My Sunday Times interview with Jeffery Deaver...
Mr Bond, this is not how I was expecting you
The latest official 007 novel is by the American Jeffery Deaver — and he has reinvented the spy for the 21st century
Jeff Dawson Published: 22 May 2011
Recommend (0) Comment (0) Print Follow Culture
n the new James Bond novel, Carte Blanche, the London HQ of the Overseas Development Group — a covert operational unit of British security, 007’s employers — is situated off the furred-up artery of the Euston Road, round the corner from Regent’s Park. It’s more or less where the gleaming edifice of the publisher Hodder & Stoughton is sited, so no need to wonder where Carte Blanche’s author, Jeffery Deaver, got his inspiration.
“Actually, there’s the crescent across from the park, and it’s right behind that, on Devonshire Street,” he gestures, as if the mythical assassination bureau might yet pop up on Google Earth. As a writer with more than 20m sales to his name, of thrillers couched in the intricacies of forensic analysis and police procedure, Deaver knows the devil is in the details. Throw a spanner in a machine that has pumped out 37 official Bond books, 25 of them after Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, with 100m sales to date, and a symbiotic film franchise that has taken $12 billion (adjusted for inflation), and you may find yourself dangled by Blofeld over a pool of piranhas.
These days, the revelation of the latest author to pen a Bond creates nearly as much buzz as the announcement of the next actor to strap on the celebrated Walther PPK. When, in May 2010, it was announced that Deaver, Jeffery Deaver, was to be in charge of the next mission, it marked the collision of two heavyweight brands. A licence to print money? Deaver laughs. “A licence to thrill.”
Funnily enough, the Bond books convinced Deaver, growing up in Illinois, that he wanted to write. “In my household, my parents had a wonderful rule. My sister and I were allowed to read anything we could get our hands on. Some movies we were not allowed to see, which was ironic, because this was the late 1950s, and there was no sex. But books were sacrosanct.”
He recounts the joy of ploughing through the 25c Bond paperbacks his father brought home. “I liked the hero, the accoutrements. Of course, he kissed a girl occasionally, which was repulsive to an eight-year-old. Later, I went back and got interested.” More than that, Fleming’s style had him rapt: “It was, basically, one-foot-in-front-of-the-next-foot storytelling.”
Since his international breakthrough in 1997, with The Bone Collector — which introduced Lincoln Rhyme, the world’s foremost, probably only, quadriplegic detective — the prolific author has made a killing out of just such breathlessness. He has notched up 30 or so books to date, including the Rhyme hits The Empty Chair, The Twelfth Card and The Burning Wire, as well as his recent series featuring a Californian single-mother detective, Kathryn Dance. Never let it be said, though, that the life of a bestselling crime writer is all glamour. His overnight plane from Washington DC was delayed, affording him a mere couple of hours’ kip. Ensconced in a strip-lit room where books by Hodder stablemates Russell Brand and, er, Peter Crouch leer from the shelf, he will spend the next 48 hours signing hundreds of book inserts, or “tipping sheets”.
I didn’t want to do a period piece. I liked Sebastian Faulks’s book. It was very well done. But it’s not what I wanted to do
He’s a trouper, though. “As I’ve gotten older, I need even less sleep,” chirrups the engaging 61-year-old, a trim man with a corona of hair and thick black Dolce & Gabbana specs. He dresses like the suited lawyer he used to be, though, in a rare concession to comfort, he has removed his tie.
It was his eulogising of Bond while accepting the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award in 2004 that convinced both the estate and Ian Fleming Publications to recruit him. “I said yes, but with caveats, which it turned out were the same caveats they had — that the book would be set in the present day, and that Bond would be rebooted. I didn’t want to do a period piece. I liked Sebastian Faulks’s book. It was very well done. But it’s not what I wanted to do.”
Ah, yes. Mr Faulks, we were expecting you. Three years ago, when Faulks put on the literary tuxedo, “writing as Ian Fleming” in the 1960s-set Devil May Care, he achieved that rare thing — moving the books from the shadow of the films for the first time since the cinematic advent of Dr No, in 1962, something beyond Kingsley Amis, John Gardner or Raymond Benson, who had all penned post-Fleming Bonds. Or Charlie Higson, with his Young Bond adventures.
“I suspect he’s more talented than I — I would be unable to step out of the Deaver novelist mode and write in anyone else’s voice. I simply could not do it,” Deaver adds. He points to my for-your-eyes-only manuscript and its unambiguous declaration of authorship. “What my fans are getting is the typical, fast-paced, twisty-turny Deaver book. What Bond fans are getting is their character updated. They are going to expect an appearance by M, an appearance by Moneypenny. They’re going to expect a car, the Bond women — so, yes, there’s a check list. But it’s playing along without being a pastiche.”
