lives of David Bowie, Bono, Bob Geldof, a dash of Mick Jagger and even the band Slade. But that’s all in the past. We never get to see Cray being–or behaving like–an actual rock star. Instead, he’s focused on charities and his Richard Bransonesqe role as an entrepreneur. It seems like a wasted opportunity to have had a lot of fun with a maniacal rock star. That said, the focus on the charity side of some of those stars is well done. The idea of a philanthropist gone too far, from wanting to make a difference in the world to wanting to reshape the world in his own image, is a good one. Bono or Geldof gone utterly bonkers.

Sabina is roped back into the plot when Cray eventually kidnaps her as a means of getting at Alex. Once again, that’s ideal childhood escapism. Because ultimately there would be no point for a kid in accomplishing all the things that Alex does if you couldn’t tell people about it. When he first tries to prove to Sabina that he’s a spy by taking her to the bank that MI6 uses as a cover, things go badly. SIS keeps their cover intact, and Sabina doesn’t believe him. So even though it’s bad news that she gets kidnapped, it will come as a relief to young readers that she finally has to believe him. The "I told you so" moment is crucial to any child’s wish fulfillment.

Things build to a very exciting conclusion that not only hits all the right notes for the action-packed finale to an exciting spy novel, but also manages to reveal personal secrets about Alex’s past–and a possible path to his future. Revelations involving his father (no, it's not Yassen, though he plays a role here) not only trade on Harry Potter beats–not to mention a rich, much older, mythic tradition–but also lend that final little bit of requisite childhood wish fulfilment: your parents are (or were) really much more exciting than you thought. Eagle Strike works superbly as both a spy novel sure to appeal to any fan of the genre and a masterful piece of Young Adult escapism, a full-bodied addition to a revived and thriving market. In other words, it’s a publisher’s dream: something bound to appeal in equal measure to fans of Harry Potter and James Bond.

If you’re interested enough to invest in the whole series, by all means begin at the beginning with Stormbreaker. But if you think you only want to try one Alex Rider novel, Eagle Strike is the one to try. And it won’t be the only one. You’ll be hooked.
Tradecraft: New Chuck Poster

Were it not for the fact that his shoes are clearly Converse (albeit with their trademark stars removed), one could be forgiven for looking at this new poster for the third season of Chuck and thinking it was one of those Sketchers ads from a few years ago. It's basically the same. I don't like it. I greatly preferred cool illustrated image we saw last summer. Or Season Two's clever For Your Eyes Only-inspired campaign. Oh well, whatever the image, the good news is that Chuck is back. As it says beneath the prominent Chuck Taylors, Chuck returns Sunday, January 10 with a two-hour season premiere. This image first surfaced on The Hollywood Reporter's The Live Feed blog.

Dec 13, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: 2008 Remake Of The 39 Steps

The latest filmed adaptation of John Buchan's classic spy novel The 39 Steps will be all new to American audiences when it debuts on DVD this March, courtesy of BBC Home Video. British audiences are probably already familiar with it, as it aired on UK television last Christmas and is already available on DVD there. Rupert Penry-Jones, known to spy fans as Adam Carter on MI-5 (aka Spooks), steps into the role of Richard Hannay in this retelling. Lydia Leonard and Patrick Malahide co-star.

The 39 Steps has been filmed at least three times previously. It's unsurprising that Alfred Hitchcock was the first to make it, as it features his favorite theme of an ordinary man suddenly pulled into a world of espionage and deception–and of course a chase. Ralph Thomas and Betty Box (Deadlier Than the Male) made a very entertaining if obscure version starring Kenneth More in 1959, and Avengers and Callan director Don Sharp made one in 1978 starring Robert Powell, who reprised the lead role a decade later on the TV series Hannay. A few years ago Robert Towne was rumored to be developing a new big-screen adaptation, but that project seems to have run out of steam. Most recently, the story was adapted for the stage in a comedic Broadway production. The Hitchcock version is available on DVD from Criterion, and was recently reissued in a budget no-frills edition that maintains the same excellent transfer at a lower price as part of the company's "Essential Art House" line. Neither of the other versions is available in America, but both (1959 and 1978) are out on Region 2 discs in England, as is Hannay.

The new TV version with Penry-Jones is, of course, updated for modern audiences, but retains the book's 1914 setting. According to producer Lynn Horsford, "With this adaptation we wanted to stay faithful to the spirit and period of the book, but asked the writer to feel free to re-imagine it for a modern audience more familiar with James Bond and Jason Bourne." The latest incarnation of The 39 Steps hits stores on March 2, 2010. Retail is $19.98, but of course it's cheaper on Amazon.

