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Friday, 16 October 2015

Book Review – Trigger Mortis

Of all the recent incarnations, Anthony Horowitz’ take on James Bond, Trigger Mortis (2015) is the closest to the original Fleming novels, in style, content and delivery.

Even if you only have a passing interest in the Bond canon, publicity should have alerted you to the fact that Horowitz has set the story in 1957, a couple of weeks after Goldfinger, and at the beginning of the book he’s entertaining Pussy Galore in his London flat. Then he gets the summons from M – the Soviets are intent on sabotaging the British contender in a Grand Prix motor race in Germany. In the process of countering this threat, Bond stumbles upon an intriguing connection between Soviet general Gaspanov and a Korean millionaire, Sin Jai-Seong. That association sets alarm bells ringing and he decides to investigate.

All of the trademark ingredients are assembled – seamlessly: Sin, an unprepossessing villain, Jeopardy Lane, an ‘ugly-pretty’ female, an enemy lair to infiltrate, hairs-breadth escapes, the following of slim clues to the puzzle, the inevitable capture, a lengthy exposition by the villain, the fiendish choice of death allotted to Bond, and the ‘ticking-bomb’ final act.

Horowitz wanted to reference the earlier books rather than the films, obviously, and succeeds, even to the point of having his characters provide unbroken speech for a page or more, in the manner of Fleming. The settings are perhaps not as exotic, but hold the interest nevertheless: the Grand Prix racetrack, the American rocket launch site, and the subway system of New York.

Both in tone and manner, Bond seems right. I’d be intrigued to know what was excised from the early drafts, however. In one interview Horowitz says that his wife (Jill Green, producer of Foyle’s War) suggested considerable rewriting. She felt that some of the sexism in the book was ‘a little too extreme’. These days there must be a danger of writing a politically correct Bond, which honestly would emasculate the character. I think Horowitz trod this line carefully and pulls it off for his late 1950s characters.

Initially, it seems highly implausible, the idea that Bond – a secret agent with a licence to kill – would be given the mission to learn how to drive a racing car in preparation for a prestigious event, and use that car to thwart the Soviet driver’s murderous plans. (Who said Bond stories had to be plausible, anyway?) Surely, all Bond had to do was accidentally trip the fellow on the stairs, break a leg or two – or if the Soviet racer was a really bad egg, kill him? However, as the 400-500 words of original Fleming text that triggered the storyline (‘Murder on Wheels’) [no pun intended] was about Bond and ‘top-class motor racing’, Horowitz must have felt compelled to wear that particular strait-jacket for this outing. Once the race is over, he gives free rein to his imagination and the pace quickens considerably. And indeed some of Fleming’s Bond adventures began with very little real spying, yet 007’s inquisitive mind often latched onto something sinister that led to adventure, travel, sex and near-death experiences.

The references to earlier Bond adventures – Dr No and Moonraker – are subtle, not even being named but alluded to at appropriate moments.

There are three so-called Bond girls: Pussy Galore, Logan Fairfax, and Jeopardy Lane, and all of them are strong women, capable of looking after themselves. Logan is Bond’s instructor at the English racetrack prior to him going to Germany. Jeopardy’s back-story was interesting (delivered in a page of uninterrupted speech) and she had the potential to go further in another adventure.

A handful of reviewers have criticised Horowitz regarding some inaccuracies. And that’s despite the time and effort he clearly spent in research. (Oh, writing is a thankless task, writing make-believe to appear ‘real’ and being castigated when it isn’t quite real enough!) No matter how strenuous the research, we get things ‘wrong’ somewhere along the line. Having said that, as a reader I rarely let a few minor hiccups blight the story for me – and even if I spotted at least one flaw, it didn’t spoil this fast-paced adventure.

There is a reason for the pun-style title, too. The ending of Trigger Mortis is excellent, by the way. I – and doubtless many other readers – would be pleased to read another Bond adventure from Anthony Horowitz.

The flaw
Despite being a respected journalist, Fleming didn’t always concern himself with accuracy (ask ‘Major’ Geoffrey Boothroyd about that!) so it comes as no surprise that he was using the Soviet organ of assassination SMERSH in his Bond novels up to 1957, although in 1946 it was absorbed into the MGB, the forerunner of the KGB. At that point, Department V of the First Directorate of the KGB took upon itself the assassination role. Perhaps Department V didn’t sound as sinister as ‘Death to Spies’?

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