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Bond. Young James Bond.
Charlie Higson tries to extend the franchise with SilverFin

Between 1953 and 1964, when he suffered a fatal heart attack while playing golf at Sandwich, on the same course where his hero bested Goldfinger, Ian Fleming published 11 James Bond novels and one volume of short stories. (A final novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, and then a second volume of short stories appeared after his death.) His male icon for the second half of the 20th century is, like Fleming, a manís man, a British secret agent who when not licensed to kill can be found playing high-stakes cards (including bridge) and golf, gambling at casinos, eating "gourmet" meals, smoking and drinking, taking cold showers (never a bath), and making love to married women. Movies, the theater, music of any kind, art openings, cocktail parties, church, and close friends are not part of his life. Heís fussy about what he wears (Sea Island cotton is preferred) and eats, though Flemingís gustatory imagination doesnít rise much higher than chops and broiled lobster, and in fact Bondís favorite meal appears to be scrambled eggs and bacon. His cigarette is a Macedonian (or Balkan and Turkish) blend that Morlands of Grosvenor Street makes for him; his drinking habits, on the other hand, are promiscuous, vodka martinis shaken not stirred but also Scotch and soda, Bourbon and ginger ale, pink champagne, and, yes, Miller High Life. His continuing appeal lies in the glints of idealism and introspection that fleck his post-war cynicism and in the detail with which Fleming invests him.

Written in quick succession, the Bond books never aimed higher than high-class pulp. There are chapters that amount to lectures; thereís the occasional embarrassment (the Saratoga racing chapter in Diamonds Are Forever) and the more than occasional inconsistency (Bondís position on pajamas; the name of the defecting French heavy-water scientist in Thunderball; the color of Mary Goodnightís hair). The books have been in and out of print; Penguin now has all 14 out in a uniform edition. Kingsley Amis, John Gardiner, and Raymond Benson have added to the Bond canon (or at least the apocrypha) without making much of a splash. Now Ian Fleming Publications has commissioned British comedy writer, producer, and actor Charlie Higson to write a "Young Bond" series of five novels. Miramax Books brought out the American edition (Penguin is the British publisher) a week ago Tuesday, with an initial print run of 150,000 and a promotional budget of $200,000, targeting adults as well as young readers and aiming for bestseller lists. On the horizon, of course, is the prospect of blockbuster movies. If the teenage Harry Potter can make a mint, why not the teenage James Bond?

Higson has done his homework. SilverFinís opening sentence, "The smell and noise and confusion of a hallway full of schoolboys can be quite awful at twenty past seven in the morning," nods to the opening sentence of Flemingís first Bond novel, Casino Royale: "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning." He draws on the Times obituary that appears in You Only Live Twice for Jamesís background: Scottish father, Swiss mother; parents killed in a climbing accident near Chamonix when he was 11; lives with his fatherís sister in Kent; matriculates at Eton at age 13. In the course of SilverFin, James anticipates the adult Bondís dislike of shoelaces, learns to drive his uncleís Aston Martin (his aunt has a Bentley, the other car in his adult life), and acquires what will be his trademark gun-metal cigarette lighter. Higson takes his plot cues from Doctor No and offers standard accessories like the ally who comes to a bad end, the ally who doesnít, and the pretty girl whoís an unexpected help. He even provides a pre-credit-like prologue whose sadism and misdirection are worthy of the pre-credit sequence in the film adaptation of From Russia with Love.

The story opens at Eton, where James, as suits his solitary nature, takes up distance running while trying to steer clear of the bullying George Hellebore. After he beats (and further angers) George in the big cross-country race, the scene shifts to the Scottish Highlands, where James is to spend the Easter holidays with his Uncle Max and Aunt Charmian. Surprise: Randolph Hellebore, Georgeís father, owns the local castle, on Loch Silverfin, and his mysterious and doubtless evil experimenting there involves something called SilverFin. James investigates with the help of his new cockney friend "Red" Kelly and a blonde Scottish girl named Wilder Lawless (no more obvious than Tiffany Case or Pussy Galore) who rides a black stallion named, uh, Martini.

The big picture here is one that Fleming could appreciate. Higson has a feel for structure and for pervasive metaphors; SilverFin revolves around the eels that snake across the book jacket. You could argue that the tale of a young hero who takes on the school bully and his malevolent father aided by a red-haired pal and a feisty girl has Harry Potter written all over it, but these are archetypes, older than Rowling, older than Fleming. The real problem is that Higsonís writing is generic; he lacks Flemingís imaginative, sometimes quirky, sense of detail. And he doesnít seem sure whether this is supposed to be an adult novel or a childrenís book ó hardly surprising when the publishers want to have it both ways. Maybe thatís why his James is all over the place. Hereís young Bondís reaction to Ms. Lawless: "Wilder wasnít like most of the girls heíd met, all fussy curls and pretty dresses that they never wanted to get messy. He couldnít imagine Wilder playing with dolls or having pretend tea parties. He had to agree with Kelly: Wilder Lawless was quite a girl." This is James Bond at 13? The James Bond who at 16 loses his virginity in Paris?

Penguinís SilverFin does run 372 pages as opposed to Miramaxís 352, and itís been reported that in the British edition, during their wrestling match, Wilder squeezes James between her thighs. No sign of this in the American edition. Higson is ill-served by such bowdlerization. Memo to Miramax: this isnít supposed to be a Disney childrenís story. Memo to Higson: forget the kid stuff, just write adult novels about the emerging James Bond.

THAT TIMES OBITUARY (written by M) goes on to tell us that James Bond spent only two halves at Eton before his aunt was requested to remove him after "some alleged trouble with one of the boysí maids," whereupon he transfers to his fatherís (also Tony Blairís) old school, Fettes. Will Higsonís Bond do the same? Back in February, the Scotsman reported that though the author had done lots of research on Eton, he hadnít been to Fettes and didnít even know that itís in Edinburgh. The point may be moot, since it appears that James, unlike Harry Potter, will be having his adventures off campus: Higson has revealed that the second book will be set in Sardinia and will involve bandits, art theft, and people smuggling (working but likely not final title: "Double M"), the third will take place in the "darker corners" of London, and the fourth will find James in the Alps, perhaps visiting his motherís relatives. We can expect to see Red Kelly in London, and Wilder Lawless, who says she intends to see some of "the big world out there," could turn up anywhere to give James another squeeze.

Where these books will turn up, at least in America, is another matter given the Weinstein brothersí recent split from Disney. According to a New York Times report early last month, Harvey and Bob Weinstein and the Walt Disney Company will be managing Miramax Books jointly for the next two years. Young Bond book two, which Higson says heís finished, is set for January 2006. Itís conceivable that all five (but will there be just five?) could be out by September 2007, when the Weinsteinsí financial interest in Miramax Books is due to expire. If not, itíll be interesting to see where they go.

Then there are the putative films. Ian Fleming Publications has said that for the moment itís concentrating on the books. Miramax, DreamWorks, and Heyday Films (which is making the Harry Potter movies for Warner Bros.) are reported to have expressed interest. But can Ian Fleming Publications sell the film rights to Higsonís books, or do those rights reside with Eon Productions, which makes the adult Bond films and at the moment has its hands full, with Casino Royale scheduled for next year and no Bond on board. (Pierce Brosnan is balking; Clive Owen, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Jude Law have been mentioned as his successor.) One British Web site claims that Miramax is already preparing for the film version of SilverFin and has signed 28-year-old Orlando Bloom to play the 13-year-old Bond. They better get cracking before Orlando gets too old for the part.

Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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