Carte Blanche is certainly an entertaining ride, as our international man of mystery embarks on a jet-setting romp, from Serbia to Dubai to Cape Town, to debag a global agent of destruction. The financial potential for a continuation novel, as such ventures are known, is huge — and the reason why, elsewhere, Don Winslow is assuming Trevanian’s mantle and Anthony Horowitz is doing Sherlock Holmes.
The Fleming people had right of veto over his copy, Deaver concedes, “but they accepted 95% of what I had done and tweaked mostly the character”. Bond has been stirred, but not shaken — he’s thirtysomething, an Afghanistan veteran, but conforms to the official description (based on the singer Hoagy Carmichael): “His black hair was parted on one side and a comma of loose strands fell over one eye. A three-inch scar ran down his right cheek.”
Though Deaver loves Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, those damned Bond films (only two of which Fleming lived to see) have skewed the perspective. If Bond 2011 doesn’t smoke for England any more (“We have to like our hero”), he does the rest by the book: driving a Bentley, not an Aston Martin; visiting Q Branch, rather than an individual boffin. Cosily, Her Majesty’s Secret Servant listens to Radio 4 over his scrambled eggs.
Life is ambiguous in some ways, but really, don’t we know good, and don’t we know bad, when we see it?
He is also rather chaste, not discharging his weapon till page 259. “You counted!” Deaver laughs. In print, Bond was married twice, he points out. “He was always looking for a relationship. He was not just jumping from bed to bed.” (Though he’s still a saucy blighter. “Stockings or tights?” Bond ponders across the office over his comely assistant, Ophelia Maidenstone.)
Deaver’s connection with Britain goes back some way. During the second world war, his father was in the US 9th Air Force, stationed in East Anglia. A turret gunner on a Douglas Boston, he was wounded over liberated France, the pilot going down with the plane so that his crew could bail out.
His morality remains uncomplicated. “I don’t like antiheroes, I like heroes,” he asserts. “Life is ambiguous in some ways, but really, don’t we know good, and don’t we know bad, when we see it?”
Deaver went into law, then legal journalism (with a sideline as a singer-songwriter). He didn’t go full-time as an author until he was 40. “I never believed in the ‘starving artist’ syndrome.” Commercial fiction has no room for self-indulgence, he insists. “I’m a manufacturer. I make no bones about it. And, frankly, I think most serious, successful creators of fiction are manufacturers. You sit down with a tried and tested set of formulae.” He will spend months on the intricate plotting and research. As for the writing, he’ll bash his laptop anywhere: in either of his homes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or DC; on a plane; in the car on the M4 (until he started to feel sick).
One can’t help but notice that Carte Blanche is dripping with product placement — Rolex, Bose, Nikon, Emirates. Deaver denies any personal incentive, employing the device, like Fleming, for descriptive purposes. He tells a story about always portraying Lincoln Rhyme drinking Macallan whisky, on the off chance he might cop a free case. He never did. “Now he drinks Glenmorangie. Haven’t heard from them, either.”
Not surprisingly, Lincoln Rhyme — the inaction hero — did not extend his run in Hollywood. Carte Blanche may yet make the transition, but Deaver won’t be involved with the script, he says, as he owes 35 international publishing houses the Kathryn Dance book he had to defer to write it.
Is he a conservative? In the book, Deaver equates the eco-slogan “Reduce, reuse, recycle” with “Arbeit macht frei”. (“That was right on the borderline, wasn’t it?”) In the South African section, he can’t resist a pop at western charitable do-gooders. But it’s the voice, he says, not him: “I’m a Democrat. I voted for Obama.”
On to the big question: James Bond, relevant or relic? A man of Deaver’s talents presumably could have invented his own superspy without getting in hock to the Fleming people. His riveting thriller Edge, about a lone-wolf security operative, is a case in point. “It’s a good question, and the answer to it is that Bond was really the perfect creation,” he muses. “There’s such banality of evil. A terrorist can strap on a suicide vest. The most simple-minded ideology can cause immeasurable harm, but that does not make for compelling emotional resonance.”
To which end, he says, we need our fictional scrap between good and evil — “Villains who are larger than life, more talented, more resourceful, than our hero, so that when the hero prevails, the ultimate victory means something more... That is the essence of Bond. He’s the knight errant going on the quest — someone who’s willing to put his life on the line for us, the innocent. We need Bond today as much as ever.”