William Boyd’s first attempt at a James Bond novel is a pleasant surprise, proving that a great Bond thriller can be produced without simply mimicking the voice of Ian Fleming. Solo is lively and more subtle than previous writers’ attempts at the job (Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver), and while it doesn’t leave out the sex or suits, Boyd rises above the trappings that can come with James Bond to produce a more impressive and exciting novel than you might expect.
You can hear the voice of a true James Bond fan in Boyd’s prose throughout Solo, and one who grew up reading Fleming’s books under the duvet with a torch rather than just having watched the films. He has a great deal of fun with his protagonist, with women in catsuits and expensive booze flowing throughout the novel’s opening chapters, playing with a few details in a way that might disturb some aficionados, adding small elements of his own to the character that bring him slightly more up to date without ever losing the kitsch that people love about all things Bond.
The plot itself isn’t fantastic; one suspects that if Boyd had spent more time crafting this element of the novel rather than fine-tuning the historical detail and pandering to Bond fans then it could be been more to the standard of his previous novels. Once 007 leaves London and sets off for the fictitious African country of Zanzarim, some confusion sets in, with battle scenes and civil war stealing the focus, and when things then shift to America and Bond indeed goes ‘solo’, things get a tad convoluted. Still, one suspects this is down to a rushed publishing deadline and given how entertaining the majority of Solo is, and how big the task at hand was for Boyd, they’re fairly minor issues. If Boyd carries on writing Bond novels for the Fleming estate it seems he has the potential to produce some truly exciting stuff.