May 29, 2010

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2

DVD Review: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2

Ah, the marvels of DVD! Just two years ago, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was lost to the world, an intriguing entry on the IMDB with little information available about the production. I’d long cherished Hugh Greene’s collections of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporaries, and was intrigued to see that some of them had been adapted for television. But I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to see them. Today, thanks to Acorn here in the US and Network in the UK, both seasons of Thames Television’s The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes are now available in their entirety–and what a discovery they are. The first season (which I reviewed twice–the American release here and the British release here) contained some real treasures, and the second is just as good. And, happily for spy fans, the second season contains far more espionage adventures–nearly half of them, in fact! This season draws largely from Greene’s later collection Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and consequently the constantly-shifting alliances among the European powers in the decades leading up to WWI and a rising fear of anarchists (the Edwardian equivalent of terrorists) factor heavily in many of the plots. We’re also treated to the only modern film or TV adaptations of two of the founding fathers of the modern spy genre: William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim.

The Le Queux story, “The Secret of the Fox Hunter,” was the one I was most looking forward to (as his hero Duckworth Drew is widely considered the template for the modern secret service hero), but sadly it turns out to be one of the weaker episodes of the season.

Derek Jacobi (in a weird wig) first appears as William Drew (no mention of “Duckworth”) while posing as a wax figure in a wax museum, taking a secret report from an asset he has placed inside a household where a suspicious Prussian count is staying–a female asset, named Miss Baines. His boss has many misgivings about that.

“I confess,” admits Drew, “it goes against the grain, but we had no choice.”

Using a female operative may go against the grain, but so does the whole business of spying to these very proper gentlemen. The setting may be Edwardian, but they are very Victorian in their outlook. “It’s a beastly underhanded business, Drew,” remarks his oh-so-English boss.

“Uh, quite so,” agrees Drew before heading off himself to the country house where the Prussian is staying, ostensibly for a fox hunt. Also in attendance is a Russian secret agent named Davidoff and a very pretty young woman named Miss Graham who might be a traitor. Drew proves not to be a very good agent runner. After taking the rather extreme precaution before of posing as a wax figure to meet his asset, he now meets with her in open, at a pre-hunt party at the house, risking blowing her cover to everyone in attendance. Miss Baines herself is a bit more progressive in her techniques, and reveals that she has listened to a conversation through a door and discovered a potential Russo-German treaty being discussed. While treaties of this nature were big enough news to be the prevailing MacGuffin of their day, Drew seems more appalled by her behavior. “Miss Baines!” he exclaims. “Was that discreet?”

Drew’s boss proves equally aghast at his ensuing suggestion that they steam open a letter from the suspicious Miss Graham to her fiancé, a young British diplomat posted in St. Petersburg. Clearly, it was a very different secret service back then from the modern CIA or MI5! “Open a letter from a woman to the man she’s about to marry?!” blusters the boss. “Is there no honor left in the world today, Drew?”

“I share your abhorrence of such a course, my lord,” acquiesces Drew, “but if Miss Graham is a traitor, we may yet prevent her from dragging [her fiancé] Bellingham down into disgrace with her.”

“You’re right. For his sake and for the sake of our country we must dispense with scruples.”

There is far more Victorian outrage in “The Secret of the Fox Hunter” than there is action. The rather slow pace is momentarily enlivened by a murder committed with a primitive but devious spy gadget, but even Drew, Baines and Bellingham’s pursuit of Davidoff to Paris lacks the urgency it requires. An alarming ending not from Le Queux’s story may be intended to shock, but the effect is more just to leave an unpleasant aftertaste. So I was disappointed by the Le Queux adaptation I had been so looking forward to, but luckily not by the Oppenheim tale!

The real treasure of this collection has to be “The Secret of the Magnifique,” possibly the only post-war adaptation of an E. Phillips Oppenheim story. Oppenheim was the father of the modern spy story as we know it and the Robert Ludlum of his day, an incredibly prolific thriller writer (dubbed “The Prince of Storytellers” by TIME Magazine). According to “The Rivals and their Creators” text blurb (a low-tech but very welcome DVD extra), “Oppenheim is recognized for popularizing espionage in fiction, paving the way for iconic characters like James Bond. His works were escapist fantasies, featuring luxurious, exotic settings and wealthy protagonists.” He was very popular in the early 20th century and is now–unfairly–relegated to relative obscurity. His works were adapted into more than forty films between 1915 and 1942 (most famously The Great Impersonation, which was filmed three times), and then not at all except for this 1973 television adaptation. And judging from this one, they stand the test of time flawlessly.

“The Secret of the Magnifique” is sort of an Edwardian episode of Mission: Impossible. It begins with a mastermind (a private adventurer rather than government employee, out for personal gain but adhering to a certain moral code–and protecting France from Germany in the process) named J.T. Laxworthy (Bernard Hepton) gathering a group of specialists to aid him in his mission. Well, actually there are only two specialists, but they fill in nicely for Rollin Hand and Willy Armitage. Both are ex-cons, surprised to be met by a coachman upon their release from prison and taken directly to a luxurious apartment. Their mysterious benefactor reveals little about his plan for them, but makes an offer neither can refuse. The ex-cons are the dapper, well-bred Sydney Wing (Licence To Kill’s Christopher Neame) and a working-class safecracker named Anderson. Laxworthy gives them six months to get into their roles as a young society gentleman and his valet, respectively. After that time, they’re to meet him at an upscale resort hotel on the French Riviera.

Here, the set-up is surprisingly GoldenEye-like: a bearded French Admiral in command of a battleship equipped with a special weapon (a torpedo, not a helicopter; it was always torpedoes back then) is staying at a Riviera hotel in the company of a mistress who is really in league with enemy agents. (The similarities are so strong that one wonders if one of the GoldenEye writers was familiar with this story or its TV adaptation.) Into this situation come Laxworthy and his team as well as a nefarious German spy and an easily-manipulated American Pacifist millionaire. Everybody has their own agenda, and Laxworthy’s is only revealed to us–and his employees–at the very end. As with the best episodes in Set 1 of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, I couldn’t help but wish that this had been the pilot for its own series. Oppenheim wrote a whole book of The Adventures of Mr. Laxworthy (quite recently back in print, as a quick Amazon search reveals!), and I would have loved to see this cast realize more of those stories.

