It’s the 1968 Club! #1

The 1968 Club, hosted by Karen and Simon  is the latest decade and year combo selected for a week of reading books published in that year. I’ve read two for this week (so far), and my first review is of:

Colonel Sun by Robert Markham

Colonel Sun is the first James Bond continuation novel published after Ian Fleming’s death in 1964. Kingsley Amis was offered the job of writing the sequel after James Leasor turned it down – the estate had wanted an established author to continue the Bond novels so they could retain control of the character.  I have no idea why Amis was persuaded to write the book under a pseudonym, but apparently he had little involvement in its choice – presumably the Fleming estate didn’t want a big name to detract from Fleming.  Amis already had a strong interest in Bond, having produced two books about the character before then:  The James Bond Dossier—an analysis of the Bond books, and The Book of Bond, a fun manual for spies, written as Bond’s colleague Lt.-Col. William (“Bill”) Tanner. So, given his knowledge of the Fleming Bond canon, and his own literary chops, you’d think that Amis would be the perfect author to continue the Bond series…

Let me tell you a bit about Colonel Sun.

The novel begins with Bond and Bill Tanner enjoying a round of golf at Sunningdale in leafy Surrey. Bond had been distracted during the golf, leading to Tanner winning the round. They commiserate over drinks. You can tell that Bond is restless:

‘It’s ceasing to be an individual that’s deadly,’ said Bond thoughtfully. ‘Becoming a creature of habit. Since I got back I’ve been coming down here about three Tuesdays out of our, arriving at the same sort of time, going round with one or other of the same three friends, leaving at six thirty or so, driving home each time for the same sort of evening. And seeing nothing wrong with it. A man in my line of business shouldn’t work to a timetable. You understand that.’ […]
‘My existence is falling into a pattern. I must find some way of breaking out of it.’

On the way back from golf, Bond had also taken to calling on spy chief M at his country residence. M was working from home while getting over a respiratory illness.

This time it’s different. Bond arrives at M’s to find the door unlatched, and people lying in wait for him. M has been kidnapped, his housekeepers murdered, and they want Bond too, but Bond being Bond, he escapes. The hunt is on to recover M. They have no idea who has kidnapped him, but the assailants have left a clue – a piece of paper with various names from ancient Greek myths on:

‘The names and numbers on that paper are a brilliant piece of improvisation designed to get me following in their track at full speed. Which of course I’ll have to do. As far as that goes they could have written GREECE on that bit of paper and left it at that.’
Tanner nodded slowly. ‘Where would you start?’
‘Anywhere,’ said Bond. ‘Let’s say Athens. It doesn’t really matter, because I shan’t need to look for them. They’ll find me.’

Off he goes.

M had been kidnapped by Colonel Sun of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. He had been sent to sabotage a conference of Middle Eastern leaders hosted by the Russians on the Greek island of Vrakonisi. Sun will use M and Bond’s bodies to put the blame for the conference failure on the British. There’s old Nazis involved with it all too.

Once in Athens, he falls in with some Greek communists working for the Russians and discovers that they are all on the same side in this!  Soon they are attacked and only Ariadne and Bond survive – they run to get to Ariadne’s old family friend and former resistance fighter, Litsas, who will help them get to Vrakonisi. The rest goes as you may expect. Bond will get caught, tortured and escape and M will be rescued. There will be some ‘Oh James!’ type moments with Ariadne. Litsas, like the character played by Topol in For Your Eyes Only will come good.

It has the classic ingredients of a Bond novel, but it does all fall slightly flat. Bond is almost humourless – some might argue that losing his wife at the end of OHMSS, and nearly dying in the last of Fleming’s novels The Man With the Golden Gun have worn him down, as Bond continuation author Peter Benson postulates on Colonel Sun‘s wikipedia page. The murder of M’s husband and wife housekeepers who had been with him for years is certainly a tipping point for Bond’s desire to avenge their murders.  Ariadne is also, by Fleming’s standards, a rather watered-down Bond girl – all idealism and full of communist zeal. Hardline feminists may cheer at this, but most Bond girls are strong women who work hard and play hard.

This brings me to Colonel Sun Liang-Tan, who is a worthy Bond villain. He is unusually tall for a Chinese man, with startling pewter-grey eyes. A voracious reader and smoker of British cigarettes – Benson & Hedges.

Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt – in some cases, he suspected, routine rather than sincere – for everything British. He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.

Colonel Sun is of course a sadist and expert torturer. Chapter 19 is entitlted ‘The theory and practice of torture’ and Sun’s methods are very different indeed to those of Le Chiffre from Casino Royale (remember the carpet beater on the bottom of the rattan chair – sorry!).  The cover picture of the old book club edition I read above will give you a horrible idea of what Sun may do.  I gather that this chapter was used for the torture scene in Bond film Spectre, with Sun replaced by Blofeld.

Amis’s Bond novel is around the same length as most of Fleming’s, but it felt longer.  Amis includes a lot more political discussion, bringing the issues of détente and the Cold War into the frame, setting it firmly in that time. This is all very well, but adds to the overall dour feel of the novel. It came as a relief to get to the end of the novel with a very weary Bond still alive, rather than the triumph of having vanquished the baddies despite the ending not being particularly downbeat like say Casino Royale (which has one of the best last lines ever).  Colonel Sun just felt a little stodgy, which I didn’t expect from Amis. (6.5/10)

Source: Own copy from the TBR piles.

Kingsley Amis writing as Robert Markham. Colonel Sun (1968). Vintage paperback.

8 thoughts on “It’s the 1968 Club! #1

  1. Harriet Devine says:

    Interesting. I’m not a Bond fan, but was intrigued to learn Amis. In my opinion he was a much better writer than Fleming, but obviously couldn’t match the energy of the Bond books.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Yes it was flat in comparison. Peter Benson’s diagnosis why is a good one, but misses the spirit of the original I felt.

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