Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Critical Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz

With Original Material by Ian Fleming

New York: HarperCollins, 2015, pp. 320.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

In taking on Bond Anthony Horowitz largely dispenses with the idea of attempting to emulate Fleming's prose, or his treatment of Bond's interiority. Instead, in this story set back in the literary Bond's '50s-era heyday, he focuses on producing as "Flemingesque" a story as he possibly can, not only utilizing the formula that had largely emerged by the time of works like Dr. No and Goldfinger, but also incorporating numerous smaller themes (from World War Two legacies to unflattering comments about American aesthetics).

This approach has an obvious appeal, but also some real limitations--all the more striking in light of the limitations of the material he is looking to emulate. Fleming himself reused a number of his major ideas in his period writing the Bond novels, so that attempting to repeat them yet again carries real risks. Moreover, plausibility and nuance were not usually features of his political scenarios.

The latter in particular is evident in Fleming's most direct contribution to this specific work, a Soviet scheme to stage a fatal accident for British racing champion Lancy Smith during a race. Their purpose is to permit a Soviet entry into the same competition to emerge victor, and thus "demonstrate the superiority of Soviet engineering." A fairly silly conception, its believability relies entirely on the readiness to believe the Soviets are not just monstrous, but completely nuts--a thing they were depicted as being time and again in Fleming's novels (in Moonraker, in Goldfinger, their schemes entailed an idiotic indifference to consequences), and which Bond flatly declares them to be here, Bond having no difficulty believing in the suspected sabotage plot because it seems to him simply another "example of the utter cold-bloodedness and contempt that seemed to be built into the Slavic race."

Setting aside the offensiveness of such sentiments (and the unintended irony in them--just who's really contemptuous here?), similar problems are quite evident in the villain and the scheme at the heart of this book's plot. "Jason Sin" (the colorful but unfortunate Anglicization of Jai Seung Sin) is very much in the line of Fleming villains--a foreigner and ethnic Other who arrived in a Western country in the aftermath of wartime chaos, and in a short time (and by suspect means) amassed a large fortune, despite which he has kept his past a closed book, while in the present question marks hang over his sex life that imply something outside heteronormative expectations. Moreover, despite a complete lack of personal connection to the Soviet bloc, or interest in Soviet ideology, he is in the service of SMERSH, on whose behalf he will employ advanced technology in a plan intended to harm the English-speaking powers at the heart of the Western alliance. Indeed, his East Asian background, pretensions to wielding the power of death over others, and involvement with rocketry recall Dr. No (while, given how this is all coming on the heels of Goldfinger, one can hardly overlook that he is specifically Korean). His war-related grudge (and again, interest in rocketry) recall Drax.1 His status as an ethnic outsider in the United States, his base in the New York area, and his accidie, all recall Mr. Big.1

Given so much of what we have seen before the character and premise cannot but seem derivative. It may be claimed that Horowitz's combination of familiar features makes this all feel fresher than it is--but it also makes it less coherent, the whole not geling together convincingly. The result is that despite the aura of intrigue with which Horowitz imbues Sin in his early appearances (his use of cards in determining the punishments of his enemies is an interesting variant on the old theme), in the end he is less engaging than the various particular madnesses from which his character was derived.

Much the same can be said for the villain's plans. In Dr. No, No suggests something rather similar to Sin's plot when he says that going beyond jamming the radio signals guiding American rocket tests to bringing those rockets down on Western cities:
"They would land on Havana, on Kingston . . . on Miami. Even without warheads, Mister Bond, five tons of metal arriving at a thousand miles an hour can cause plenty of damage in a crowded town . . . There would be panic, a public outcry. The experiments would have to cease . . . And how much would Russia pay for that to happen, Mister Bond? . . . Shall we say ten million dollars for the whole operation? Twenty million? It would be a priceless victory in the armaments race. I could name my figure."
Here, instead of an actual rocket coming down, there would be just a suggestive plant of evidence at the scene of a disaster, a less plausible variation on an already implausible idea bespeaking diminishing returns.

