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The brand’s Bond, James BondWhen good writers die, they join, if they’re lucky, the canon of western literature and live on, as major or minor classics. Lesser writers are quickly forgotten, but some bestselling names enjoy another kind of afterlife. They become franchised. Their heirs and literary agents authorise a succession of sequels that keep the money rolling in long after the usual obsequies.The publishing industry cheerfully conspires with the process by which a good popular writer’s memory is piously demeaned by inferior imitations churned out by penurious hacks. Publishers, like film studios, are often so desperately short of imagination that nothing gives them greater satisfaction than placing the corporate shirt on a sure-fire winner.And who could blame them? The lottery of public taste is so chancy and the responses of the literary marketplace so capricious that a dead cert will always exhilarate the chequebooks of the men (and women) in suits. No wonder a good bet like a sequel will have the book trade quivering with anticipation.So although Alistair Maclean, for example, has been dead these 15 years, mass market editions of adventure stories ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ his notes and drafts, and published under his bestselling name, continue to bring home the bacon for the Maclean estate.Next to a hatchet-job of a biography, there’s probably nothing so damaging to a deceased popular writer’s memory and reputation as a pot-boiling sequel. Which brings me to the intriguing case of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who is about to celebrate his 50th birthday. (Casino Royale was first published in 1953).James Bond is a literary brand name par excellence, a guarantee of a distinctive and reliable kind of armchair experience. As Simon Winder perceptively puts it in his entertaining Penguin anthology, My Name’s Bond, James Bond, ‘Fleming’s hold on the British male imagination remains so great that the landscape of our postwar culture would be unrecognisable without his iconic hero. He has nourished the fantasies of millions on a scale only otherwise approached by Tolkien…’An important part of Fleming’s grip, of course, depends on 007, the suave and cruelly handsome Englishman (named after a distinguished ornithologist), a ‘knife-thrower’ whose ‘vices’ included ‘drink… and women’, but that’s not the whole story. Fleming, a one-time journalist and literary maverick, is a genre writer who deserves much more serious critical consideration than is usually accorded to such writers.What do you look for in a novelist? Imagination? Turn to Bond’s dinner with Goldfinger. Narrative drive? Try Tatiana’s encounter with Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. Dialogue? How about: ‘Doesn’t do to get mixed up with neurotic women in this business. They hang onto your gun-arm, if you know what I mean.’Yes, of course Bond is a snobbish, shallow-minded chauvinist with sado-masochistic inclinations, but Fleming’s prodigal, strangely euphoric, and jewel-encrusted prose remains, half a century later, a constant delight. No wonder that after his early death from heart failure at the age of 56, the Fleming estate persuaded themselves to license the 007 franchise.The latest manifestation of a strictly commercial operation, The Man with the Red Tattoo, by Raymond Benson (Hodder £18.99), arrived on my desk this week.It would not be difficult to make fun of Benson, who, as the noveliser of several recent Bond movies, including Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough, is probably anorak-in-chief of the Ian Fleming Foundation. But the truth is that, in many ways, Benson has a thankless task. The more he brings 007 into the twenty-first century, steering his clapped-out Aston Martin down the M4 to Heathrow, the more whiskery and geriatric the whole enterprise becomes.There’s nothing actually wrong with the plot of The Man with the Red Tattoo. With its mounting confrontation between two rival Japanese terrorist factions, controlled by the mysterious Goro Yoshida (shades of Fu Manchu) it’s no less implausible than some of Fleming’s vintage performances.It has all the Bondian ingredients: car and motorbike chases; steam room mayhem; death-defying escapes, cunning stunts; and sado-masochistic encounters in shadowy bedrooms.These are the elements that will go into the movie version. What’s missing is Fleming’s inimitable voice, that languid, Fleet Street drawl as smoky and cynical as the morning-after atmosphere of a Mayfair nightclub. Take away Fleming’s inimitable tone and you’re left with a humdrum thriller. It’s an object lesson in the essence of good fiction.


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