"Nobody can hold a Bond forever," Bond says about halfway through the latest 007 spin-off, SilverFin, and it should just be another throwaway line from the world's favorite spy. Like everything else about this little spy novel, though, the line falls in a completely unexpected context. The speaker is in fact, Max Bond, the young spy's dying uncle, relating a gripping tale of the old spy's escape from German captivity during the First World War to his young nephew, James. Next, brace yourself for the fact that we're not in the middle of the ultramodern, gadget-heavy world of Hollywood's 007 but isolated in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands in the 1930's. Oh, and the daring spy in question?
He's 14 years old.
I was ready to take SilverFin to task. I was a big fan of Ian Fleming's hard-drinking, oversexed spy since I was 14 myself and the exotic adventures of 007 could take you a world away from middle America. I've watched Connery tough it out in a fedora and suffered through Roger Moore's smirk. I saw Pierce Brosnan fall into the role he was born to play. I've read all the post-Fleming attempts to breathe life into the literary Bond, from the sixteen pre-and-post Cold War epics concocted by British novelist John Gardner (License Renewed) to the most recent swings by Bond historian Raymond Benson. I've even got a copy of the very first unofficial Bond sequel, a little-known 1968 effort called Colonel Sun written under a pseudonym by Kingsley Amis.
So I've watched them take Bond apart piece by piece over the years, waiting for the right people to get it right all over again. There's a formula to 007, sure, and we all know it by heart. James Bond is nothing without the guns, the girls, the gadgets and the guffaws from the horrible one-liners with which writers perpetually saddle poor James.
That said, I've always thought there was more to Bond. The original novels are hard-bitten to the point of noir and even the latest films really soar when they channel the cynical spy who aims to win no matter the cost, for Queen and Country. I figured that SilverFin was just a chance to cash in on the studio's scornful desires to market Bond to the kids and eventually we'd end up with a bad adaptation helmed by an MTV director and starring the latest boy band-aid.
So it was the strangest experience to get halfway through SilverFin. For the first time in my long history of reading Bond, I found that I finally liked James.
Admittedly, there's not a little bit of the Hardy Boys in the book's beginning. Introducing James as a young student at the exclusive private school of Eton in Windsor, England, SilverFin doesn't really register James as a full-blooded character at first. With a cool exterior, he seems lost following the death of his parents but as the story progresses, we start to see Bond's inner rage emerge, a fierce disposition that is only tempered by his whip smart intelligence.
Taken to the Highlands for the holidays, the spy-to-be is informally mentored in the craft by his uncle Max, the aforementioned WWI spy, who teaches James to drive as well as the other odd lessons of childhood. This relationship between James and his surrogate father adds a real depth to the story that's rarely seen in the Bond books and almost never in the films. It's an unusual passing of the torch as Max gives James a knife, a lighter and unknowingly sends him off to do battle with the bad guys.
James finds a rare friend in Red Kelly, a rough-hewn partner-in-crime but a handy tool for furthering the plot. He also gets plunged into a life-and-death struggle with Lord Randolph Hellebore, a psychotic mastermind that holds up with the very best of the Bond villains.
The second half of SilverFin is one of those amazing experience in which a book turns out dramatically better than expectations. Bond's instincts that Hellebore is dirty are found true when he stumbles across Meatpacker Moran, a burly American detective on Hellebore's trail courtesy, no less, of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.