Dec 12, 2009

New Alex Rider Short Story Available Online

Bish's Beat points the way to a new, exclusive Alex Rider short story by Anthony Horowitz! "Incident in Nice" is available at the TimesOnline website here. It was published a few weeks ago to promote the newest novel, Crocodile Tears, which I reviewed here. This is the third Alex Rider short story. Horowitz produced two previous stories, both of which are also available online, one via The Daily Mail and the other on Horowitz’s official website (though you have to register to access it). The former is a Christmas story that serves as a prequel to the entire Alex Rider series; the latter takes place between Alex’s third and fourth adventures. All of these stories serve as good primers for potential readers to get a taste of Alex Rider without digging into an entire book (although the books are lightning fast reads). While the combined length of all three stories so far is far too brief to warrant a collection, let's hope that Horowitz eventually produces enough short stories to fill out such a volume. It would be great to have them all in book form.

Dec 11, 2009

Network Adds Titles To Christmas Sale

UK company Network's Christmas sale (first reported here) still runs another few days, and they've added a few more titles. Of most interest to spy fans will be the limited edition version of their Prisoner Blu-Ray, now marked down from £59.99 to £32.00. These are the last copies in existence of the sold out limited edition, so the sale is obviously only while supplies last. After that, a regular version will continue to be available. (Not in that cool oversize packaging, though, and not with the exclusive facsimile of the original 1960s sales brochure.) Also added to the sale is the highly regarded Timothy Dalton miniseries Framed, co-starring State of Play's David Morrissey. That one's gone down from £14.67 to £8.00. This is the complete, uncut version of the miniseries, which is also available in a cut-down feature film version.
R.I.P. Gene Barry

I just heard on the radio that Gene Barry died today, and it hit me pretty hard. Which is a bit surprising, because I wasn't introduced to Barry through his more esteemed work, like War of the Worlds (as Dr. Clayton Forrester, a name later co-opted by Mystery Science Theater 3000), Bat Masterson or Burke's Law. Or through his well-received stage work, including the original Broadway run of "La Cage Aux Folles." I was introduced to Barry through what must be his worst show (and probably one of the all-time worst television shows period), ITC's The Adventurer. On The Adventurer, Barry played the most loathsome "hero" ever, Gene Bradley, an international movie star who moonlights as a secret agent. Bradley is so full of himself and such a big jerk that you actually root against him. And, from the excellent interviews included on Network's DVD release of the series, it doesn't seem like Barry was exactly in on the joke. In fact, none of his co-stars (including Catherine Schell, Stuart Damon and the late Barry Morse) have anything nice to say about him. By all accounts, he behaved just as badly off screen, treating them all badly and getting them fired one by one for being taller than he was.

Despite having some of ITC's best talent behind the scenes (Monty Berman, Brian Clemens, Val Guest and more), The Adventurer is probably the company's very worst show from all production standpoints. But, oddly, it also might be their most entertaining! Gene Barry has given my girlfriend and me so many hours of joy watching this series, and that's why his death is hitting me so hard. This website features a hilariously in-depth episode guide to the show, with plenty of screen captures (including the one I borrowed above) highlighting all of Gene's terrible Seventies fashions and choice quotes from the show. Kinggodzillak's writing on the site is funny enough that it can be enjoyed without ever having seen an episode, but it really serves as an essential companion to the DVDs. We always read about an episode there right after we watch it, and rarely have I laughed as hard as I do at the comments on the site. And none of it would have been possible without Gene Barry.

I doubt he'd like the idea of being remembered for The Adventurer (he refused to contribute to the bonus material on the DVD), but the fact is, it's an indelible contribution to popular culture that we wouldn't have were it not for Gene Barry. He makes the show. And, for that reason, the world is a much sadder place to me without Gene Barry in it. Although The Adventurer gets mentioned briefly in both the New York Times and LA Times obituaries, I'm sure very few people will remember Gene Barry for that. But to those who do, one of the episode titles rings particularly true: "Icons Are Forever."

Of course, Barry's Adventurer co-stars probably caught him at his worse: a washed-up American star (prior to his Broadway comeback) stuck in a low-budget British series shooting in Europe. To others, I'm sure he's remembered much more fondly. His children share some lovely remembrances about him in those two obituaries. And he made many more contributions to the spy genre, too, some of which have fared much better than The Adventurer over the years. Among those are the Eurospy movies Moroc 7 and Subterfuge, the TV series that gave birth to Honey West, Burke's Law and its later, Bond-inspired format, Amos Burke, Secret Agent, and the rotating hero adventure show The Name of the Game, which had many spyish episodes.

Gene Barry died at the age of 90 today in Woodland Hills, California. For a more conventional obituary and a great overview of Barry's career, be sure to check out the New York Times. For more on The Adventurer, please poke around that episode guide I mentioned. I've been meaning to write about that site for quite some time, and I'm sorry it was such a sad event that caused me to finally do so. Personally, I can say very honestly that few spy stars have given me as much sheer enjoyment as Barry has. While it may not be for the reasons that he intended, The Adventurer is absolutely essential viewing for fans of the genre.

Book Review: Crocodile Tears By Anthony Horowitz

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.