- 30 May 22
The Name's Bond...
Any author brave enough to sit into Ian Fleming's seat must have balls constructed out of some sort of brass/titanium alloy developed in secret by Q branch. This is Horowitz's third outing with 007, having already proven himself with 2015's Trigger Mortis - which surely won some sort of award for its title alone - and 2018's Forever And A Day. Just as with his utterly brilliant Sherlock Holmes novels The House Of Silk and Moriarty, Horowitz, who gifted us both the Susan Ryeland and Alex Riders series and a lot of quality telly under his own bat, proved he was the right man for the job somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph.
Both his previous Bond efforts utilised material left behind by Fleming but this time Horowitz is flying solo. As he explains in an additional essay, he had hoped to adapt a script from a proposed Bond TV show - as he had done previously - but this didn't work so instead he reaches back to a minor character mentioned in the novels but never seen, one Colonel Boris, and perhaps you can take a wild stab in the dark as to where he hails from. In You Only Live Twice (1964), Bond suffered a serious head injury, resulting in amnesia, chasing down Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Japan. In the following year's The Man With The Golden Gun (altogether now, "He has a powerful weapon!"), it's revealed that Bond had been captured by the KGB, brainwashed and sent back to London to assassinate his boss M. After the attempt failed, Bond had his brain rewashed, so to speak, and was sent off to Jamaica to take care of the superfluously-nippled assassin 'Pistols' Scaramanga.
With A Mind To Kill takes place a couple of months after Scaramanga has been dispatched. We open with M's funeral and grumblings from those in attendance about Bond's treachery. It is, of course, all a ruse. Bond has been flown back, reluctantly, from Jamaica, complaining about the foie gras and the Margaux Casque du Roi 1960 that the airline's Monarch service have the cheek to serve him. The plan is straight forward enough, if extremely likely to result in a bullet for Bond; the powers that be will fake M's death, thereby convincing the Russians that their brainwashing techniques have worked. Her Majesty's Secret Service has heard tell of a new Russian state security agency - a successor to Smersh - called Stalnaya Ruka, or Steel Hand, led by General Grubozaboyschikov, who previously bothered the Brits in From Russia, With Love. One of the four senior officers working under him is the aforementioned Colonel Boris. It was he who worked Bond over, physically and mentally, during his KGB stay. M, quite correctly, posits that the Russians will be anxious to spring Bond once the news of his own demise breaks. It turned out the Steel Hand have a nefarious plot on the boil to reestablish the Soviet Union as the major world power and 007 is central to it.
That's the bones of it and even with that short summary I'm sure you can already see the Bond of your choice running around in your head. As with Horowitz's early entries into the canon, this is not the wise-cracking Bond of the Roger Moore or even the Pierce Brosnan era - as entertaining as they were. Rather, this is a mix of the Connery and Craig Bonds. On the one hand, he's the no-nonsense Connery hard man who can explain the latest gas-powered soviet rifle one minute, and offer an opinion on the international price of caviar the next. On the other, he incorporates some of the world-weariness and vulnerability that Craig brought to the role. The Russians and Colonel Boris really did a number on him and part of the delight of With A Mind To Kill is the uncertainty the reader feels as the story progresses. Has Bond really recovered? Do the Russians still have control of him?
If you're a gadget fan, you're out of luck here, apart from a typewriter that doubles as a direct link to Moscow, but the book moves along at a breakneck pace thanks to several set pieces during which you'll have to stop yourself skipping down the page to see what happens. An attempted escape, the incident on Tower Bridge, an East Berlin Concert hall, a Moscow Subway station; you won't need a movie because Horowitz's prose creates one for you. It should also be noted that the misogynist and xenophobic tendencies that make Fleming's original work problematic in the age we live in are largely absent. Yes, Comrade Katya's physical attributes are referred to and she of course finds our man irresistible but her presence is an integral part of the plot rather than just an adornment. Bond also never misses a chance to bemoan the deprivations of Soviet Russia but he's a war veteran, British agent in 1964, and by all accounts it wasn't a great place to be anyway and sympathy for Russia-bashing is probably a bit thin on the ground in 2022.
Unfortunately, this looks like the last time out for Horowitz's Bond. God help whoever gets handed the job next because they'll have to work very hard indeed to match With A Mind To Kill, a superb piece of work which appeared to be glued to my hand until I finished it. It has everything long-term fans could ask for, slots seamlessly in beside Fleming's oeuvre, and it also manages to present a vulnerable hero perhaps more suited to our own age, while still placing Bond firmly in the Cold War arena. There's life in this old dog yet.
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