As the author of such cerebral works as Human Traces and Engleby, Sebastian Faulks must wonder how he has come to greet a red catsuit-clad blond femme fatale on a naval warship near Tower Bridge as she carries a see-through Samsonite briefcase containing the first copies of his new James Bond novel, Devil May Care.
Published to coincide with the centenary of the birth of 007's late author Ian Fleming, Devil May Care has generated a fervour not seen in London bookshops since the arrival of the last Harry Potter tome.
As Faulks pauses on the stairs leading down to the basement of the Fleming Collection in Mayfair - currently playing host to an exhibition of Bond book covers, movie posters and other memorabilia - to have his picture taken by a phalanx of photographers before talking to the assembled worldwide media, he can't help but resemble a rabbit in the headlights.
"James Bond is one of the most famous fictional characters in the world, so the idea was not to hide our light under a bushel," Faulks says as he sits down behind a desk, surrounded by editions of Devil May Care from several different countries.
"The idea was to sell a lot of novels, to draw a lot of people in, to celebrate James Bond and Ian Fleming. But I think the extent of the interest is greater than anyone could foresee.
" It's pretty weird for someone like me. This is not how I normally spend my day. I'm a guy who does the crossword in the morning, does eight hours writing and then goes home and watches football on television while reading books on psychiatry. Having hundreds of flashlights going off in front of me is pretty weird but that's part of the deal. We didn't want it to go off with a little whimper, we wanted to go off with a bang."
Faulks was initially reluctant to take up the mantle of Bond when he was first approached by Ian's nieces Lucy and Kate Fleming, who run Ian Fleming Publications.
"I have worked for a long time writing novels of considerable seriousness," says Faulks. "My last book before I was asked to write the Bond story was Human Traces, a long, serious book about psychiatry and the development of human consciousness. So I was surprised when the telephone rang one day and I was summoned, rather like Bond himself, to a meeting in this very building where a very strange mission was proposed to me."
Like many others, the 55-year-old, who grew up in Berkshire, but now lives in west London, first discovered Bond at an impressionable age.
"I recalled the great pleasure with which I, as a schoolboy, first read those books and the intense sense of excitement they brought into a rather miserable little boy's life," says Faulks. "I also remembered the great thrill of the films. Sean Connery was already up and running when I first came across the books in the late 60s and there was something about the whole James Bond story and myth that appealed to me. But I wasn't sure if anyone would take me seriously as a thriller writer as I'd never written a thriller before."
However, at the Flemings' behest, Faulks revisited the Bond novels he had not read since he was a teenager.
"I expected them to be pulp fiction and nothing much from a literary point of view but I was pleasantly surprised by the books, which were stylish and very well written in a quick, clear, journalistic style," he admits. "Above all, what they did was engage you right from the start in an exciting and really gripping story.
"As a man who doesn't rate thrillers very much, I was amazed by my own gullibility, that at such an advanced age I could be taken in 10 pages into a story written 60 years ago.
" I was worried about the hero's safety, this man in his smart suit, soft shoes and rather underpowered weapon who seemed to be in mortal danger all the time."
Taking his lead from How to Write a Thriller, an article Fleming wrote in 1962, Faulks set out to write Devil May Care in six weeks, the same amount of time that his illustrious predecessor spent on each of his 14 Bond novels, beginning with Casino Royale in 1953 and ending with The Man with the Golden Gun, which was posthumously published in 1965.
"I thought it would be really good fun to see if I could do a Fleming, as it were," says Faulks. "So I mapped out the story pretty carefully and then I sat down and wrote it. I was able to find an area of activity for the villain - the drugs trade - which, although Fleming had touched on it a couple of times, he had never really gone into. I knew that I wanted to set the book at the end of the Fleming run as it were.
"It seemed to me that it was the only way that I could pay homage to this character and his creator. I didn't want to set it now, because then the chronology becomes too complicated and it would have looked opportunistic. If I could do a period piece in the manner of Ian Fleming, then that would work for me."
