Written in the tradition of Ian Fleming, Sebastian Faulks delves deep into Fleming's iconic secret agent and the mythology that surrounds him, meditating on darker-than-usual themes that have implications for the way we live now. In Faulk's Cold War mid-1960's world, Bond has been ravaged at the hands of his enemies and temporarily pensioned off by M, his life at best a double-edged sword where no triumph is likely to be anything but short-lived.
When a Frenchman of Algerian birth is savagely murdered on the outskirts of Paris, Detective Inspector Mathis is mystified as to who could have caused such a violent act: the boy's tongue had been severed and a single bullet has been fired up through the roof of the mouth. When drugs are thought to be the likely cause of the crime, Mathis comes to the realization that there is something far bigger going on than just young dissolute youths peddling heroin,
Meanwhile, James, tired of the South of France, has on the invitation of Felix Leiter, his old friend from the CIA, come to Rome, where in the middle of St. Peters Square he meets an extraordinarily beautiful woman by the name of Larissa Rossi, ostensibly in Rome with her husband, a director of one of the large insurance companies, but whose presence fills James with a strange mixture of unease and passion: she reeks of "breeding, youth, and expensive hosiery."
Intent to enjoy his time with Larissa, James can't quite believe it when he is called out of sabbatical and back to London by a cigar smoking M, after all, this is a tired and worn-down James, fresh from his encounter with Auric Goldfinger and his plans to raid Fort Knox and obliterate the world economy. James is beginning to show his battles with evil, on his torso and arms there's a network of scars, small and large, that trace a history of his violent life: "Your tired James, Your played out, Finished."
But perhaps it is only James that can battle "the master-of-all-trades the psychopathic Dr. Julius Gorner who is most likely responsible for this recent influx of drugs, infiltrating both Europe and England with pharmaceuticals in the form of heroin. Changing sides during the 2nd World War, fighting for the Nazis initially and then for the Russians at the battle of Stalingrad, Gorner has become a soldier of fortune, contemptuous of England because he feels as though the country had laughed at him.
So Bond must embark on a mission to doggedly pursue Gorner across Europe to Persia, hot on the trail to shut down the operation of a twisted individual with a demonic sense of purpose. Gorner seems to be beyond reach, locked in a world where ordinary human concerns couldn't touch or weaken him; he's bent on world destruction and domination and has made himself a key figure in the drug world. His only vulnerability is his physicality, marked by a rare deformity, a hair covered wrist shaped like a monkey, and a white glove that hides it.
Surprisingly it is Larissa who also has a connection to Gorner, soon revealing herself as Scarlett Papava, a lonely housewife, busy banker, and lady of the night who wants to enlist James' help to get Poppy, her heroin addicted sister back from the evil clutches of Gorner: "He just won't let her go, he's slowly killing her and loving every moment of it." But there's something about Scarlett that gets right under James' defenses, something about her that makes him feel profoundly uneasy.
With Scarlett determined to find her sister, and James delving deeper into Gorner's criminal enterprises, both are blindsided by the extent of this madman's plans for world domination that eventually plays out deep within the city of Tehran and the vast surrounds of the Caspian Sea.
From London to Paris, to Tehran, and then onto Leningrad and Helsinki, Bond is faced with a world mostly ruled by protection and influence, arms and dollars. In a novel that is filled with misfits and vagabonds, stoolpigeons, agents and secret police, Gorner and Bond must battle it out against a background of the cold war where America is fighting a lonely war for "freedom" in Vietnam and where the threat of the West being overrun by communism is ever present. Formulaic to the last, Faulks doesn't shy away from giving us a series of spectacular set pieces involving a giant ship-sea plane, loaded with nuclear bombs and with a British flag on it and a stolen a Vickers VC10 British airliner, painted with BOAC livery that is heading towards a fiery crash landing in the Soviet Union. Although this novel certainly doesn't reinvent the legend of our favorite secret agent, Bond's adventures are still harrowing in his journey from the known to the unknown with Faulks propelling his story along at break-neck speed, riding the apex to its violent conclusion, with Bond ultimately saving the world and getting his girl. Mike Leonard July 08.