“The Moabite Cypher” finds our old friend from the first season, Dr. Thorndyke, taking on an a possible anarchist conspiracy. Only now he looks a lot more like Barrie Ingham than John Neville. I definitely miss Neville’s even-beyond-Holmsian arrogance, but Ingham (who, like Neville, also played Holmes... or a very close rodent approximation as Basil of Baker Street in The Great Mouse Detective) does a perfectly serviceable job in a very entertaining role. His Thorndyke isn’t as rude as Neville’s, nor is his Dr. Jervis (Peter Sallis as Thorndyke’s Watson) as prickly to his rudeness. (Neville provoked his own Jervis to threats of violence!) Ingham does repeat Neville’s best line, though, telling his associate “don’t suck my brain, Jervis, when you have a perfectly good brain of your own,” rather than sharing the brilliant conclusions he’s reached. No brain-sucking is required to deduce that Dr. Thorndyke is the closest analogue of Sherlock Holmes in the bunch, but he’s also a fun character in his own right.

This particular case involves a letter written in the dead language of Moabite on a dead man who was killed by a horse while running from police. The police had spotted a suspicious parcel clutched in his arms (the Edwardian equivalent of... a suspicious parcel) and assumed him to be an anarchist. The parcel turns out to have been harmless, but that doesn’t mean he wasn't an anarchist. Dr. Thorndyke, who happened to be on the scene, keeps a copy of the letter intending to decipher it. Soon after a newspaper intimates that Thorndyke has the letter, Julian Glover turns up at his door playing a man called Barton who wants to pay him lots of money to travel way out to Essex and prove that Barton's brother is being poisoned by his wife. Now, spy fans probably know that it’s never a good thing when Julian Glover turns up at your door (just as James Bond or Indiana Jones, among many others), and Thorndyke surmises as much himself. He quickly concludes that the poisoning story is a ruse to lure him out of his flat, but he allows it to play out, then jumps back onto the train and follows Barton back there. There, Thorndyke's arrogance causes him to get shot, but luckily he’s alright, because the adventure is only just getting started! Before it’s over it will involve anarchists, jewel thieves, hand grenades, fisticuffs, invisible ink and a solution that could be right out of Conan Doyle. “It was so simple,” explains Dr. Thorndyke, a bit too cutely, “it was almost... elementary.” Cute lines aside, this is a top-notch episode.

John Thaw plays the titular Copenhagen police detective in “The Sensible Action of Lt. Holst.” He’s caught between his duty to uphold the law and his obligation to follow orders in a spy story that’s more about the Kafkaesque frustrations of bureaucracy than action or detection. Of course, fans of The Sandbaggers or Queen & Country know well that sometimes bureaucracy can be more exciting than those things anyway. A Russian count and countess both turn up in Copenhagen with contradictory stories. One of them is a revolutionary, and the other is a counter-revolutionary agent of the Tsarist secret police... but which is which? And what will Lt. Holst do when he finds out? His own loyalties may not be in sync with those of his government, bearing in mind that the King of Denmark is a cousin to the Tsar... One of my favorite spy ladies, Catherine Schell, plays a substantial role, but I have to say I prefer her in mod Sixties and Seventies attire to conservative cold weather Edwardian garb!

“The Problem of Cell 13” (or simply “Cell 13” as it’s called here) is not a spy story in the least (nor, even, much of a detective story), but it’s definitely another highlight of this set. The short story on which it’s based (by Jacques Futrelle, who perished on the Titanic) has been a favorite of mine since the 4th Grade, and this was the episode I was second-most looking forward to, after the Duckworth Drew story. And this one, unlike that, does not disappoint, even with the producers’ decision to relocate it from America to Britain, and to Anglicize Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen (better known as “The Thinking Machine,” though that nickname isn’t invoked here). In the tradition of casting once and future Holmeses as the great detective’s rivals (the first set featured both Neville and Robert Stephens), former BBC Sherlock Douglas Wilmer steps into the role and plays it well–with all the arrogance required.

To me, this story has one of the best premises of all time: the renowned professor boasts that no jail is perfectly secure; a smart man (like him) could “think his way out” of any cell. These boasts don’t sit well with the country’s leading prison architect and the governor of his most secure prison (Michael Gough), so they take Van Dusen up on his challenge and bet him that he can’t break out of their most secure cell (you guessed it, 13) in one week. He knows that he can, and it spoils nothing to reveal that he succeeds. (In fact, in the short story’s structure I believe that’s revealed right up front.) The fun comes in how, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! I will say that my favorite moment of the story and the TV episode comes when the warden and guard discover the inevitable fake sleeping body under the covers in his cell. It’s not made of pillows or straw; instead, the professor’s arrogance has compelled him to make it out of things no prisoner should ever have access to, including rope, knives and a gun. How he got that stuff is all part of the thoroughly compelling mystery. It’s a must-see.

Wilmer returns as Van Dusen a few episodes later in the wonderfully-titled “The Superfluous Finger,” which is more of a traditional murder mystery. It doesn’t involve spies, but it does involve Avengers-like eccentrics, lookalikes, rare guns and a castle with a trap door good for dropping uninvited guests directly into the dungeon. Wilmer is just as good at playing Van Dusen the second time around, with just as much arrogance. Besides deductive reasoning, arrogance seems to be the primary trait spread from Sherlock Holmes to his many imitators. But not all of his rivals are arrogant–or upper class.

The hero of “The Looting of the Specie Room,” Horrocks (Ronald Fraser), for example, is a ship’s purser. As such, he’s responsible for a record amount of gold being stored in the specie room of an ocean liner making a transatlantic crossing. The record-obsessed owner of the shipping line is aboard (attempting a new speed record as well as a gold record in the same trip), and immediately considers poor Horrocks the primary suspect when the room is (unsurprisingly, given the title) looted, and the gold stolen. How was it done? The vault was impregnable, and only Horrocks had the key. His first move is to get very drunk and remain that way for a surprising amount of time, before finally setting forth to catch the real culprit. The cool thing about Horrocks is that he’s not a detective (not even an amateur one), so he sets about his investigation–and his prior drunkenness–in more or less the same way you or I would go about it. He must not only contend with an ingenious heist plan (worthy of Jim Phelps), but also nosy, sensationalist reporters, a beautiful suspect and the contempt and derision of his upper-class masters. For his troubles, he earns a knock-out conk on the head that lands him in hospital, but still he persists in his efforts, racing against the ticking clock of port at the end of this record-breaking journey. There may not be any spying in this one, but I loved the cool setting of a luxury liner in 1910.

