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Review of Solo, by William Boyd

I enjoy William Boyd’s writing. RestlessWaiting for Sunrise, Any Human Heart. These are what you might call rollicking yarns. The protagonist, male, is at the centre of events much larger than him. He plays an important part – often not entirely intentionally – in the way things turn out. The stories span years, if not decades or lifetimes. When faced with the chance to write a James Bond story, Boyd mostly falls back on this model– rather than the more driven nature of Fleming’s Bond. Fleming’s Bond is pivotal to the plot, not incidental like Boyd’s.

Solo, as a result, is a peculiar book. It is as if Boyd can’t make his mind up. Should he write Bond his way, or Fleming’s way? His indecision is reflected on every page as well as in the overall structure, in which the eponymous solo mission doesn’t start until two-thirds of the way through the book. Faced with a story that unfolds over a shorter time frame than he is used to working with, it is as if Boyd has padded it out. Coupled with generous line spacing and margins Solo is also a shorter book than I’d first thought on picking it up.

Boyd, as with any contemporary Bond author, is also bound by the Bond of the silver screen. It is simply not possible to shake, at best, the image of Connery, at worst Moore, plodding around the screen, valuable minutes taken up with his bathroom regime, his contemplation of the view, his choice of meals. Boyd’s Bond is that Bond, and could never match the brutality of Dalton or the lightning-quick action of Craig.

Boyd’s Bond is forty-five the day the book starts, his story set in the late sixties. The world Boyd shows us is the world we have seen in the films of Connery and Moore, his Bond recast back as Fleming’s original, the ‘right’ age according to Fleming’s authentic backstory which tells us Bond was born in 1924. It means also that Bond should have officially retired as a ‘00’ officer, Bond aficionados knowing that the retirement age is forty-five, but soon he is sent on the mission that takes up the first two-thirds of the book .

So Bond is a veteran – but of what? Instead of showing flashbacks on Bond’s previous career – perhaps he thinks readers will know too much about this already – Boyd is at pains to show us Bond’s doubts about what he is doing, about what he wants, by having him reflect and ponder over coffee, dinner, cocktails and so on, but it is always generalised and wholly unconvincing.

Bond’s interactions with M and others are similarly shallow. The mission is barely described. We see not the slightest preparation or briefing. Things happen as if by accident. Bond casually catches flights, talk to friends and enemies alike, without any clear sense of purpose. Boyd also creates an entirely fictional African country as the setting for part of the story but, because he flies there from London and the USA, this simply heightens the sense of disbelief.

Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book. I was looking for a story that zipped along whereas Solo, at its best, plods. I wanted details that made me believe in the world I was seeing, not endless descriptions of Bond pondering his clothes and food. I wanted him to be more central to the unravelling of the plot and, while he played his part, it always felt incidental. He appears to be, if not exactly bumbling, someone who is never quite sure what is going on. He is, of course, happy to bed the Bond girls that come along. Boyd has made sure to include that ingredient of the Bond recipe.

And it was a recipe that finally killed the book for me. Not for a cocktail, but for a salad dressing, of all things. Boyd describes the ingredients in the narrative but then inserts a footnote setting it out again in detail. The note is completely out of place, unnecessary and, for a third person narrative, self-indulgent.

All of this is a shame, because the story itself had great promise. An aid programme subverted, a African civil war, a deformed villain, a couple of unwittingly helpful bystanders, some attractive women and a clever Brit doing what the Yanks, with all their might, couldn’t. Classic Bond ingredients but, like a good cocktail or salad dressing, when the mixing-up is off, even slightly, you recognise what it is supposed to be, but that doesn’t make it satisfactory.

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