I’ve talked before on the site about how much I love James Bond. He’s an immensely problematic character, whose adventures can get more and more awkward to experience as society progresses. But there’s not really anything you can do about that, because it’s not like Ian Fleming was the most progressive person on the planet, and he was writing these stories in the 50’s, which were also not a particularly progressive time period. It’s all historical context. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it. Really any version of the character has some issues, because there’s a lot of baggage to unpack with him, since as Judy Dench’s M puts it, he’s a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold war.” That’s pretty spot on. But I still have an undying affection for the character and his ridiculous adventures, so I try to get around to experiencing any story he’s a part of. So, since there’s been a new Bond novel in the last year, it’s inevitable that I was going to check it out.
And before I actually get into the new novel, Trigger Mortis, I feel like there’s something we need to accept about James Bond novels. Most of them aren’t that great. I have a real affection for the Ian Fleming ones, but there are certainly some pretty bad stories in that run. And things didn’t get much better after he died. Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun is actually pretty good, and was largely based on notes Fleming left behind, basically making it an unofficial Fleming novel. Then we got the John Gardner books throughout the 80s, and they’re pretty mediocre. Gardner decided to just do what the movies were doing, and continued telling Bond stories through the 80s, just the continuing adventures of our hero. Raymond Benson was next up, and he did the same basic thing, taking Bond through the late 90s and the early 2000s, and most of his novels are actually pretty interesting. He was the first Bond writer I read after Fleming, and I do have some nostalgia for his stories. But after Benson stopped writing Bond novels we haven’t had a consistent Bond writer since, and everyone who has followed has kind of done their own thing, which has led to very mixed results. Sebastian Faulks wrote Devil May Care in 2008, and basically just tried to write a Fleming style Bond, set in the 60s, and it was alright. Then Jeffery Deaver did Carte Blanche, which tried to pull a Casino Royale and reboot the series in the modern world, which worked shockingly well, I kind of dug it. But apparently that didn’t catch on, and William Boyd took a stab with Solo in 2013, putting Bond in the early 70s while Bond deals with being in his mid-40s, and I found that novel incredibly rambling and dull. So what does Anthony Horowitz do with his take on the character?
Well he does something that I think may be the best idea, and sets the story during the Fleming run, like it was a forgotten story that he just never got around to. There wasn’t a lot of connective tissue between the Fleming Bond books, generally, so I think the idea of just saying this was another adventure he had in between books makes a lot of sense. The book even does something that I’ve never read before in a Bond novel, and shows you what happens to the Bond Girl after the adventure wraps. Because this new novel takes place immediately after Goldfinger. Now, I’m sure we’re all familiar with the plot of Goldfinger the film, which is pretty similar to the novel, but there’s something majorly different about the character of Pussy Galore. Look, it’s a ridiculous name, obviously, but there was a much bigger issue with the character in the novel that didn’t get explored in the movie, and really was just a symptom of a larger issue Ian Fleming clearly had. In the novel Pussy was the leader of a specifically lesbian Mafia (?) and she was a lesbian throughout the novel. Until she met James Bond, and he “fixed” her. Yeesh. Fleming had a lot of issues with lesbian’s guys. And this book follows up Goldfinger by showing Bond and Pussy leaving America after the raid on Fort Knox, and go back to London to date for a while, Which goes disastrously, because Bond quickly realizes he has nothing in common with her, and they just kind of drift apart. Sad. Luckily though M calls Bond up with a new mission, which is a great excuse for Bond to ditch the woman he convinced to cross the Atlantic ocean with. Turns out there’s an upcoming international car-race at a course in Germany called the Nurburgring, and it’s assumed that the British driver will win. However, M thinks that the evil Russian organization SMERSH is going to kill the British driver and have their driver win, proving how great Communism is. It’s a pretty weird impetus for Bond to start investigating, but hey the novel of Moonraker starts because M is pretty sure Hugo Drax is cheating at card, which warranted Bond investigating him and finding out he has a crazy rocket plot, so I guess we just trust M’s hunches now.
So Bond ditches Pussy and head out to learn how to race cars, because logically he should infiltrate the race and pretend to be a professional racer. He meets up with a woman named Logan Fairfax, whose an expert racer and who starts training Bond how to race. We essentially get a training montage in literary form as Bond learns how to drive well and has awkward sexual tension with Logan. But when he’s all prepared to race the plot takes a slight turn when Pussy shows up, apparently bored hanging out by herself in London, and she ends up getting kidnapped by acquaintances of Golfinger, who bring her out into the woods and paint her gold. Bond saves her, brings her to a doctor, and the next day Pussy and Logan, who is also a lesbian, decide to leave and go live in America together. And with that odd interaction Bond heads out to the race where he immediately sees the sketchy Russian driver talking with a known SMERSH agent, and a prominent Korean businessman named Jai Seong Sing, who white people call Jason Sin. That raises some red flags for Bond, but the race is at hand, so he goes through with it, and causes a crazy car accident to stop the Russian and let the British driver win. Case closed!
