Ian Fleming was a man who liked his cigarettes and alcohol. When he died of a massive heart attack in 1964, he was only 56. The James Bond canon was a best-selling one and two of the Bond films, Dr No and From Russia With Love had become runaway successes. Fleming had left behind a dashing, macho, misogynistic hero of the 1950s with unlimited potential, and the Fleming estate had a problem on its hands.

To wit: how to sustain the Bond franchise and keep James Bond relevant for the changing times with only a limited number of books, given the burgeoning demand for James Bond’s adventures?

The Cat With Eight Lives

In spite of the worldwide popularity that the films enjoy, the Fleming estate has struggled with how it wants the James Bond legacy to be in print. Soon after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis was commissioned to write Colonel Sun in 1968. This was followed by novelisations of Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and The Moonraker by Christopher Wood.

John Gardner wrote License Renewed in 1981 and fifteen other Bond novels, the last one in 1996. Raymond Benson wrote Zero Minus Ten in 1997. Enter Sebastian Faulks in 2008 with a story set in the 1960s titled Devil May Care. In 2011 came Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche. William Boyd’s Solo was published in 2013.

And finally, in 2015, Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis is out. Horowitz could well be the best candidate for the job, being the one writer who has successfully appropriated the voices of other great writers, be it Agatha Christie, Hergé (on film) or Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Plot

Trigger Mortis is a “sequel” to Goldfinger. The story takes up where Goldfinger left off, with Pussy Galore comfortably holed up in Bond’s flat in Chelsea. Ian Fleming came from the school of thought that all that lesbian women needed was a bit of heterosexual love to go straight. Horowitz, being a product of our time, perhaps felt the pressure of Fleming’s chauvinism weighing on his shoulders.

Therefore, James Bond gets dumped by not one but two women as they hook up and Pussy dumps Bond to set up with her new beau in her Harlem digs. Horowitz’s Pussy Galore is feisty and a great deal of fun, with great potential to liven up the book. But the altar of political correctness demands its sacrifices.

This little nod to continuity and current sensibilities aside, the first part of the story is about a race in Nurburgring in which James Bond must participate in order to protect a leading British racer from SMERSH, who wish to assassinate him to prove Russian superiority at all cost. This was a bit of Fleming’s own work, written for a TV series, that Horowitz decides to use as a springboard for his story. It’s fast-paced and a hypnotic set-piece to read. Even the Korean villain is intriguing with his terrifying Hanafuda cards.

Exit Pussy, enter Jeopardy. Jeopardy Lane, the uber-modern Bond girl, poses as a journalist but is anything but one, of course. She rescues Bond, holds her own in the action sequences, refuses his advances, in short, cuts the macho man down to size. By the time the exuberant first half ends, I am enjoying myself hugely.

Can I deal with this new Bond? Horowitz’s masterstroke of presenting Bond with a fait accompli when it comes to women (strong and independent and not in love with him), unwanted sex (there is zero room for doubt, mister – you get the sofa) and gay men (old friends) is convincing.

So far, Horowitz gets my vote for the most successful appropriation of Fleming’s voice.

But the second half of the book disappoints. For all Horowitz’s criticism of Fleming on pace, I find the book fundamentally gets its pace wrong. The plot is good, but develops too slowly. Apart from a sequence where Bond is buried alive, the action isn’t gripping enough and the climax is too long drawn out.

Ah, but this is classic Horowitz, I hear you demur: there must be enough in the plot to merit the size, after all, the sheer twists and turns would make it long. I am afraid I shall have to disappoint you. Bond villains are never secret, so you know them all pretty much in the first quarter of the book. Bond girls eventually succumb to his charm, or he to theirs; it really is a question of who does the dumping (she does, by the way). So this is a classic linear plot. What on earth could take it so long to reach its conclusion? Here are my quibbles with the book.

Pace in a story is a tricky thing; it demands its own loyalty
Too much of description, an over-investment in the beauty of detail or precision, and the story loses out on pace. Perhaps this is why the best thrillers are somewhat slapdash when re-read. It is a willing conspiracy between the author and the reader where the action is a pencil sketch with broad strokes, leaving the reader to fill in the details with her own imagination. Fleming packed his action-riddled plots in books of a mere 50,000 words; Horowitz’s book is a bloated 100,000-plus words. He feels like an interloper who elbows aside your favourite storyteller only to take twice as long to tell the story.

Why oh why, does Horowitz give up the trump card of the best Bond girl ever?
What Pussy Galore would have done with her feisty fierceness is inject some much needed elan in the story. True equality would have lain in understanding her potential as a powerful character and in letting her be. Jeopardy Lane, for all her waif-like charm concealing a tough agent which conceals a charming waif, is not nearly as much fun. And there is too much soul searching and explaining with the whole sex thing. Do it, don’t do it, just don’t navel gaze with your readers, we like our Bond characters decisive. This is not a romance.

Evil is a charismatic thing and gets diluted with too much explanation
This is a great pity, for Jason Sin, the Korean arch villain, starts off really well. He burns all the eyes out in portraits with cigarettes, for one thing. The Hanafuda playing cards of death are a master stroke in horror inducing arch-villain eccentricity. But the back story explaining how he turned into a monster humanises him and spoils it for the readers, for Bond books demand an over the top villain. Allowing the reader to see the human being behind the villain is a noble thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily help the pace. I also felt that Jason Sin was let down by his rather pedestrian death and destruction plan. A true arch villain must have a grand vision. Evil, yes – but grand

My Bond, Your Bond
Who is the James Bond of our imagination? Is he Ian Fleming’s agent harking from the 1950s – or the Bond that we saw in our formative years on film? For a lot of James Bond fans and new readers, the latter being essential to the growth of the Fleming estate, his reel persona is iconic James Bond; for Fleming loyalists, no other Bond but the original will do. The Bond of films is largely a frivolous action character. Ian Fleming’s Bond is a dark, serious secret agent.

Horowitz’s greatest conundrum is to resolve which Bond he wishes to bring into existence. The challenges are many: is a writer to set Bond in Bond’s time or in the present? Should the voice of the book be the author’s own or the author writing as Fleming? The estate seems to favour – if continuity of the contract is any benchmark – books that force Bond into the current time, the Bond of cinema, perhaps because Bond’s enduring success now lies in his films. Critics, however, universally lean towards Ian Fleming’s Bond, the James Bond of the original canon, in adventures set in the past.

Horowitz has given us a James Bond of that period, identifiably close to Fleming’s Bond, but tailored to our modern sensibilities. It is one hell of a tricky balance to achieve and he has nearly pulled it off. Nearly.