‘The right car, the right cocktail’: the challenge of writing James Bond
This is not an easy piece to write because it is my goodbye to James Bond, a character who has played a huge part in my life.
I still remember reading “Dr No” as an unhappy 10-year-old and being transported away from the grim prep school where I found myself. I think it was always my ambition to write a Bond novel… but I never dreamed that I would end up being commissioned to do three.
To be honest, I was quite tetchy with the Ian Fleming estate when they announced the new adventures that began with Sebastian Faulks authoring “Devil May Care” in 2008. Then came Jeffrey Deaver and “Carte Blanche” (great title) in 2011 and William Boyd with “Solo” in 2013. I very much enjoyed these books, and admire all three writers, but even so I couldn’t help thinking: “Why not me?”
Bond was in my bloodstream. He’d inspired the Alex Rider series, which had launched my career. I’d shown, with Sherlock Holmes, that I could write a so-called continuation novel…although it’s not a description I particularly like. So what were they waiting for? When were they going to call?
To my huge relief, they finally did get in touch in 2014 and I remember being summoned to my first meeting in the boardroom of the family bank (founded by Ian Fleming’s grandfather) near Trafalgar Square. I was as nervous as if I’d been asked to report to Spectre and arrived in a suit and tie, clutching my notes for the book I had in mind.
I looked ridiculous the moment I stepped through the door. The family could not have been more relaxed, informal… casually dressed. Nor were they at all sinister. Throughout my long relationship with them, they have been endlessly supportive. We’ve had a few differences of opinion – what Bond should wear in bed, for example – but they’ve never pulled rank.
My ideas for the first book, which had no title at the time, centred on a Korean multi-millionaire called Jason Sin who had been hired to destroy the American space programme. I came to the meeting clutching a photograph of the forgotten City Hall subway station in New York where the climax of the book would take place. (In the end, it didn’t, but my love of secret places persists: When I was writing my most recent Alex Rider book, for example, I was shown a hidden chamber inside the dome of St Paul’s cathedral and thought how much Bond would have liked it; as a boy, Blofeld’s hide-out inside a volcano, complete with sliding lake on the roof, blew me away.)
I was also thinking about The Korean War (1950-53) and, in particular, the dreadful massacre at No Gun Ri, a story which is largely forgotten but which I’d always wanted to write about. I’d decided from the very start that my novel had to have a huge plot, something that would affect the entire world, and a larger-than-life villain in the mould of Goldfinger or Hugo Drax. I couldn’t wait to write the obligatory dinner scene when Sin would outline his mad scheme. For me, it was always one of the great pleasures of the books that the villains would never kill Bond when they had the chance – a single bullet to the head, for example – but would carefully outline their intentions before coming up with a bizarre and extravagant method of execution which would always, inevitably fail.
As for the title, that came much later and I’m not sure it was entirely successful. Puns divide people. But I was guided by the knowledge that Fleming always enjoyed a good pun as his chapter headings – “Crime de la Crime” and “Slay it With Flowers” – demonstrate. For what it’s worth, I’d say that coming up with a great Bond title is probably the hardest part of the job, because Fleming did it so brilliantly. “You Only Live Twice”. “Live and Let Die”. “From Russia with Love”. It’s rare for a writer to come up with a title that passes into the English language but Fleming did it again and again.
“Trigger Mortis” was well reviewed, although what mattered more to me was that the hardcore Bond fans gave it their support. This is something I’d realised when I was writing Sherlock Holmes. When you are taking on the mantle of Doyle or Fleming, you’re in the shadow of not just great writers but great originators.
I felt a responsibility to the fans to live very much inside Fleming’s world and scrupulously to obey his rules. Bond had to wear the right clothes, drink the right drinks. His relationships – with M, with Tanner, with Pussy Galore – had to be true to what Fleming had written. And the language, in particular, had somehow to connect with Fleming’s genius. “Rain swept into London like an angry bride.” That’s my favourite sentence in “Trigger Mortis”.
I was both surprised and very pleased to be asked by the estate to return to Bond for “Forever and a Day” (a better title, I think… I was astonished it hadn’t been used before). To begin with, I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. I’d got away with it once. Would I be so lucky a second time? In the end, what decided me was something very simple. Out of nowhere, the opening line of the book popped into my head. “So, 007 is dead.”