“Five Hundred Carats” also has a cool setting and just about the lowest-class sort of hero imaginable: turn-of-the-century Kimberly, South Africa, and the uncouth uniformed policeman Inspector Lipinzki. How often in Victorian or Edwardian mysteries do you come across a reasonably intelligent cop on the beat who actually solves the case, and doesn’t just earn the scorn of smarter amateurs? Raised on the bush, Lipinzki is as rough and tumble as they come, and it makes his job harder when the largest diamond ever unearthed by a British mining company is stolen–and murder ensues. All of the suspects are upperclass Englishmen, and for every one of them he interrogates, he must then waste valuable time making public apologies. He knows right away who the villain is, but he can’t prove it and he isn’t allowed to make any allegations or even investigate the man because of his social position. Ultimately, Lipinzki’s paychecks come from the board of directors of the mining company (who run the whole colonial town), and they’re loathe to risk the taint of scandal on any one of their own. The actual method of robbery is again thrilling, depending on the ingenuity of the thief and the very latest technology of the age.

From secret agents to Holmsian detectives to talented amateurs and equally talented professionals to reporters and even (gasp!) women, all of these rivals of Sherlock Holmes are compelling characters solving crimes and thwarting treason in one of the most exciting eras of the genre. The production values don’t seem quite up to those of the first season, but they’re still very impressive for British television of the era. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is a wonderful series–and both seasons are well worth picking up. I’m so grateful to Acorn and Network and the medium of DVD that such obscure shows are now right at our fingertips. Anyone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes, good period mysteries or the earliest incarnations of the modern spy genre should definitely check out The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 2.

Read my review of Acorn's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 here.
Read my review of Network's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete First Series here.

May 28, 2010

Crazy Reboot Rumor Of The Day: Alias!

Dark Horizons points the way to a story at E! Online that wherein the fairly reliable TV gossip columnist Kristin Dos Santos reports that the powers that be at ABC are mulling a "reboot" of J.J. Abrams' seminal early 21st Century spy series Alias.  As of now, these rumblings are merely rumblings, but they've apparently rumbled enough to know that they would jettison the complicated Rambaldi mythology that made the show interesting in its early years, but ultimately weighed it down (as complicated mythologies are wont to do) when the writers couldn't dig their way out of the convoluted maze they'd created.  I really loved Alias.  It's first season and a half (up through the satisfying conclusion of the SD-6 plotline) were absolutely brilliant.  And I called it "seminal" for a reason: along with 24 and The Bourne Identity, it was one of the early adapters that really jump-started the spy genre at large in the post-9/11 world. 

Spies are bigger today than they have been since the Sixties, and that's thanks in part to Alias.  But is there really a point in "rebooting" or "reimagining" the series without the off-kilter mythology that set it apart, the creator who made it great, or the cast who defined those characters?  Personally, I can't imagine anyone other than Jennifer Garner playing ultra-fit superspy-with-a-life Sidney Bristow.  Without Rambaldi or Garner, you're left with a cool spy premise about a young woman working for an agency that she thinks are the good guys but suddenly discovers are actually the bad guys... but does that make a show?  I'm not sure.  I would love to see the Alias brand live on in feature films or even a sequel series (although Abrams' upcoming NBC spy series Undercovers about a pair of married ex-spies who come out of retirement after five years is pretty much what such a series would probably look like), but I don't know if I can really swallow a reboot of a series that only went off the air four years ago.  (Even the CW's La Femme Nikita reboot seems a bit soon, and that show ended longer ago.)  It seems like with Lost ending ABC is just desperate to stay in the J.J. Abrams business (however tangentially) in any way they can, kicking themselves for letting his deal lapse. 
Project X Revealed: Jeffery Deaver To Write Next James Bond Novel

Today Ian Fleming Publications issued a press release detailing the true nature of the mysterious "Project X" they began teasing last week: a new adult James Bond novel!  ("Adult" meaning as opposed to Charlie Higson's popular series of kid-oriented "Young Bond" novels, and not something vaguely pornographic like Clyde Allison's infamous 0008 paperbacks!) American thriller author Jeffrey Deaver will write the new book (as yet untitled, hence the "Project X" moniker), which will be published on May 28, 2011.  Unlike the last straightforward Bond continuation novel, Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care, which picked up Ian Fleming's timeline in 1967, Deaver's book will be set in contemporary times.  Beyond that, scant details are available.  In the press release, Deaver says, "I don't want to give much away about the new book yet, except to say that it takes place in the present day and that the story occurs over a short period of time and finds Bond in three or four exotic locations around the globe." 

It's a shame about the setting, because I thought the Cold War milieu was the one thing Faulks got right in his book.  But clearly IFP and Deaver live in hope that EON Productions will reverse their longstanding policy of ignoring the continuation novels and turn this one into a film.  The Bond producers used the period setting of Devil May Care as a polite excuse as to why they wouldn't be adapting the novel, although it really wouldn't have been too difficult to contemporize its plot if they had really wanted to.  (After all, they did it with Casino Royale, and that book was set more than a decade earlier!) So, as a concession to the film market and the Daniel Craig version of the character, IFP will turn its back on the rich period world they've explored in the popular and fantastic Young Bond novels, the less popular but equally fantastic Moneypenny Diaries and the generally lousy but popular nonetheless Devil May Care, and the new Bond novel will take place in the present day, as did all of John Gardner's and Raymond Benson's continuation novels.  I liked the period setting, but I don't really have a problem with the decision.  In fact, I'm kind of grateful that it "unsticks" 007 from not only time, but also any remaining semblance of in-series continuity.  James Bond is a character that transcends any given time period, and I hope that if the trend of hiring a different big name author to publish a new Bond novel every other year on Fleming's birthday continues, the choice of when to set the book remains up to the author.  Clearly, each novel will be a stand-alone anyway, so it shouldn't matter.

