On His Majesty’s Secret Service by Charlie Higson
Although I’ve largely given up on reading the latest Ian-Fleming-estate-sanctioned James Bond novels, when I spotted that Charlie Higson had written a novella to celebrate the coronation of King Charles, I couldn’t resist, being a big fan not only of Higson’s own thrillers (the latest reviewed here), but also his Young Bond novels, which I read over ten years ago.
The Bond of Higson’s Young Bond novels is definitely Sean Connery, and it was a pleasure to find that the Bond portrayed within these pages is still modelled on Connery, ageing a bit now, but still just in his prime (so not ageing as fast as in real life). The set-up is simple. Bond is called in to M (as in Bernard Lee mode rather than Judi Dench)…
Like so many missions before, it had started when he walked through the heavy, reinforced door into Moneypenny’s office and took in the familiar scene. Moneypenny sitting at her desk, unruffled and crisp as ever. He was relieved he didn’t have to go through the customary banter with her. Not appropriate this morning, An agent had been killed in Hungary; a fellow Double O. Bond knew that Moneypenny had been seeing him. Not strictly allowed, but it happened.
It turns out Moneypenny had recently handed in her resignation so she would marry 009. Now, she is still in post, and M is supporting her in her grief.
‘I’m not given to sentimentality, James, but I don’t think it would be overstating the case if I said I loved that girl, dearly. ‘
‘I understand.’ Bond did understand. He also understood that nobody within the service would ever hand in their resignation to marry him.
He was not the marrying kind.
009 was killed trying to infiltrate the Hungarian stronghold of Æthelstan, a mad businessman and ultra-rightwing nationalist, the self-professed rightful heir to the throne, descended from Alfred the Great, who was grandfather of the first Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and the English from 927 until his death in 939.
Æthelstan is threatening to disrupt Charles’ coronation. There are two months to go to get the threat neutralised, and Bond is authorised to use lethal force. Æthelstan is building up a mercenary force in Hungary. Bond, with a squad of thirty ex-squaddies & ex-mercenaries now working for MI5/6 is to pose as their leader and get his group into Æthelstan’s private army – and then disrupt things. A cast-iron backstory is created for Peter Sanborne and off Bond goes to Budapest to meet Canner Lyle, a nasty piece of work and Æthelstan’s chief mercenary. He’s surprised by Lyle’s number two though – a beautiful Icelandic woman, Ragnheiður… (I’ll leave that with you!).
I won’t spoil what happens next except to say that Bond will prevail, just in time. Æthelstan will be defeated and Charles will be crowned, despite an absolutely fabulous last minute twist, and Bond will melt back into the background.
This novella was hugely enjoyable. Higson hits just the right note with the humour and Bond’s sardonic wit, adding a slight aura of world-weariness to the man who doesn’t know how to do anything else. Higson is also renowned for loving writing the baddies, and the power-crazed Æthelstan is also spot on. I’d definitely start reading new Bond books if Charlie Higson is allowed to write more…
Source: Own copy. Ian Fleming Publications, May 2nd 2023, hardback, 176 pages.
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