Of course, 007 is a number, not a man, and suddenly I saw that it might be fun to describe how James Bond became 007, to go back to the very beginning of his career. Fleming had provided a few clues: a shooting in New York, a silent killing in Stockholm. Why did it have to be silent? What method did Bond use?
Sometimes I write books because they are the only way to answer a question that won’t go away, and this was the case here. I really wanted to write the chapter, “Strawberry Moon”, to see Bond perform his first, bloody kill. I wanted to describe his first assignment – in this case, investigating a murder of another agent in Marseille. The South of France is, of course, a perfect and well-rehearsed locale for our man.
Another villain introduced himself in the shape of Jean-Paul Scipio, larger-than-life in more than one sense. Again, I was surprised that Fleming had never used extreme corpulence as the leitmotif for one of his villains (Mr Big in “Live and Let Die” is muscular rather than fat). Even as I created Scipio, I knew how I was going to kill him. This always encourages me. It gives me the impulse to write quickly, to get to the end of the book.
And then there was Madame Sixtine. Along with the title, getting the leading lady right in a Bond novel is always a challenge. It’s not just a question of avoiding the obvious pitfalls that come with modern sensibility and inadvertently giving offence. Despite their names (Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole), Fleming’s women are all remarkable; strong, independently minded, unforgettable – a hard act to follow.
I based Madame Sixtine on some of the women I’d read about in the Special Operations Executive, a highly secretive organisation created by Churchill in the Second World War. Many extraordinary women worked for the SOE as field agents, radio operators (with a life expectancy of about six weeks) and administrators.
I loved writing about Madame Sixtine and her relationship with Bond, and although I was nervous about the inevitable bedroom scene – which actually takes place in the living room of her hideaway in Antibes – it seemed natural and unforced.
I’m not sure how two books became a trilogy. These books are not easy to write, mainly because of the enormous amount of research involved. It’s not just a question of knowing what car, what restaurant, what cocktail was around in the Fifties; it has to be the right restaurant, the right car, the right cocktail. Writing each page is a stop-and-start process, constantly referring back to the books, to biographies of Fleming, to the internet. I feel myself living in the shadow of Bond’s – and Fleming’s – snobbery. This extends only to objects, incidentally. Never to people.
But there was a part of me that couldn’t let go. At the same time, I’d written about Bond at the beginning and in the middle of his career. Surely it made sense to take a look at the very end?
And then there’s the last Bond novel: “The Man with the Golden Gun”. It’s not my favourite. Ian Fleming wasn’t well when he was writing it, and I can feel his fatigue in some of the chapters. It’s said that Kingsley Amis had to work on the final draft. Even so, I’ve always loved the opening of the book: Bond’s return to London after being brainwashed by the Russians and his failed attempt to assassinate M.
And who exactly is Colonel Boris, who is mentioned in the text but never actually described (he appears briefly in “From Russia with Love” too)? Colonel Boris was a gift. And going behind the Iron Curtain just at the time as the Soviet empire was beginning to unravel seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
“With a Mind to Kill” is markedly different Bond novel to my first two. It’s more intimate, and driven more by character rather than some madcap scene to change the world. The three-act structure is very much borrowed from Fleming (who used it, for example, in “Goldfinger)” and as an end-of-career story, it delves into Bond’s life story, reprising one famous scene in particular and picking up on Bond’s short, disastrous marriage.
It helped that I had visited Moscow and Berlin while the Iron Curtain was still in place but, for what it’s worth, the biggest challenge of the book was describing the dreariness that I remembered in a way that wouldn’t make it all too dreary a read. I see “A Mind to Kill” as not just the end for my Bond but also the end of a whole era of spies and spycraft.
I write this not knowing how well the book will be received and usually I get quite nervy in the weeks before publication. But not this time. It’s exactly the book I wanted to write and I say goodbye to Bond in exactly the way I wanted. I know I’ll miss him but I feel my work is done.
“A Mind to Kill” by Anthony Horowitz is out now, published by Penguin Books.