Personally, I'm not familiar with Deaver's work.  He's most famous for a series of mystery novels about a detective named Lincoln Rhyme, who was portrayed by Denzel Washington in the 1999 film The Bone Collector, but he's also written some stand-alone novels, including the pre-war Berlin-set crime/spy hybrid Garden of Beasts which won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award in 2004 and first brought the author to the attention of the Fleming estate.  (The American paperback boasts a very Bondian cover image!) I haven't read any of his books, but I definitely like the things he says in his statement in the press release. Unlike Sebastian Faulks, who never missed an opportunity to diminish Fleming and Bond in interviews whilst assuring the literary world that he was still a "real" writer and this Bond thing was just a very silly lark, Deaver comes off as a genuine Bond fan with a personal and professional admiration for Ian Fleming's writing and respect for the character.  I also like that he specifically told Reuters, "I am not writing this book as if I were Ian Fleming. No one can really do that."  That quote seems to be a direct rebuttal to Faulks' inane, disrespectful and entirely unsuccessful "writing as Ian Fleming" gambit–and a good indication that Deaver will craft a legitimate thriller and not a lame pastiche. 

Deaver's Bond novel will be published in England by Hodder & Stoughton and in the US by Simon & Schuster–both Deaver's regular publishers.  Simon & Schuster imprint Pocket Books will eventually publish the American paperback.  While Penguin handled the UK publication of Devil May Care, Hodder is no stranger to the Bond license, having published a number of John Gardner titles in the 1980s.  As a collector already eagerly anticipating having all of these editions on my bookshelf, I hope that Hodder & Stoughton share Penguin's penchant for limited editions of varying degrees of inaffordability! 

IFP have set up a very good dedicated Project X website here, with all the information you could ask for at this juncture, including a short video of Deaver talking about Fleming's influence on his writing.  You can also read the full press release at Simon & Schuster's Project X page here.  Read my review of Devil May Care here.  Read my review of the latest Young Bond novel, By Royal Command here.

May 26, 2010

Network Unveils A Sampling Of Saint Music

Network has made available a suite of music from the company's new Saint soundtrack, previously reported on here. This suite really provides a great example of the teriffic Edwin Astley score selections available on this wonderful set, although it doesn't reflect any of the many vocal tracks included. (A lot of these are also fantastic.)  The first two discs are almost entirely instrumental, but a handfull of tracks on the third disc and about half of the fourth are vocals from the many swinging nightclubs Simon frequents in the series. All provide wonderful flavor.  You can get some of that flavor (the instrumental variety) from this clip.  Check around 3:46 for some surprisingly (and awesomely) Bondian spy music!  The Saint: Original Soundtrack comes out on Monday and is available for purchase from Network's website.

May 25, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

It's a good week for spy releases!  There are several ones of note.  First up, from Acorn Media we ge two rare Eighties British spy TV miniseries–one previously available and one long sought after by fans.  The two-disc set A Cold War Spy Collection includes The Glory Boys (1984) and The Contract (1988), both written by espionage specialist Gerald Seymour.  The Glory Boys, which was originally broadcast in the United States on TBS, features Anthony Perkins as a British intelligence agent tasked with stopping a joint IRA/Palestinian hit team out to kill an Israeli nuclear scientist (Rod Steiger) in London. New Avenger and Bond Girl Joanna Lumley co-stars. The rarer The Contract follows a British agent sent to bring a Soviet defector across Germany and into the West, testing familial and political loyalties on both sides of the Berlin Wall.

Ever since shooting was announced way back in early 2008, fans of Barry Eisler's novels have been eagerly awaiting a U.S. theatrical release date for the Japanese film adaptation of the Tokyo-set first novel in the author's spy series featuring assassin John Rain.  Sadly, it looks like Rain Fall won't get a theatrical release here, but as of today we have it on DVD, at least, from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.  The movie (which was originally intended to be 85% in Japanese and 15% in English, but I have no idea if they stuck to that plan or not) stars Kippei Shiina as the titular Japanese-American former Special Forces operative turned killer-for-hire and Gary Oldman as a the CIA's shady Tokyo Station Chief.  According to the plot description for the DVD, when the CIA targets a woman Rain loves, his world starts to fall apart.  The only extra appears to be cast and crew interviews. Retail is $26.98, though it can be found cheaper on Amazon.

Finally, from Paramount we have Leverage: The 2nd Season.  While not quite a "spy show" per se, Leverage remains the closest thing on television to the original Mission: Impossible.  In fact, in its second season it's more Mission than ever!  (In one episode, for example, they convince a phony psychic that one of their team is a real psychics.  How many times did Jim Phelps's team pull that one?)  Besides including all fifteen Season Two episodes, the set also contains copious extras.  Among them: commentary on every episode, a Q&A with the show's creators, a set tour with executive producer John Rogers, a "Behind the Boom" featurette, a music featurette, a gag reel and a spoof video entitled "The Hand Job."  (Every episode is called "The [Something] Job.") The cover art for the DVD is not that poster artwork to the left, because that would be too awesome.  Instead, it's an amateurish Photoshop job so ugly that I didn't want to post it here, but you can see it on the Amazon listing.  Luckily, I assure you that the quality of that cover art does not reflect the entertaining show contained within!
Book Review: By Royal Command By Charlie Higson

While I reviewed the exterior of the latest Young Bond book when it came out in England over a year ago, I never got around then to reviewing the actual contents–which some people claim are the best part of a book!  (That didn't stop me, however, from listing it on my year-end Best Of list in 2008.) Since By Royal Command was finally released in America last week (along with hardcover and paperback editions of the SilverFin graphic novel), now seems like an appropriate time to finally review it.

