No one has ever been asked to continue the Matt Helm series, which seems a shame because at the time, Donald Hamilton's Gold Medal originals were considered by teenaged connoisseurs like myself to be far superior to James Bond. Helm was earthy, and his enemies tended to be more realistic, heavy on the Cold War and criminals and lighter on mad millionaires or scientists bent on world domination. Helm also seemed to have a more down-to-earth attitude toward violence, and killing. There was no '00' designation in whatever service employed him.
Bond, on the other hand, seemed more fantastical, and it appeared to be that quality which sold them to the general public (that and the endorsement of President Kennedy. JFK's reading Bond seemed much hipper than Ike's fondness for Zane Grey). The early Bond movies, if anything, seemed better than the books, catching a tongue in cheek flair without Fleming's embarrassment, whereas Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies ignored the grittiness of the Helm novels and were a reduction ad absurdam of Bond.
So I was intrigued when William Boyd's Solo arrived at the same time as one of Titan Books' new editions of Matt Helm, another chance to match the two super-spies against each other.
Literary writers have been recapitulating Bond ever since Kingsley Amis in 1968 (Amis had also published a study/defense of Bond three years earlier). There's been a real difficulty for them, especially in terms of continuity—do you go back to the Fleming Bond, or do you proceed with the Bond of the movies—who tongue has moved progressively deeper and deeper into the cheek with each new actor, and whose current Bond, as played by Daniel Craig, is Vinnie Jones in a dinner jacket, playing Texas Hold Em instead of chemin de fer, probably drinking his Irn Bru from the can, slightly shaken if not stirred—or do you come somewhere in between?After all, even Fleming modified his Bond to reflect the movies, giving him a Scottish backstory midway through the series.
Boyd has avoided all that by going back to basic Bond, but putting him into a William Boyd novel of colonial Africa. The book is set in the late Sixties, and the conflict into which Bond is inserted resembles the Biafran War, with Britain keen to protect its access to oil regardless of which side wins. As you might gather from that synopsis, there's a touch of moral questioning here, as if Bond weren't convinced enough of Britania's rightness to jump out of a plane with a Union Jack parachute, much less the Queen. At the same time, there are the requisite Bond touches of exotic savoir faire, particularly as the local station chief is a beautiful black woman named Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant and the main villain is a disfigured Rhodesian mercenary named Korbus Breed.
There's also a dastardly millionaire behind the scenes, a far-fetched drug smuggling sub-plot, and enough betrayal to make you feel right at home, because when the story gets back to simple revenge we get Bond at his best. It's the element of sado-masochism in Bond that explains a lot of their popularity, especially in the early days, and although Boyd obviously knows Africa well, it seems we're on firming footing when it's Bond on a more personal mission.
There's some sadism in Matt Helm too, since torture is part of the game, and more than a little betrayal, as Helm appears to be sleeping with the enemy as much to enjoy the risks as anything else. I didn't remember The Devastators, originally published in 1965, at all, and that may be because it isn't one of the better Helms. It's set in Britain, first in London and then in remote Scotland, and perhaps I'm more critical because I know the country better now than I did then.
It's strongest in its first-person narration; part of the added realism of the series was listening to Helm explain, without necessarily having to rationalise, what he's doing. It also seems a bit prissy in its sex, whereas Fleming, perhaps because he was writing a sort of fantasy, rarely seems that way...though he keeps the tongue in cheek rather than in other places. The one line I remember from Hamilton was the one that seemed to come whenever Helm kissed a new woman: 'she knew where the noses went'. I never quite figured that one out, but mercifully it doesn't actually appear in this one.
If I had to guess, I would think Hamilton was trying to nudge Bond in this novel, and signals that by setting it in Scotland, where there's a mad scientist type threat to civilisation as we know it with bubonic plague, no less. It's not fully successful, the book I mean, obviously not the plague, and if you're interested in dipping into the Helms I'd suggest you start with the first one Death Of A Citizen. But maybe we just can't go back to where we were in the Sixties, when we were the good guys, and sex was still something exotic in our reading. William Boyd gives it a try, but perhaps he can't get back there either.
Solo: A James Bond novel by William Boyd
Vintage Books, £7.99, ISBN 978-0099578970
The Devastators by Donald Hamilton
Titan Books, £7.99, ISBN 9781783292882
note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)