Devil May Care largely takes place in the Middle East, specifically Iran or Persia as it was then known, a part of the world that Fleming did not admire.
"He didn't set any of his books there, which is surprising in some ways because Lebanon in the 60s would have made a great setting for a Bond story. But his loss is my gain," says Faulks.
"The book is set during the Cold War and I wanted it to not just be a crime story but to also have a political background. I was also determined that although the book is set in 1967, I wanted the issues that it touches on to still be alive to us today. Iran has completely changed and I thought it would be illuminating to write about pre-revolutionary Iran and what life was like there in the 60s. Who would think today that the Shah used to dispatch policemen in the streets to remove the veil from women?"
Faulks, who cites From Russia With Love as his favourite Bond movie, was careful to restrict his inspiration to the original novels.
"I tried to put the films out of mind," he says. "I prepared in a rather pedantic way by reading all of the books in chronological order and when I got to the end I wrote mine. He is a slightly different character in the books, he is much more vulnerable and doesn't rely on gadgets and superhero tactics and techniques. He relies on his own resources and he's a brilliant hand-to-hand fighter. A letter-writer described the gun that he carried as 'really a lady's gun, and not a very nice lady at that'.
"As the films developed, he became more a Spider-Man or Batman type of character who would get out of trouble using some impossible technology. Now with Casino Royale, the filmmakers have reverted to a more muscular, realistic Bond.
"My James Bond is Ian Fleming's."
Faulks is not familiar with Charlie Higson's excellent Young Bond novels. Set during young James' schooldays at Eton in the 1930s, the series - which concludes with the fifth instalment, Royal Command, in September - paved the way for Faulks' authentic vision.
"I didn't want to confuse myself so I didn't read any of the other continuation novels either," says Faulks, referring to the numerous movie tie-in-style spin-offs that have been published since Fleming's death in 1964. "I took my Fleming pure, stirred on the rocks. I didn't want anything else to add to it."
Although Barbara Broccoli from Eon, the makers of the Bond films, has compared Devil May Care to "a manuscript found in Fleming's desk after his death," Ian Fleming Publications refuses to be drawn on the novel's cinematic prospects.
For his part, Faulks says it is unlikely that he will write any further Bond tales, instead suggesting other high-profile authors should be recruited to pen sequels.
"I just hope people will enjoy the book in the spirit in which it is written, which is an affectionate homage to a character who has brought an enormous amount of pleasure to millions and millions of people across hundreds of countries over decades," says Faulks, who is happy to share credit for Devil May Care with the original master.
"Some people find it perplexing but I think the way that the book has been presented - 'Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming' - is a clever way of showing that it is not my book, although, of course, it is my book.
"But I'm writing about characters someone else created and it makes it easier for me to resume writing my own serious-minded novels, beginning next Monday."
* Starting in 1952 with Casino Royale, Ian Fleming wrote one James Bond novel a year until his death in 1964. All were composed between January and March at his holiday home, Goldeneye, in Jamaica.
* James Bond 007 is the longest-running film franchise, with 22 films having been made since Dr No in 1962. It is also the second most successful, after Harry Potter; the series has grossed more than US$4 billion (NZ$5 billion).
* Sean Connery, the first Bond, starred in six Bond films. George Lazenby replaced him for one film, after which the part was played by Roger Moore (seven films), Timothy Dalton (two), Pierce Brosnan (four) and Daniel Craig (two so far).
* It's estimated that more than two billion people (nearly a third of the world's population) have watched Bond movies. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care, to be published on 28 May, was written according to Fleming's methods: 2000 words a day for six weeks. "In his house in Jamaica, Ian Fleming used to write 1000 words in the morning, then go snorkelling, have a cocktail, lunch on the terrace, more diving, another 1000 words in the late afternoon, then more martinis and glamorous women," said Faulks. "In my house in London, I followed this routine exactly, apart from the cocktails, the lunch and the snorkelling."