Charlie Higson concludes his initial cycle of Young Bond novels with a fantastic, exciting Boy’s Own-style adventure. By Royal Command blends together all of the elements the series is known for, then adds that final James Bond ingredient that’s been (rightly) absent from the previous books: spying. This is the culmination of all of the books so far, and pays off many things set up in the earlier novels. I don’t mean plot points (though there are a few that come back to haunt James); I mean themes. We’ve watched the boy James Bond grow throughout the first four books, and now he gets to use everything he’s learned over their course. Here we see him expertly navigate the peculiarities of public school life so alien to him in SilverFin, cope once more with the sort of treachery he first encountered in Blood Fever, and put to use both his mystery-solving skills honed in Double or Die and the boy-versus-nature survival techniques demanded of him in Hurricane Gold. On top of all that, James is plunged for the first time into what Higson calls “the shadow war,” that Great Game of pre-war European espionage.

It was a wise move to hold off on any real involvement with MI6 until Book 5. In SilverFin, James Bond was a boy like any other. He wasn’t surreptitiously trained, like Alex Rider, in the arts of spying; it would have been downright silly to involve him in any sort of official missions. But over the course of Higson’s first four novels, James Bond has earned his future; he’s at last ready to handle some of the demands of international espionage.

Higson delivers the basics of spying in a conversational, easy-to-follow manner. He’s explaining it to kids, but as usual with his writing, even adults won’t feel like they’re being talked down to. Chances are that any adult Bond fan has a pretty good idea of what he’s talking about already (how cells operate, etc.), but it’s very easy to bear with Higson, as his writing style is so brisk and easygoing. He’s never didactic, and he assumes a basic intelligence and a certain level of education of his youthful readers, which is very refreshing. So often Young Adult books, even adult books, and most especially movies (of the Hollywood blockbuster variety) talk down to their audiences. Not so with Charlie Higson, and that’s the secret to these books’ overwhelming success (in England, anyway; hopefully the U.S. will follow): he writes for kids as if they’re adults. Since Ian Fleming wrote for adults as if they were kids (not that he condescended to them or blunted his sometimes very adult themes, but he awakened the same sense of adventure in his readers typically embodied by children’s literature), it’s not surprising that reading the Young Bond books now, as an adult, gives me the exact same rush I got as a kid curled up under my covers at summer camp with a flashlight and a Signet paperback of an Ian Fleming novel.

By Royal Command starts off with a moody spy beginning good enough to satisfy any seasoned fan of the genre. A Russian spymaster enters an overstuffed bookshop in Lisbon, and confronts an agent, resulting in a fatal shooting. It’s a good set-up and a good setting; we’re off to a good start. From there we join our hero on a train bound for the Alps; he’s on his way to join up with an Eton-sponsored school ski trip attended by some other familiar characters from the series. On the train, Young Bond encounters some young Nazis (some Hitler Youth) and bests them at both cards and combat. One of them turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic, though, establishing that not all Germans are bad. I know that sounds simplistic, but actually it’s anything but. Many novels aimed at a young audience settle for an easy black and white view of the world; Higson’s is more textured and more honest. James’ train is bound for the Alpine resort village of Kitzbühel, where he will encounter plenty more good Germans–and good Austrians, including one who helps shape his life.

By Royal Command fills in some blanks that I’ve been anticipating since the Young Bond series began. One of the few glimpses Fleming ever offered of James Bond’s childhood (in the short story “Octopussy”) was his experience learning to ski from Hannes Oberhauser, so I’ve been waiting to meet Herr Oberhauser ever since SilverFin was announced. And here he is. It’s not quite what I’d imagined, but it is still rewarding to witness James’ interactions with one of his earliest mentors. However, since Higson’s Young Bond has always been such an independent character, it’s not surprising that he leaves this adult figure behind and gets into most of his scrapes on his own while in Kitzbühel.

Higson seems really big on telling stories of James Bond against the elements. In Hurricane Gold, it was jungle; this time it’s snow, as petty schoolboy squabbles leave James and his rival trapped atop the mountain after it's closed as a stormfront closes in. The problem with the lengthy ensuing survival course down the mountain is that there is no human antagonist. For me, James Bond works much better in stories of man (or boy) vs. man than stories of man vs. nature. But that’s personal preference. There’s no denying that Higson manages to make the latter quite exciting.

By Royal Command is divided into three parts, and follows a very Harry Potter-like formula: the boy hero has a lengthy adventure before getting to the familiar school setting, and then, once he gets there, time passes. This story unfolds across a whole school term, unlike some of the others which have been relegated to one vacation or even a three day period, as was the case in Double or Die. Part I takes place entirely in the Alps. After his survivalist adventure, James must remain behind to sufficiently recover in the care of Oberhauser and his family. Some of that recovery takes place at a hospital, where he stumbles upon the Thunderball movie plotline of two bandaged plastic surgery patients, presumably about to switch places. This is all intriguing, but James doesn’t really know what to make of it and neither do we, so while we’ve had some thrilling action sequences, there isn’t really enough plot happening yet by the time we finally get to Eton about 100 pages in. James has spent the majority of Part I being acted upon (by nature and by mysterious forces he doesn’t yet understand) rather than acting.

Part II, then, quickly makes up for that; this is the meat of the story. The plot that unfolds in this section involves not only more fascinating depictions of not-always-pleasant everyday life at Eton in that era (James takes an If-like beating from the bullying Head Boy that foreshadows his torment in Casino Royale... only on the other side of his anatomy, if you know what I mean), but also spies, Communists (including a returning antagonist from earlier in the series), historical figures (James’ first encounter with the future Majesty on whose Secret Service he later serves) and the whiff of Royal scandal. On top of all that, there’s that other major youthful event alluded to by Fleming, the trouble with the boys’ maid that we all know ultimately results in James’ expulsion from Eton. The maid in question is the beautiful Roan Power, an alluring slightly older woman who captivates Young Bond in ways that Fleming almost certainly never imagined or intended. In fact, she just might be a Communist agent. Roan exposes a side of James we haven’t seen in any of Higson’s previous novels, and it’s fascinating (though a little bit weird ) to witness James Bond at an awkward age, actually growing up!

