The Ian Fleming Estate continues its quest to keep the franchise flowing, with this latest commission of a new James Bond adventure penned by a series of distinguished writers. It's a risky business. William Boyd's Solo, released in 2013, was a huge, unintentionally hilarious botch-up: he portrayed Bond as a near-alcoholic, randy old perv obsessed by eggs for breakfast and, unforgivably, a man who enjoyed campily whisking up his own salad dressing in a steak restaurant. It committed the cardinal sin of making the reader laugh at James Bond. That's not on.
Let's hope Fleming, who died on August 12, 1964, has stopped spinning in his grave long enough to appreciate this much finer effort by Anthony Horowitz. It's a terrific piece of escapism, inspired by a story outline for a television series Fleming had been discussing in America before the film of Dr No shot Bond into movie mega-stardom.
Horowitz was struck by Fleming's story sketch, called Murder on Wheels, which "placed Bond in the extremely dangerous world of Grand Prix". Even more exciting to Horowitz was that he was allowed to use about 500 words of Fleming's own dialogue in the book, the section in chapter two where Bond has a meeting with M at the Secret Service HQ. That means Fleming fans are reading some of the master's own words, but Horowitz is the man completely in control of this adventure.
Essentially, Bond is a figure of entertainment. Although you know the plots don't bear too much analysis (and why would you?), the allure is in the action, our hero's dogged survival against all odds, the nasty ingenuity of the villains - and the enticement of a parade of women. The women come and go, as do the villains, but Bond must always survive.
Trigger Mortis is set in 1957, when the Soviet Union and the United States are engaged in the Cold War and physicists on both sides are racing to produce rockets to send into space. Or could the rockets be aimed elsewhere? After a nifty prologue setting the scene, Horowitz introduces us to our hero: "James Bond opened his eyes." He's in bed with a woman, yet he gets up and follows his daily ritual of showering for five minutes, shaving and dressing before going into the kitchen where Pussy Galore - Pussy Galore! - is making extra strong coffee and an egg boiled for exactly three and a half minutes.
Pussy Galore, "head of a lesbian organisation" in New York who had become Bond's ally, then lover (yes, he has turned her), is staying with him to escape her enemies, but Bond isn't happy to have her company. He's feeling hemmed-in. So is she. Thankfully, work is calling; more specifically, M.
Thus Bond is sent off to Germany to race on a track called Nurburgring, one of the most dangerous in the world, because spy network SMERSH has infiltrated the Russian team, with a view to killing the British champ. Bond must quickly learn to drive like Stirling Moss, save the British driver, eliminate the SMERSH guy, unravel the plot and save the world.
Luckily, he has a very good driving instructor: a young woman called Logan Fairfax. "He found her instantly desirable ... everything about her body language spelled trouble."
But the real trouble comes in the shape of a young Korean hanging around with the SMERSH guys at Nurburgring, an immensely wealthy, very peculiar man called Jason Sin. And it is Bond's dealings with Sin that propel Trigger Mortis into a sojourn which leads him to the American rocket base in the south of the US, a working relationship with another young woman, the perfectly named Jeopardy Lane, a few very close brushes with death - one in particular has shades of Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol 2 - and a hair-raising finale in the New York underground.
Horowitz travelled to Nurburgring with Marino Franchitti, a racing champ who drove him around the 20km circuit twice. Brave! That gives the racing scenes in the book complete authenticity, and he also talked to experts on missile defence and rocket science.
So Trigger Mortis feels grounded and Horowitz's crisp prose is relentless in its pace. Best of all, you can tell he enjoyed writing the book. It's a thrill, an entertainment, pure amusement. Ian Fleming couldn't have done better himself. And there are hardly any eggs.
by Anthony Horowitz
(Orion Books $37.99, out Tuesday)