Asked why he wanted to be a writer William Boyd once said “I suspect that I saw a film which had a writer in it…. And as he got up from his typewriter, mixed himself a drink and stepped onto a balcony and looked out at Malibu beach or something, I thought, “That is the life for me!” If you alter the location to Miami or Jamaica or perhaps Royale les-Eaux in northern France this could almost be a description from a James Bond novel.In William Boyd’s James Bond novel, Solo, set in 1969, 007 is dispatched by M to stop a war in the fictional state of Zanzarim in West Africa. It’s a neat device. With the exception of a brief sojourn to Sierra Leone on the trail of smuggled stones in Diamonds are Forever, Fleming never wrote a Bond book set on the continent. It also allows Boyd, who has been adamant that he is writing his own book using Fleming’s characters, not some kind of literary pastiche, to return to the continent that’s the setting for several of his own novels from his 1981 debut, A Good Man in Africa to An Ice-Cream War and Brazzaville Beach Boyd, in fact, was born in Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria where his father worked as a doctor. It was back at home, at prep school, that he first encountered his literary hero.Aged just 11 or 12 the then scandalous book From Russia With Love (Fleming’s fifth and a huge seller after JFK said it was one of his favourite novels) captivated Boyd, getting him addicted to what he’s succinctly described as the “now familiar blend of snobbery, sex, ludicrous violence, exotic travel and superior consumer goods.”It’s largely, of course, thanks to Ian Fleming that spying is a vocation that we’ve come to associate with high octane glamour. But the fiction, if not the films, occasionally pause the carnage and seduction to tell a slightly different, less deluded, story. In On His Majesty’s Secret Service, looking at an idyllic scene on the beach in Royale, we find Bond in uncharacteristically pensive mood: “What a long time ago they were, those spade and bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles and Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and fizzy lemonade! Impatiently Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long closed file.Today he was a grown up man, a man with years of dirty, dangerous memories, a spy.”Boyd’s Solo, in particular it’s pitch-perfect opening, when we encounter Bond nursing a spectacular hangover after celebrating his 45th birthday, is full of wit. He comes around to the idea of modern fashion when he understands that it means he gets to see girls’ nipples through their clothes at Picasso’s on the King’s Road and fantasizes about unzipping the cat suit of an actress he meets in the lift of the Dorchester.Boyd’s Bond is also Fleming’s at his most complicated, perfectly attuned to those occasional yet haunting bouts of doubt, conscience and even vulnerability. You think, in particular, of the hard drinking, careless and frankly ropey Bond of You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun, when Fleming presented Bond as destroyed by the death of his wife, Tracy Bond, who he meets and marries in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.As well as powerful sense of the danger he presents to women with whom he becomes involved, Boyd’s Bond is haunted by dreams about his active service in World War 2. This is an aspect of his character’s past which Fleming himself never really explored in any detail and it’s a thoughtful and interesting addition to Bond’s biography. In Zanzarim, too, Bond’s mind is as much on the humanitarian horror he witnesses as on the brutal task in hand. Without giving anything away, the plot moves between London, Africa and Washington and if you are concerned that this new incarnation sounds soft, there is plenty of horrific violence and a perfectly revolting villain in the form of a mercenary, Kobus Breed, complete with a missing cheekbone and permanently watering eye.For the Fleming estate persuading a writer of Boyd’s talents to write a Bond book is a real coup and as a work of fiction, Solo is the pretty near perfect culmination of a lifelong fascination with Bond and with Fleming. Such is Boyd’s interest in Fleming that he even allowed him a cameo in one of his best loved novels Any Human Heart, published in 2002 and recently adapted by Boyd in the BAFTA winning screen version starring Matthew McFadyen and Hayley Atwell. The hero, Logan Mountstuart, is a diarist, journalist and aspiring man of letters who not only meets Fleming but is also recruited by him to work in the Naval Intelligence Division during the war. GQ Magazine
Spanning three continents, Bond’s new mission takes an unexpected turn whilst in Africa, forcing him to go ‘solo’ on a trip to America. Boyd comments on his choice of title: ‘In my novel, events conspire to make Bond go off on a self-appointed mission of his own, unannounced and without any authorization – and he’s fully prepared to take the consequences of his audacity.’
In Solo, Boyd returns to classic, literary Bond: James Bond the human being, not James Bond the superagent. Whilst naturally there will be cocktails, cars and women, Boyd will reveal the man behind the icon, from his emotions, quirks and flaws, to his sartorial taste.