Each of the three sections seems sort of self-contained. Part III, therefore, doesn’t feel quite wholly connected to the rest, but it sure is exciting! Part III thrusts James Bond into a John Buchan-type spy chase, and readers get to see the boy who will one day become the consummate professional in his field in an altogether different sub-genre of spy fiction: the innocent abroad, an amateur caught up in a conspiracy he doesn’t fully comprehend. Added onto this scenario, we get descriptions far more gruesome than anything Ian Fleming ever dreamed up when James has to retrieve a revolver from a rotting corpse, a fight with a hulking henchman that could have come right out of a Bond movie (specifically, Sean Connery’s fight with Pat Roach in Never Say Never Again comes to mind), a large scale gun battle involving hordes of British and Russian secret agents and the return of another villain from James’ past... with an Alpine castle lair. Of all of Higson’s books, By Royal Command is probably the most rollicking Boy’s Own adventure, and a worthy finale for the series–or at least the first cycle of the series, if Higson can be lured back for another round.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, though, I did have some problems with the book–most having to do with its final chapters. Therefore, I recommend not reading any further if you haven’t yet read By Royal Command, but intend to. I generally try to avoid venturing into this sort of SPOILER territory in my reviews, but here it’s necessary in order to contextualize the novel in the larger scope of James Bond stories. So you’ve been warned; proceed from here at your own risk


Unsurprisingly, James’ budding romance with the unwitting Communist agent Roan ends in tragedy. But what kind of tragedy? Higson seems to be setting things up in a way that would force James Bond to sell her out when his government asks him to entrap her. I liked where this was heading, and thought it was a stroke of genius to make Bond the betrayer for once, instead of the betrayed. It would be the opposite of the scenario in Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, in which Bond is betrayed by Vesper, a woman he loves. However, that setup turns out to be a red herring, and instead James does end up in the position of the betrayed once more... or for the very first time, I supposed. Not only that, but she ends up dying as well, and Young Bond loses the first of many doomed loves in his life. It’s a situation which older Bond fans (but perhaps not the young ones) have seen many times before: twice in Fleming (Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), twice again in Gardner (Death Is Forever and SeaFire) and revisited again in The Moneypenny Diaries, which take place in the aftermath of OHMSS. Therefore, Roan’s death is problematic. Having James Bond love and lose at so early an age in some ways diminishes the impact on him of Vesper’s death years later. After having his heart broken by Roan and Vesper, it’s a wonder poor Tracy ever had a chance! Then again, Higson does manage to engineer things so as to put Bond in the position (vis a vis women) that he’s in when he meets Vesper, to show us why he’s put up those walls she manages to break down–or the “armor,” as they say in the movie version. So it does work. I’m just a nitpicker. But I had to mention this potential problem. Continuity issues aside, however, By Royal Command is an excellent entry in and a fitting conclusion to the adventures of Young Bond, clearly laying a path to a future we’re all very familiar with...

Investigate past coverage of Young Bond on the Double O Section:

Cover image courtesy of Young Bond Dossier.

May 24, 2010

Tradecraft: Brosnan Plays Another Killer

Variety reports that Pierce Brosnan will play another hitman, after earning a Golden Globe nomination for his last turn as a hired killer in his first post-Bond work film, The Matador. According to the trade, the former James Bond has signed on to play "a hitman who goes undercover as a priest to get close to his target, a gangland traitor (Billy Bob Thornton). The hitman soon discovers that playing the good guy is more dangerous than being a mob killer." Giovanni Ribisi and Brosnan's Shattered costar, Maria Bello, co-star, and Walter Hill directs.  Brosnan's Irish Dreamtime partner Beau St. Clair is among the many producers. Professional killers are nothing new to Brosnan.  Besides the washed-up assassin he portrayed in The Matador and, of course, that British spy with a license to kill, he played an IRA hitman in one of his earliest screen roles in The Long Good Friday.

May 23, 2010

Movie Review: MacGruber (2010)

At first glance, MacGruber seems like a very strange movie to even exist. It’s a feature film spinoff of a Saturday Night Live sketch that usually runs under a minute and always ends with the characters blowing themselves up. Furthermore, the sketch is a parody of a TV show (MacGyver) itself two decades old, so the material is hardly timely! And the last SNL spinoff film that was successful–or funny–was Wayne’s World 2 in 1993. That said, writers Will Forte, Jorma Taccone and John Solomon and director Taccone have succeeded in turning MacGruber into a pretty entertaining comedy. They key was in basically ditching the MacGyver premise, and instead re-purposing the character to craft a parody of spy movies and action movies–especially the testosterone-fueled 1980s variety exemplified by such guilty pleasure schlock as Cobra, Commando and Rambo III. You could easily film the script of Cobra today with no alterations and make it a hilarious comedy, it’s so over-the-top and of-its-era. Probably sensing that, Taccone wisely lets a lot of the comedy in MacGruber flow from the mere use of genre cliches that require little augmentation to be funny. For example, the exchange “The game has changed!”/”But the players are the same,” dialogue which could easily come from a real action movie, is used twice–hilariously–with different inflections that call attention to the fact that the words themselves basically mean nothing.

The homoeroticism of those macho Eighties movies may be an easy target–but it’s impossible to resist and still funny. This is exploited primarily during a lengthy sequence early on in which MacGruber goes around recruiting his old, muscle-bound compatriots to build “a dream team of killer-stoppers” to combat the “dream team of killers” that’s been assembled by the villainous Von Kunthe (Val Kilmer). Kilmer himself (and his Eurotrash hair) is one of the funniest things about the movie, but he’s ultimately underused, which is a shame. I think Kilmer’s always been better at comedy than straightforward action. In fact, the wretched Saint movie that he starred in is the other sort of movie MacGruber sends up: trite, generic sub-Bond espionage actioners of the past few decades. To this end, we get some standard spy movie scenarios such as the “infiltrating the villain’s party” scene (mixed with a gaming table sequence that actually could have gone longer) and of course the tense “which wire do I cut?” bomb disarming scene. That one, like many of the film’s best gags, will already be familiar to anyone who’s seen the trailer, but it still generates laughs nonetheless. “There’s like a million wires here!” exclaims a flummoxed MacGruber when he busts open the compartment. “I’m more of a three wire guy.”