Except it’s not. After the crazy accident Bond is invited over to Jason Sin’s castle in Germany, where Bond immediately starts snooping around. He ends up finding a secret office where Sin has photographs of what appear to be Korean scientists making an American rocket. Bond also runs into a woman named Jeopardy Lane at the party, who is also investigating Sin, and since her name is more ridiculous than Logan Fairfax, she’s our Bond Girl. The two escape Sin’s castle, and head off to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately Jeopardy steals the photos of the rocket and vanishes while Bond’s asleep, so he comes away with nothing. Bond goes to talk to M, and they decide that Sin must be working with SMERSH to mess with American rocket launches; even though Bond himself mentions that’s the exact same plot as Dr. No. But whatever, Bond heads to America and starts to unravel the crazy plot. Turns out Sin has a man on the inside of NASA, who has sabotaged the latest launch, and also broken a system that’s called Trigger Mortis, which would cause a rocket that loses control to explode so it doesn’t destroy a town or something when it lands. And that’s exactly what Sin wants. He’s created a fake shuttle, and has planned an elaborate scheme to smuggle it underneath New York City, along with a huge mound of plastic explosive. He plans to blow it up, destroying a lot of Manhattan, and causing the population to assume it was the rocket, making America lose faith in the space program so Russia can win the Space Race. But, since it’s a James Bond story, that doesn’t happen, and after being buried alive and joining the ranks of Beatrix Kiddo and Batman, James Bond climbs out of his own buried coffin, and stops Sin, saving the world.
So yeah, it’s a James Bond book. A pretty boiler-plate James Bond movie. It follows the tropes, checks off the boxes, and does a pretty good job at recreating the feeling that Ian Fleming put in his original novels. The whole thing with the race-track was even based on notes Fleming had made for a future Bond novel, which goes a long way to getting the tone right. But that’s not always a good thing. I liked this book, I didn’t love it, and kind of like Spectre, it goes right in the middle of the pack with the other James Bond books. There are parts I really liked, and parts I really didn’t, that ended up created an enjoyable, but forgettable little James Bond adventure. I really liked the idea of putting it in the Fleming time-line as a forgotten James Bond tale, and I think having Pussy Galore show up was pretty fun, and kind of fixed a bit of the problematic nature of her character arc in the Goldfinger novel. I honestly kind of feel like James Bond works best in that time period, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Daniel Craig run of Bond movies, I would really love them to remain period-pieces. Keeping James Bond in a contemporary setting requires a lot of hoops to jump through the keep updating the character, where I feel it would be much easier to just keep him in the Cold War where he makes the most sense. And I would love to see a Bond movie, set in the 50s, that features a crazy car-race plot. I loved that premise. But the book started to fall flat after the race was over. I know it sounds crazy to have hoped that the entire plot was about a fixed auto-race, but the original novels were often pretty low stakes. Live and Let Die was about smuggling pirate gold and You Only Live Twice was about a suicide castle. So keeping it in this low of stakes would have been fine with me, but then the book suddenly becomes a different story when Jason Sin and his rocket plan shows up. It was just structured strangely. The car race takes up like a third of the novel, and then doesn’t really have much bearing on the rest of the novel, other than introducing Sin. It’s just strange. And Sin was pretty boring. He did have one amazing character trait, where he had a deck of cards with various methods of death on them, which he makes people draw how they’re going to die. That was pretty great. And I loved Bond getting buried alive and escaping to enact vengeance. But the rocket plot was just odd. It was just so similar to Dr. No, which was so strange, because like I said, Bond even mentions that. It was just a really rambling book, which was something that Fleming ran into a lot too. The book obviously doesn’t dive in with Fleming’s racism and sexism, but it still adheres just a bit too strongly to his formula. I love having a Bond in the 50s, in Fleming’s time-line, but you don’t need to make a novel that’s exactly like one of his. Do your own thing, using the same toychest. As it stands it just felt like a pale imitation of Fleming, instead of a new Bond novel from a new voice. And in the end the book just ended up being kind of dull. That first third was pretty great, and I was really getting into it, but when it abruptly became a different story, I kind of fell off. If you like Bond, you’ll enjoy it, it’s a pretty good classic Bond story, it just had a lot of potential it didn’t reach.
Trigger Mortis was written by Anthony Horowitz and released by Orion Publishing, 2015.
Categories: Page Turners