The Sargasso Sea - SilverFin review

"The dark waters around a Scottish castle hold a sinister secret... SilverFin. SilverFin is deadly. SilverFin is the future. One man with a thirst for power will use it, whatever the cost. One boy stands in the way. His name is Bond, James Bond."
SilverFin was written by Charlie Higson and published in 2005 as the first in his series of Young James Bond novels. The numerous Bond continuation novels that followed in the wake of Ian Fleming's death have always been very hit or miss affairs. Kingsley Amis fared best with the excellent Colonel Sun but John Gardner and (especially) Raymond Benson struggled to produce anything at all that one might remember once the final page had been turned and they were also faced with the unenviable task of presenting Fleming's Cold War literary creation in the present day. It was probably a good idea and high time to do something slightly new with the book incarnation of the character rather than endless continuation novels and so (doubtless more than a little inspired by the incredible success of Harry Potter) we eventually got this series of adventures involving James Bond as a boy.
The book tries to tie into the timeline of the original novels by Ian Fleming and so is set in the 1930s. James Bond is thirteen years old and has recently lost both of his parents to a climbing accident. A bit of a loner but one already imbued with a sense of duty, he's beginning his first term at Eton and under the care of his Aunt Charmain. He also has a useful mentor in the form of his ailing Uncle Max - who was a spy in the Great War. The embryonic super secret agent will soon become embroiled in his first adventure caper though when he's taken on holiday to Scotland where strange nefarious plans are stewing at the spooky Loch SilverFin.
This is a pleasant enough book and generally a nicely done riff on the enduring character and rather in the vein of those equally readable Young Sherlock Holmes novels. What I like here is the fact that Higson is a Fleming fan and knows his Bond onions but he never tries to be too smart alec and festoon the book with in-jokes and references that would require a forensic knowledge of the literary series. He is always aware of the younger audience these books are primarily aimed at and concentrates on making the story accessible as he develops his mystery and draws our young hero slowly into the danger that might await. What Bond references he does include are certainly fun though when they arrive. The start of the book for example includes an amusing play on the famous opening to Fleming's first Bond novel Casino Royale, the nauseating stench and smoke of the casino at Royale-les-Eaux during some unearthly hour replaced with - "The smell and noise and confusion of a hallway full of schoolboys can be quite awful at twenty past seven in the morning." There is a decent villain in Lord Randolph Hellebore although I found the ultimate McGuffin rather derivative. I felt like it was a device already used in gazillions of comics and films but then I suppose it must be difficult to think of anything original in these types of stories by now.
The Scottish backdrop is a nice touch though and the story becomes much more gripping when Bond travels there for a holiday and has to turn detective and adventure abounds. The opening chapters at Eton are less successful but Higson is a decent fluid mostly unpretentious writer and while his prose is not exactly scintillating he keeps his story rattling along at a good clip once he has all the ingredients in place. I don't know if some fans of Ian Fleming have been slightly snotty about these books but I think there is plenty of room for them and speaking personally I think I would rather watch a film adaptation of SilverFin than have to sit through any more Daniel Craig films. The Ian Fleming books were fantastic thrillers for their time but some of them can appear rather dated and potboilerish sometimes when you read them now. If one thinks of these Higson books as an enjoyable "what if" experiment thrown into the Bond universe then you don't have to worry too much about continuity and laboriously trying to tie everything in. In a sense you have to not worry about Fleming's Bond because it's hard to be completely convincing when presenting him as a child and James Bond is someone who is always very much an adult character. He's a chain-smoking, hard drinking, somewhat misogynistic killer. You don't really want to talk about those qualities too much in a children's book. You want it to be more of an adventure caper and the period setting is a lot of fun.

Higson is quite detailed at times and has gone to some lengths to convey the era. It gives the book the atmosphere of an old Boy's Own adventure story. Not to say that this is a completely light-hearted book like something out of the Famous Five. There is a hint of the grotesque and sadism that Fleming was obsessed by and some gripping sequences. A bit at the start involving eels is quite good and injects some horror into the story. It felt quite Fleming too in its own referential way and I liked the way Higson broke the book up into different sections with Fleming-esque chapter titles.
Higson uses the Uncle Max character to anticipate what Bond will become in the future. Max was a spy once (and we gather he was tortured as the adult Bond will be by various villains) and so you have a vague teacher/pupil dynamic. I did notice here too that Higson included a scene where Max teaches Bond about how the engine of a car works (cars of course will play a very important role in the life of the adult Bond and he's rather fond of them) which is sort of clumsy but a nice idea. The real subtext of the passage is Higson riffing (and simultaneously playing tribute to) those trademark long-winded factual passages Fleming would throw into his novels when the mood took him. They always read as if Fleming had copied them out of an encyclopedia and Higson sort of does the same thing. A nice in-joke although possibly out of place here. "It's a marvelous thing, the internal combustion engine," he said, gazing lovingly at the oily block of metal. "It's going to change the world." I liked the Pinkerton detective Meatpacker though, this a nice riff on Bond's future American friend Felix Leiter. Bond meeting a girl named Wilder Lawless who has a horse called Martini is probably a bit too clunky though for my tastes on all counts. Perhaps the most important thing though is that Higson avoids falling into the trap of making this like a period spy version of Harry Potter. One presumes he was conscious of this pitfall and manages to navigate it with reasonable dexterity.
Higson is not Raymond Chandler but he does know how to throw to throw a bit of suspense and darkness into his story and this helps overcome any shortcomings or quibbles. "He felt awful, as if a cold iron cage were clamped round his head; all he wanted to do was to get to the surface, stick his head out and be up in the fresh air, warmth and light. But he resisted the urge and swam harder, using a clean, strong breaststroke, deciding that the quicker he went, the less time he'd need to hold his breath. However, the quicker he went, the more oxygen he used up, and soon his lungs began to burn. He struggled on, the pounding in his head getting worse and worse." SilverFin is a fun read for younger readers and James Bond completists alike and nicely sets up the series that follows. It isn't perfect but I think it's a nice addition to the James Bond universe.
- Jake


c 2012 Alternative 007