What’s the plot? Well, it really doesn’t matter, but basically MacGruber, a proudly-mulleted former Navy Seal, Army Ranger and Green Beret who was the best of the best but has been in living in self-imposed exile ever since Von Kunthe murdered his wife on their wedding day, is called back to secret active duty by a Pentagon bigwig (Powers Boothe) and paired with Breach’s Ryan Phillippe as a younger, straightlaced agent/soldier (the movie doesn’t really distinguish between the military and intelligence communities) to stop Von Kunthe from doing whatever he’s planning on doing with a stolen nuclear warhead. This takes him from one locations to another (designated by beepy text across the screen) in his red Miata in what seems like a matter of seconds. Along the way he hooks up with a synth-based musician/lyricist/love interest named Vicki St. Elmo (the always-funny Kristen Wiig) with a penchant for outdated Eighties fashion to match his own. All of this is accompanied by the appropriate sort of Eighties rock soundtrack that could easily have accompanied Cobra itself, played mostly on MacGruber’s old-school removable car stereo, which he dutifully removes every time he parks.

While some of the subtler jokes prove to be the funniest (the rapid, unexplained changes of location, the poster-sized portrait of Ronald Reagan right out of Cobra’s office, the smoke and fire and sax-filled warehouse where MacGruber toils away with a blowtorch to create the ultimate push-pin arsenal), the movie is also heavy on sophomoric, scatological humor–and that generally works too. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at the image of Forte prancing around with a stick of celery sticking out of his butt–or a later callback to that image–in one of the odder jabs at MacGyver’s penchant for “making life-saving inventions out of household materials.”

There’s certainly nothing profound or even particularly intelligent in MacGruber (and I've probably devoted more words to it than the film really deserves), but as a silly send-up, it’s better than it has any right to be. It’s not as smart, sharp or spy-specific a parody as OSS 117: Lost in Rio (and if you only see one parody this summer, it should be that one), but MacGruber is still a pretty entertaining night at the movies (or, more appropriately, DVD rental), particularly if you have any affinity for those Eighties Stallone movies.
Ian Fleming Publications Teases Mysterious New Project points out a mysterious teaser that's appeared on Ian Fleming Publications' official website.  All it says is "Project X" with a 007 logo in the middle of the O, and there's a clock counting down the hours and the minutes until Ian Fleming's birthday, May 28.  So, presumably some sort of announcement will be made on that day about a new James Bond project.  Is it another Young Bond announcement?  A new adult James Bond novel?  A short story collection?  A special timepiece?  Speculation abounds (especially on the CBn Forums), but nobody knows for sure, so we'll just have to wait with bated breath until Friday to find out.  However, since IFP controls the literary James Bond copyright, I think it's safe to assume that the project is literary in nature. Personally, I'm crossing my fingers for either that rumored trade edition of Talk of the Devil (the collection of previously unpublished Fleming material currently available only as an extremely pricey luxury edition) or a collection of specially commissioned 007 short stories by varied and respected authors...

May 22, 2010

Frank Marshall Developing Another Ludlum Franchise?

Dark Horizons points the way to a story on Pajiba saying that Bourne producer Frank Marshall is keen to develop–and potentially direct–a new Robert Ludlum franchise for Universal based on the author's Covert-One series.  Covert-One was one of those series so popular in the late 90s and early 2000s created by a big name author whose name could be splashed across the cover, but written by or "with" a succession of other writers.  (Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler both figureheaded such series as well.)  I always assumed that the name writers in question had little to do with these series beyond cashing a paycheck, but Ludlum's first co-writer, Gayle Lynds (a very popular spy novelist in her own right) has an interesting article on her website about working with Ludlum that would seem to dispel such cynicism.  This excerpt, for example, would certainly seem to indicate a legitimate collaboration between two talented spy writers:
Because Bob did not type, and no one can write a book on the phone, we did everything by hard copy, passing the manuscript back and forth, which worked out rather well. Each of us had idiosyncracies. For instance, Bob disliked naming weapons. On the other hand, when I do the research, I like to share interesting bits with the reader. So the compromise was that we named the weapons of which I was most fond.
Reading that makes me think that perhaps I should give this series (or at least its early entries) a try one day! The first Covert-One novel, The Hades Factor (with Lynds), was published in 2001.  Presumably Ludlum also had some input in 2001's The Cassandra Compact (with Philip Shelby), but it's difficult to say how much involvement the late author could have had with the six further posthumous novels in the series.  (The newest, The Infinity Affair, by James H. Cobb, is due out next year.)  I suppose it's possible that he did at least outline a number of plots for the series while he was still alive.

Anyway, why would Marshall choose to develop a series the majority of whose novels seem unlikely to have had much actual Ludlum input?  Well, for one thing, Marshall has never stuck close to the author's texts with the Bourne series, so that probably doesn't matter too much to him.  But there is another reason that's bound to make Covert-One attractive to the producer/director, and to Captivate Entertainment, the Universal-based production company that controls the rights to Ludlum's estate: Covert-One is an obvious franchise.  Ludlum himself didn't author many series, and the ones that he did (excluding his parodic "Road" novels) are already spoken for: the three Bourne novels, and the two Materese books.  Obviously (especially given the success of the Matt Damon Bourne films), the idea of a series with ten titles to cull from must be a very appealing one. 

The Covert-One novels center on a team of scientific specialists recruited from various branches of the military and intelligence community tasked with thwarting the most dangerous conspiracies threatening America and the world.  The Hades Factor was previously adapted into a miniseries for CBS in 2006, starring Stephen Dorff.  (The subseqent DVD cover was obviously designed to attract Bourne fans.)  That shouldn't stop Marshall from remaking the story, however; The Bourne Identity had also been a miniseries before it was a film.

Whatever the source, I'm always thrilled to read about a new Robert Ludlum property being developed as a film.  We can now add this one to a long list that includes The Matarese Circle (apparently stalled along with the next Bond movie due to MGM's troubles), The Parsifal Mosaic, The Chancellor Manuscript, The Sigma Protocol, that remake of The Osterman Weekend and a potential fourth Bourne film.  I just wish that one of them would get past the development stage and actually get made, though!  Maybe this Covert-One movie will be the one.