* When President John F. Kennedy included From Russia with Love (filmed with Connery and Daniela Bianchi) on a list of his favourite books in 1961, sales of the Bond novels, previously unsuccessful in America, boomed.
* Roger Moore became the oldest Bond at 58, when production closed on A View To a Kill in 1985.
* James Bond attended Fettes College in Edinburgh, the public school attended by Ian Fleming's father and by Tony Blair. Sean Connery was once the school's milkman.
* Lois Maxwell opted for the part of Miss Moneypenny over Bond girl Sylvia Trench in Dr No because she felt Trench was too raunchy. Times change; in 1999, Serena Scott Thomas was given the option of using a body double when her character, Dr Molly Warmflash, disrobes in The World is Not Enough, but she decided to do the job herself.
* Since Dr No was released in 1962, James Bond has killed more than 150 men and slept with 44 women, three-quarters of whom have tried to kill him.
* The first gadget used in a Bond film was the Geiger counter in Dr No. Bond uses the bulky-looking Geiger counter to scan a boat where he finds radioactive rocks. Technology had improved by the time Thunderball was released in 1965, when viewers saw a Geiger counter installed within a camera.
* In 2006, a 1965 Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger and Thunderball, was sold at auction for more than US$1 million. A Tennessee museum owner had bought the car from Sir Anthony Bamford in 1970 for US$5000. Gadgets in the car include Browning machine guns, tyre-slashers, an oil slick ejector and retractable rear bullet-proof scree, though the ejector seat with removable roof panel had been removed.
* Shooting of the latest Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, was suspended after three near-fatal accidents in five days. The first happened when an employee of Aston Martin, delivering the 134,000 DBS sports car to the set, lost control of the car and drove into Lake Garda. He emerged, he told the press, "shaken but not stirred".
* Jet Packs, devices used in the 1965 film Thunderball, are one of the few Bond gadgets that made it to commercial production, if only briefly. Powered by pressurised hydrogen peroxide, they were developed for the US army so that soldiers could leap over walls and rivers. However, the maximum flight time of 20 seconds proved too short to be of practical use.
* Letters between Ian Fleming and his own "Miss Moneypenny", which were auctioned in April this year, revealed the author's close relationship with Jean Frampton, who was hired to type his 007 manuscripts but who also perfected several plots. In one letter, she writes: "I still regret the end of Thunderball, as my naive and literal mind would like to know exactly what happened ... What about Blofeld (or does he live to die another day?)". The letters fetched US$14,340 - five times more than expected.
* David Niven had been Ian Fleming's preferred choice for the part of James Bond, but EON Productions chose Sean Connery. In You Only Live Twice, David Niven is referred to as the only real gentleman in Hollywood. Niven went on to star in the 1967 Bond satire, Casino Royale.
* Fleming suggested his friend and neighbour Noel Coward as the villain for the first James Bond film. Coward is said to have responded "Dr No? No. No. No."
* The Rolex Submariner watch was worn by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. Since GoldenEye (1995), Omega Seamaster watches have been product-placed in the Bond films.
* Fleming wrote a tale featuring another high-powered car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, for his son, Caspar, in 1964. It was made into a film in 1968 starring Dick Van Dyke and became a West End smash in 2002.
ENTER TO WIN
To celebrate the return in print of James Bond, and courtesy of Penguin Group publishers, we are offering one devilishly lucky reader a super Bond giveaway package: a hardback copy of the new Bond book, signed by Sebastian Faulks, plus the complete back catalogue of all 14 of the James Bond books by Ian Fleming in lavish new editions.
To enter, tell us what year the action takes place in the new Bond thriller, Devil May Care.
Write your answer on the back of an envelope, with your name, address and contact number and send it to: James Bond Contest, Weekend Herald Review, PO Box 3290, Auckland, to reach us no later than Thursday June 5.By Stephen Jewell