Double or Die review

Double or Die is the third of the five Young James Bond novels by Charlie Higson and was published in 2007. The books follow the timeline established by the Ian Fleming novels written in the 1950s so we are in the 1930s and James Bond is now fourteen and a pupil at Eton. After his exotic adventure in Blood Fever, the young Bond is about to be plunged into a most puzzling adventure that becomes a race against time and is played out in Blighty. In a North London cemetery, an Eton professor named Fairburn is kidnapped at gunpoint. Fairburn - a distinguished mathematician - had left Eton without warning but has sent a letter to Pritpal Nandra, one of Bond's school friends. The letter is coded and appears to make no sense but Bond and his friends begin to decipher the letter and realise that Fairburn is in very big trouble. Not only that, but there are big ramifications for James Bond and beyond. There are many more clues to be decoded and understood by Bond and his friends and some very nefarious characters to be dealt with along the way...
This is a surprisingly clever third entry in the series and seems to take some of its cues from The Da Vinci Code (even playing at times like a junior version of Die Hard with a Vengeance). The book is structured like Fleming's Moonraker and has more of a real time element and I think it was thoughtful and interesting the way that Higson set the story in Britain after the foreign adventure Bond undertook in Blood Fever. One can see that he is trying to distinguish these books from one another and not make them all the same and the puzzle solving element to Double or Die allows for some nice riffs on scenes and situations that occurred in the Fleming novels. Bond even visits a casino here, a place where he would be near legendary as an adult for his gambling skills - although his first assignment in this world involves a game of Hearts. I love the way he meets an important villain over the game of cards. Very Ian Fleming. Higson is not Martin Amis and keeps his prose relatively simple but if one is familiar with the Fleming novels then there is a hidden layer of enjoyment to be gleaned from his references to those books and also the way he presents an affectionate take on Fleming's world and style. The most difficult task the author has with this series is to make us believe both that Bond had all of these adventures as a teenager years before he joined the secret service AND that he is also the same person who grows up to be Fleming's flawed but spiffy blunt instrument.
The former is the hardest to digest (rather in the fashion that, for example, it's hard to take the television series Smallville seriously because we are supposed to believe Clark Kent had countless adventures and met all of his major villains before he even became Superman) but Higson doesn't do a bad job at all. In terms of atmosphere and their relationship to the source material these are not a million miles away from something like that Young Sherlock Holmes film. You can sort of believe Holmes had some notable capers as a youngster before he became a famous consulting detective and the same is certainly true of James Bond. You can also increasingly believe that the character in this book really does grow up to be the James Bond who has all of those famous missions in the Fleming series. Higson gives Bond an early obsession with death and mortality, something that of course would never be too far from the adult Bond's preoccupations given his dangerous line of work. One other very nice touch is having Bond bored and restless at the start of the story. Fleming had a word for this ("accidie") and it's a very Bondian trait. Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis aside, I've found the James Bond books written after Ian Fleming's death a struggle at the best of times and you probably wouldn't have lost an awful lot if some of them didn't exist but - despite the fact his books are aimed at younger readers - Higson conveys a better understanding of the world of Ian Fleming and the character than most of his precessors ever did.

In a sense, Higson has a more enviable task than John Gardner or Raymond Benson did and is given (ahem) carte blanche to build the character from the ground up and show the traits and personality of Fleming's Bond slowly falling into place. There is even more torture and sadism again (Fleming loved torture and sadism), Bond this time forced by some baddies to drink copious amounts of gin. He swears off drinking as an adult, a decent joke as the adult Bond could probably drink Oliver Reed under the table and still have room for a nightcap. Higson seems to have upped the violence quotient here and it's rather bloodthirsty at times, something which I'm sure younger readers will enjoy. There is a henchman who keeps losing body parts and all manner of murders and explosions. I think the mist shrouded graveyard sequence in particular is superbly done and reads like a tribute to bygone adventure novels. The period setting is definitely a plus here too. John Gardner and Raymond Benson had to present James Bond in the eighties and nineties and it's just much more charming and novel to have him in the 1930s, a decade of course that Fleming's Bond would have experienced as a schoolboy.
One of Fleming's trademarks was his habit of inserting factual information of great depth about whatever was related to Bond's mission. So, for example, in Live and Let Die, Fleming waffles on about voodoo being the invocation of evil denizens of the Voodoo pantheon and generally sounds like he's scribbling from an encyclopedia. It was sometimes fun and sometimes felt like padding but it did enable to reader and gain a crash course in whatever Bond was embroiled in, even if it was just his dinner. Higson does this too in tribute to Fleming and so you get a lot of information about things like rudimentary computers and London's East End. Maybe some of these passages could have done with an edit. As puzzle solving and codes are a big part of the story it's nice to see Alan Turing get a mention. The use of domestic locations is nicely done and look out for an old friend from SilverFin making an appearance here just in the nick of time. I like the way the book is split into three parts with Fleming-esque chapter titles and Bondian names abound again. You even get henchmen named Ludwig and Wolfgang. This is an undemanding but enjoyable read on the whole and another nice addition to the series.

- Jake

c 2013 Alternative 007
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