Meanwhile, the next of Eric Van Lustbader's Bourne continuation novels, The Bourne Objective (good title), comes out on June 1.  I haven't read any of those (and don't really have any interest in them), but it's hard to believe there have been five of them already, far exceeding Ludlum's own output about the character.

May 21, 2010

As 24's Clock Ticks Down, The Show Reaches New Heights

Is it just me, or did 24 suddenly get awesome again just as it prepares to wind down?  Last night's episode fully lived up to all the promise the series showed way back in its earliest hours.  After sagging terribly in the middle of this season (as it usually does), the show has become re-vitalized and riveting in recent weeks as rogue agent Jack Bauer has become more and more unhinged.  And this week they turned him into a monster, which was an amazing technique!  He's still the hero, but we saw him mostly from the point of view of his enemies–or, more appropriately, his victims–this week.  First we heard chilling reports of how he had not only killed one of their men, but eviscerated him.  What kind of TV hero does that?  Then Jack put on some full body armor, including an opaque black mask that made him look like The Shape from John Carpenter's classic slasher flick Haloween.  His target was in an armored limosuine, which Jack managed to trap inside a tunnel.  Then Jack, clad head to toe in his black armor and armed to the teeth with with pistols, grenades and semi-automatic assault rifles, moved slowly and purposefully down the tunnel toward his terrified victim.  The target's security detail shot off rounds at the approaching monster, but he kept coming, like Michael Meyers–an unstoppable force.  From inside the armored car, we saw this terrifying, Darth Vader-ish figure launch his methodical attack.  The horrified victim even got one of those Halloween close-up looks at his assailant's emotionless, implacable face: the face of a mask.  Then the Jack monster fired enough rounds at the limo's armored rear windshield to fracture it, and finished the job with his boot.  We see it all from inside the car, like the kids in the jeep as the T-Rex attacks in Jurassic Park.  (Or the scenes where some college students in a car are terrorized by a masked killer in Scream 2.) And its horrifying!  Finally, this monstrous force tosses a gas grenade in through the hole, puts his foot over the opening, and watches inscrutably as his victims are forced to pour out of the vehicle and into his grasp.  It was one of the most well-directed, original, exciting and legitimately scary sequences I've seen on TV all year!  Another standout sequence (also played like a horror film) skipped over Jack's real-time carnage and instead showed us the aftermath in a slow pan across the body-strewn scene of the chaos, revealing Jack's grisley handiwork and ending with a particularly surprising image. Again, very original stuff! Good for 24.  I always rooted for it to make a return to form.  Hopefully next week's series finale won't disappoint.
First Look At The Latest Version Of Nikita

The CW's Nikita upfront trailer looks... okay.

Slightly more promising is the trailer.  It looks like they've got Alias' sex appeal quotient, but have they got the quality?  Hard to tell, as of yet...

I guess we'll find out this fall! 
The OSS 117 Connection: COBRAS Coverage Of Hubert

Let's take a look at some past coverage of OSS 117 at some of my fellow COBRAS' blogs. Philippe Lombard, who penned the excellent booklet on Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath that's included with the French Gaumont DVD box set, did a highly informative series last year on his Quantum of Bond blog examining (in French, but with lots of pictures) the many connections between the OSS 117 series and the James Bond series. You'll be surprised at how many actors overlapped!  David Foster at Permission to Kill has reviewed OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo and OSS 117: Murder For Sale. The HMSS Weblog has a guest review of OSS 117: Rio ne repond plusUna Plaga de Espias has illustrted dossiers (in Spanish) on the OSS 117 novels Travail sans filet by Jean Bruce and Pruneaux a Lugano pour OSS 117 by Josette Bruce. Mister 8 did a post about OSS 117 paperback covers by illustrator Dick Bruna.  And Christopher Mills at Spy-Fi Channel profiled two actresses from OSS 117: Murder For Sale in his Spy Vixens Week: Margaret Lee and Luciana Paluzzi.  While you're there, be sure to poke around and explore all of these wonderful blogs.  (And, webmasters, please let me know if I've overlooked any other major coverage of the character on COBRAS sites; if I have, I apologize!)

May 20, 2010

Battle Of The Spies At Mister 8

I'm sorry that I'm only getting around to mentioning this as the first round of voting wraps up, but there are still more rounds to come.  Armstrong at fellow COBRAS blog Mister 8 has been running a really fun "May Madness" bracket where readers vote on the winner in a number of spy-vs-spy pairings.  Match-ups so far have included James Bond vs. Tara Chace (I voted for Tara and thought she was an underdog, but a Tweet from Greg Rucka apparently turned the tide), Jason Bourne vs. Cate Archer (not being a gamer, the choice for Bourne was an easy one for me), Steed and Mrs. Peel vs. OSS 117 (obviously I have a lot of fondness for OSS 117, but it can't come close to the love I have for The Avengers!), the men from U.N.C.L.E vs. the Get Smart crew (a tougher one, but I ultimately went with Solo and Kuryakin), Nick Fury vs. the I Spy guys (Nick Fury was an easy choice for me, but I Spy is currently winning), John Drake vs. George Smiley (a really tough choice, but I had to go with the Secret Agent Man), Jim Phelps' Impossible Missions Force against CTU's Jack Bauer (IMF, obviously!), and, finally, Harry Palmer vs. Jack Ryan (sorry, Jack, but there's no contest).  You can still cast your own votes in some of these contests, and be sure to check back frequently over the coming weeks to vote in the various play-offs.  I hope Armstrong does this again next year, because I'd love to see how some of the other Eurospy heroes fared against one another.  (Joe Walker vs. Jerry Cotton! OSS 117 vs. 077!  The Tiger vs. Coplan! Etc.) 

May 19, 2010

Wednesday's Contest Winner

Congratulations to today's final winner in the weeklong (plus) OSS 117 movie poster giveaway: Warren Thomas, of North Carolina.  Warren joins all the other winners as the new owner of a fabulous US one-sheet for OSS 117: Lost in Rio, courtesy of Music Box Films. Thank you to everyone else who entered, and entered multiple times using my complicated codeword rules.  I'm sorry you couldn't all win, but stick around; there will be other opportunities to win other great spy-related prizes very soon. A new contest is always just around the corner at the Double O Section!