Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Sympathetic Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz

With Original Material by Ian Fleming

New York: HarperCollins, 2015, pp. 320.

A case can be made that Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis is the best continuation Bond novel written to date.

Granted, there are ways in which Horowitz makes less effort to capture the flavor of the Bond novels than his predecessors. He does not really strive to give us the flavor of Fleming's writing to the degree that, for example, Kingsley Amis did. Fleming's particular way with words, his tendency toward what Umberto Eco called the "technique of the aimless glance," his penchant for combining lengthy descriptions of the mundane with much brisker treatments of the sensational.1 Reading Horowitz we need not bother with subtext very much; if there is a thing we really need to know, he flatly tells us about it.

However, despite that Horowitz does not strive to give us the same sense of Bond's interiority as Amis, or John Gardner. Indeed, apart from his Soviet-bashing (which crosses the line into indisputably racist remarks against Slavs), Horowitz's Bond generally comes off as a less world-weary and bad-tempered, less snobbish and bigoted and reactionary figure--at times because of changes that will not quite ring true (Bond's thoughts about women drivers, for instance, directly contradict what Fleming's character actually said), but more often as a result of strategic silences. (Bond's thoughts regarding the final outcome of the James Bond-Pussy Galore-Logan Fairfax triangle, for example, are passed over in such a silence, and he does not think of it afterward.)

Still, much of the Fleming sensibility is there, not least in a rather Fleming-like story--perhaps the most satisfactorily Fleming-like plot since Fleming was actually writing these things. The implausible wealthy emigre villain-and-rocket plot, the blend of low crime and games of state, gangsterism and SMERSH, the choice of Central European and North American settings, are all in line with the tradition. Fleming's taste for car chases--and train chases--is of course quite prominent within the book's action. And there are subtler touches, too, among them the shadow of World War Two, particularly as it was fought between Britain and Germany (German rocket scientists, Nazi counterfeiting operations, while the memory of the war and the time before the war hangs heavily over Bond as he travels the country); the odd Gothicisms (the stone circle, Jason Sin's castle); and the "tacky" image of the American landscape in the book's second half (like the motel Bond stays at in Virginia, or the ads he sees on the New York subway, even if the expressions of disapproval are comparatively muted). (It helps, too, that evocations of past adventures are frequent, but subtle, as with Horowitz's making oblique reference to Bond's rather close-up view of the Moonraker's launch when he looks at an American Vanguard.)

The same can be said for Horowitz's handling of these elements. As a thriller-writer he does not go so questionably over the top as Raymond Benson, or keep the adventure too grounded to feel very Bondian at all, the way Jeffrey Deaver and William Boyd did, instead finding a middle ground closer to the originals than the work of most of his predecessors. Think Fleming's pace at its fastest, all the way through the book, more or less, and while the action that ensues may contain nothing quite so flamboyant as Bond's blowing up Mr. Big's yacht or chasing Blofeld in a bobsled, it packs sufficient fireworks to satisfy any reasonable taste, especially at the climax (treated the more satisfactorily perhaps because of Horowitz's plainer style, and tendency to flesh out the action more thoroughly than Fleming did). Moreover, in treating all this Horowitz manages to display a sense of humor (facing a captive Bond, the villain knows that he has been in this situation before) without making a complete joke of the thriller element, the way Amis did (mostly unintentionally, I think), or Gardner tended to do (quite intentionally, I'm convinced). The same cannot be said for the sex-romance-gender politics part of the story (some of this is in fact impossible to take as anything but parody), but it does still have Bond and Bond girl coming together at the end.

Of course, the desire to be faithful also makes it very difficult not to be repetitive. (Indeed, this is not the first continuation novel to have Bond in a car race like this, Gardner having done it in For Special Services three decades ago.) Moreover, it has to be admitted that this particular plot, which brings together unfinished business from Goldfinger, the car race plot Fleming had been developing (in the end, just a subplot) with the main story about Jason Sin, along with a couple of smaller bits (a noirish tale of murder, a bit of revenge directed against Bond himself) is almost as sprawlingly structured as Deaver's Carte Blanche. Still, Horowitz makes it feel fresher and flow better than it ought to, in part because some of his variations on familiar themes constitute improvements. The car race in Nurburgring, one of the strongest aspects of the assemblage, has in its visceral aspects and tight binding with its subplot an intrinsic interest that the card and golf games did not--while Sin's obsessions bring a new interest to the card game that Bond does end up playing with him. And on the whole if Horowitz made certain compromises, he struck me as typically making the right ones, and putting the full package together with sufficient aplomb that I would not be disappointed to hear that he got a return offer on the job.

1. Umberto Eco remarked in his classic essay "Narrative Structures in Fleming" Fleming's tendency to linger on the "apparently inessential" and then "with feverish brevity" describe "in a few paragraphs the most unexpected and improbable actions"--a contrast evident in Goldfinger's long golf game, and then its rushing through the robbery of Fort Knox.

The Bond Girls of Trigger Mortis: Pussy Galore, Logan Fairfax and Jeopardy Lane
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
John Gardner and the James Bond Series
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)

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