Writing a James Bond novel, like performing gymnastics, comes with compulsories. A gymnast has to hit certain marks: the long-hang kip, the flyaway dismount, the backward roll to push-up position. So, too, with Bond. If you’ve been chosen by the estate to extend the work of Ian Fleming—the original 12 novels have grown to 41—then you must refer to the gunmetal cigarette case and the Sea Island cotton shirts; you must bring in M and Miss Moneypenny and the Balkan blend from Morland; you must mention the martinis prepared in a manner we all know. The winks can become a facial tic.
There are important decisions to make. Do you update Bond to the present, or do you set the story in the 1950s and 1960s, the period of Fleming’s own books? There’s also the matter of tone. A Sherlock Holmes pastiche can mimic Conan Doyle’s voice precisely. A Bond pastiche wants some distance from Fleming. Everyone knows the Bond movies, with their sardonic flair. Few know the dark literary canon. Fleming’s books are spare, fast-paced, and better written than you might expect. But they are shot through with sadism, cruelty, and revulsion at non-Anglo-Saxons. They make you wonder about the author. (The standard photo of Fleming—insouciant, with cigarette holder—is not reassuring.) Within bounds, a modern writer needs some freedom.
Poirot to Bond
For the past decade or so, the Bond franchise has been in the skilled hands of Anthony Horowitz. Is there nothing he can’t do? His Alex Rider series brought spy fiction to teenagers everywhere. He wrote episodes of Poirot and Midsomer Murders before goingon to create Foyle’s War. Horowitz has produced two Sherlock Holmes novels and three novels featuring himself paired up with a fictional detective of his own invention, the irascible and secretive Daniel Hawthorne.
His first two Bond outings were superior efforts. Horowitz resisted the temptation to modernize Bond. Trigger Mortis (2015) takes place shortly after the events of Goldfinger. In Forever and a Day (2018), which falls chronologically before the first Fleming novel, Casino Royale, there’s no need for winking because this is a prequel, and Horowitz grabs the opportunity to explain how those familiar reference points came to be in the first place: Where did Bond get that gunmetal cigarette case? Why does he like his martinis the way he does?
With a Mind to Kill is Horowitz’s third Bond novel, and the most ambitious in this trilogy. Whether ambition is an asset will be a matter of taste. The action takes place soon after the events described in The Man with the Golden Gun: Bond, brainwashed by the Russians, attempts to kill M with a cyanide pistol before being deprogrammed and sent on another mission.
Horowitz cleverly asks, What if? What if the Secret Service created the illusion that the attempt on M had succeeded? Bond would be sprung from captivity by his grateful Russian handlers and exfiltrated back to Moscow. He would be subjected to intense psychological torture to confirm that his compliance is genuine. But Comrade Bond would be well placed to work from the inside against a brutal new intelligence network, the Steel Hand.
The book opens with M’s funeral. It comes to a climax on the rooftop of the state opera house in East Berlin. Horowitz is a master of quick portraiture. The personality of an Old Etonian: “built on foundations of low self-esteem, a fear of women, and the emotional range of an adolescent.” A Russian observer at the cemetery, giving orders: “‘Pozvony im.’ Make the call. His lips were bulbous, the words spat out like grape pips.”
The villain of the story is Colonel Boris, the psychiatrist who had programmed Bond to kill M. He has eyes of different colors and “Botticelli lips” that occasionally stretch “into something faintly resembling a smile.” When lecturing Bond, he adds “James” to his sentences with menacing intimacy, as all Bond villains do. Colonel Boris must make sure that Bond is up to no tricks: the Steel Hand has another job for him. The colonel’s assistant is the beautiful Katya, and after an introduction like this one—“She showed no interest in men. And there was something cold about her, an authoritarianism in her eyes and in the way she moved that made her untouchable”—we know what’s coming.
Horowitz lingers over detail: the new typewriter used by a senior secretary at the Home Office, an IBM Selectric with its “silver golf ball that swiveled and then leapt up to plant the correct letter on the page”; the gas-powered, semi-automatic Dragunov sniper rifle that Bond tries out, with its “stadiometric rangefinder and infrared detector”; the black rose sent to M’s funeral from the only place where “true specimens” are cultivated, “the village of Halfeti on the banks of the Euphrates.” Bond doesn’t just get injected with a psychotropic drug; the needle enters “the cephalic vein of his left arm.” On occasion, Horowitz will pause for an instant to capture time and place, as in this evocation of Khrushchev’s dreary Moscow: “The young lovers that he would have seen clinging onto each other on every corner of London or Paris had stayed at home. Or perhaps they’d never met.”
Where did Bond get that gunmetal cigarette case? Why does he like his martinis the way he does?
With a Mind to Kill is one of the best-written Bond novels ever published. It’s also one of the more ambitious: It tries to get inside Bond’s head, and in fact it needs to. Colonel Boris’s psychological gamesmanship lies at the story’s core. To understand the brutal game demands a sense of Bond’s inner life, something not much glimpsed in the seven decades since Bond arrived on the scene. Every glimpse entails a slowing of the pace, a very palpable shifting down of gears.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But it is unfamiliar. And one can ask: How three-dimensional do we want 007 to be? His existence as a cipher is itself a dimension, mysterious and seductive.
As he listens to the orchestra in East Berlin, the novel rising to a crescendo, Horowitz’s Bond finds his thoughts drifting to something he read in a biography of Beethoven. Good to know he had time for that doorstopper, but what will such thoughts do for his reaction time? A reader’s own thoughts may drift to Casino Royale and a comment by Bond’s friend René Mathis, of the Deuxième Bureau: “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles. But don’t let me down and become human yourself.”
Cullen Murphy is an editor at large for The Atlantic and the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America