The Dragon's Claws - Colonel Sun Reviewed

Of the authors who have attempted to write James Bond novels in the wake of Ian Fleming, by far the most successful was Kingsley Amis - the man responsible for 1968's Colonel Sun under the pseudonym Robert Markham. You could reasonably argue that Colonel Sun is actually better than many of Fleming's own lesser works and it effortlessly peers down on the later literary 007 offerings by John Gardner and Raymond Benson from a considerable height. The book begins in high style with a gripping and tense development that surprisingly has yet to be pilfered outright by Eon. James Bond, after a nice lunch and some golf with friend and colleague Bill Tanner, takes a drive out to make a social call on his boss M who is convalescing at his country retreat "Quarterdeck" after a bout of pneumonia. Once there though Bond is met by armed men and quickly realises he has walked straight into a highly organised and ruthless kidnapping operation. Bond is drugged but manages to escape after a brutal fight and eventually collapses unconscious in the woods outside. When he is revived by the police he discovers that M is missing, the servants have been shot dead and a piece of paper has been left at the scene containing Greek names and numbers. With this great opening gambit, Amis draws us right into the story as James Bond attempts to pick up a mysterious trail that begins in Athens...
A very readable and stylish thriller, Colonel Sun benefits from an exciting story, an interesting (and very sadistic) villain in Colonel Sun Liang-tan and the general polish of Kingsley Amis - who proves to be a worthy successor to Fleming. Colonel Sun was to have been the first in a series of Bond books written by Amis and others under the Markham name but sadly this never panned out. It's a shame because reading the book you get a real sense that Amis is a fan of Fleming (as he was indeed in real life) and knowledgeable about the world of Bond. A plus here also is that Amis is writing in the immediate aftermath of Fleming's death. While John Gardner had a much more difficult task in plunging the literary character into the eighties, the Bond here is much easier to accept as Fleming's Bond continuing his Cold War adventures. Some would argue that the literary Bond really belongs in the murky intrigue of the Cold War and seems a trifle anachronistic in books that place him in subsequent eras.
In terms of sex and, especially, sadism, Amis takes things even farther than his illustrious predecessor with a very nasty torture sequence featuring a metal skewer and some vicious fights along the way. The opening set-piece, which sets up and drives the plot, is tense and exciting and Amis does a good job in presenting Bond as a highly trained professional, carefully sizing up and scrutinizing the kidnappers - who are about to drug him with an injection - and his surroundings, waiting for the precise moment to make his move. 'In that one possible split second he was able to twist himself partly free. He arched his back and drove out with both feet. The thin-faced man screamed. Blood spurted from his nose. He fell heavily. The other man chopped at the back of Bond's neck, but too late. Bond's elbow took him almost exactly on the windpipe. The man with the hooded eyes swung a foot as Bond came up off the floor, but he was not in time either.' Amis shows a distinct dislike for Q Branch and gadgets here and presents Bond as a human hero who survives on his wits and training.  

Perhaps the book slows a little during the middle section although Amis doesn't shoehorn as much factual information into the narrative as Fleming often did (although he spends more time dwelling on the geopolitical nuances of the era) and, like Fleming, is good at setting the scene and imbuing the novel with an authentic local atmosphere and nice descriptive passages. 'From the air, Vrakonski (Colonel Sun's lair, meaning "Dragon Island") looks like the blade of a sickle drawn by a very drunk man. The tip of the blade has broken off, so that a hundred shallow yards of the Aegean lie between the main body of the island and a tiny unnamed islet off its northern end.' The Greek locales are used very well in the book and there is plenty of action with gun battles in Athens, a fight at the Acropolis and explosive nautical shenanigans and underwater escapades. 
Amis is also good at the more mundane situations and gives them a reasonable air of realism. I liked, for example, a rather bureaucratic meeting a tired Bond has to attend in the wake of the kidnapping, chaired by a pompous government Minister who is very unhappy at being dragged away from a dinner-party given by an Austrian princess whose circle, we learn, 'he had been trying to infiltrate for years'. 'Bond was tired out,' writes Amis. 'His head throbbed and there was a metallic taste in his mouth. The parts of his body on which the dead man had worked were aching. The ham sandwich and coffee he had grabbed in the canteen were hardly a memory. Even so, he would not have answered as he did if he had not been repelled by the politician's air of superiority in the presence of men worth twenty of him.'
The character of Colonel Sun is certainly a worthy adversary for Bond and, in true Fleming tradition, has a number of unusual characteristics and habits. He speaks English in a range of rather odd accents, has heavy eye-folds and much prefers torture and a nice sadistic interrogation to the company of women. 'It was only when you looked Sun straight in the eyes that he seemed less than totally Chinese,' writes Amis. 'The irises were of an unusual and very beautiful pewter-grey like the eyes of the newborn, the legacy perhaps of some medieval invader from Kirgiz or Naiman but then not many people did look Sun straight in the eyes. Not twice, anyway.' You genuinely fear for Bond when Sun gets his paws on him. Ariadne Alexandrou, a beautiful Greek Communist agent, is also a suitably vivid Bond girl who is more than willing to throw herself into the action. 
Colonel Sun is a James Bond book that I like a great deal. An exciting fast-paced thriller with all the style, sex and sadism of Fleming. It's an almost seamless addition to the original series and a shame I think that no one ever gave it a cinematic treatment.

- Jake


c 2009 Alternative 007