These particular weaknesses makes the flaws of the handling of the material more difficult to overlook. Certain aspects of the villain's character seem underdeveloped--Sin's revelations about himself not satisfyingly accounting for his vandalism of his paintings (initially presented as a very significant clue to the man, but not commensurately referenced later). Still more problematic is the story's presentation of the massacre at No Gun Ri as the "key" to Sin--the sort of thing perhaps too weighty for such prominent use in a narrative like this. Indeed, Horowitz's use of it can be taken as trivializing the event (it is raised, then treated as irrelevant), and this is all the worse because of the evocation of the September 11 attacks (rich foreigner attacks tallest building in New York), making for a typically tasteless postmodernist muddle--the more so because, at any rate, its significance for Sin's actions is made ambiguous. (Sin says that he will not forgive the United States--but this is not a matter of revenge, and not only is he indifferent to the plan's fuller success, but he would be just as happy to work for the CIA as for SMERSH.)

The unfolding of the narrative on the way to these less than satisfying revelations also has its problems from the standpoint of simple storytelling. The subplot about Thomas Keller's murder proved more tangential and less interesting when it was resolved than it initially seemed--while the same goes for the bit of intrigue surrounding Pussy Galore, which goes no further than the first quarter of the story. (Who were those men who came after her, really?) Meanwhile Fleming's contribution--the Soviet plot to sabotage a car race--adds up to just a subplot that winds up just a third of the way through, and (save for one bit that turns up at the very end) has surprisingly little bearing on the story. In contrast with, for example, Bond's investigation into Goldfinger's gold smuggling uncovering his involvement in something bigger, this is less the tip of the iceberg of a larger plan than an operation in itself which very slightly intersects with another, different operation, opening the door to Bond's coincidentally spotting Sin with the known SMERSH operator involved in both (who never pops up again in the story).

It all makes for rather a loosely assembled work, while even when taken alone the central investigation has its problems. Bond makes very little progress through the middle third of the book when we might have expected tantalizing clues (the only ones we get are familiar--bad guy interested in rockets, not enough after Drax and No), and pretty much everything of importance is not unearthed by Bond's sleuthing, but explained by Sin when he plays Talking Villain for a captured-and-about-to-be-put-in-a-death-trap 007.

The result is that this side of the story relies heavily on the action to carry it--perhaps too heavily--and the performance here is not unmarred by sloppy bits (Bond uses a "judo" kick at one point--shades of Austin Powers here--and that M-60 machine gun's positioning makes little sense to anyone who understands geometry even slightly).2 At the same time it lacks the wackier touches that might have helped make the book memorable--like Bond's getting keel-hauled while waiting for his limpet mine to blow up Big's yacht, or his chasing Blofeld in a bobsled. The stronger bits are adequate, even robust--but a little on the generic side.

Still, if many of the book's problems come from an effort to be faithful to the original that for various reasons does not quite work, there are also aspects of the story in which Horowitz (in practice, at any rate) dispenses altogether with such pieties--those pertaining to Trigger Mortis' sex-romance side. Pure spoof, it speaks entirely to twenty-first century gender politics, rather than being explicable in terms of any Fleming precedent. Indeed, even Bond's friend Charles Duggan (himself a fairly anachronistic touch) laughs that Bond must be "losing his touch" when he hears about how things have shaped up here. Of course, this is all predictable to anyone who has been attentive to the contrast between the Fleming originals and prior continuation novels (already John Gardner had gone in this direction with early efforts like Licence Renewed and For Special Services). However, that it was so predictable, and that Horowitz went to such lengths in it, only underlines what should have been obvious looking at the rest of the narrative--that a writer's providing "more Fleming," even to this limited extent, may not really be all that worthwhile, while in significant respects impossible in today's market.

1. Dr. No declared that "I would proceed to the achievement of power—the power, Mister Bond, to do unto others what had been done unto me, the power of life and death, the power to decide, to judge, the power of absolute independence from outside authority."
2. Horowitz writes that Bond "used a judo move" to subdue an attacker, this "judo" move entailing Bond's "twisting round and lashing out with his right foot." Judo, however, is a martial art concerned with throws, not strikes (that's karate), Austin's "judo chop!" apart. In a world where it seems everyone is boasting about having a black belt in something, that this kind of sloppiness is not just so everpresent but so rarely remarked is the sort of thing that gives the lie to the douchebaggery choking the Internet.

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