Friday, 28 September 2018

Colonel Sun (Kingsley Amis, 1968)

When M is kidnapped, James Bond follows a trail of clues to Greece. Once there he finds himself in an alliance with a beautiful Greek KGB agent with an agenda of her own. Together, they are in a race against time to prevent an act of terror with catastrophic implications for their respective power blocks. 

I found this book in a second-hand shop around 2000 - I was in the middle of finding all the Bond books, and this one stood out because it was a one-off and at the time I remember thinking it was the closest to capturing the feel of Fleming. I re-read it recently, and my impression of it was that

Written by Kingsley Amis (father of Martin) under the pseudonym Robert Markham, Colonel Sun was published in 1968, four years after Fleming's death (and two years after the release of the posthumous short story collection Octopussy & The Living Daylights). Amis had written a book about Bond called The James Bond Dossier and had consulted on the final editorial of Man With The Golden Gun after Ian Fleming had died - there are unconfirmed rumours that Amis may have worked on the manuscript to get it ready for publication.

This novel reads like an accomplished musician's cover of a popular tune: It gives you the melody but adds a new arrangement and adds new details and textures that fill out the lyrics and gives it new meaning.

Amis's approach is encapsulated by the opening, which feels specifically designed to assure fans. Amis opens with Bond on the golf course with Bill Tanner. Amis grounds the reader with familiar elements (the location; Tanner; the reference to Bond's injuries from his last (Fleming-penned) mission), before introducing something new - the pair are being watched.

While Bond's literary adventures had featured sequences in England (Moonraker; Goldfinger), generally speaking Fleming maintained a clear separation between Bond's private spaces and his work-life. By introducing an antagonist who is aware of Bond's identity and his habits, and is able to move in his spaces without Bond's knowledge, Amis is violating the unstated formula of the books. For once, Bond is not the active element, and by neutering him so early it undermines the reader's expectations. This short scene is paid off with M’s kidnapping from his house. 

Reading Colonel Sun, you really get a sense of Fleming's limitations as a writer, and Amis's understanding of those limitations, and how to exploit them. For one thing, Amis has more of a sense of humour than Fleming - one example is the Sir Randall Rideout, the Government Minister brought in to right the ship after M disappears. Functionally, the sequence in which he appears is meant to be the point where the situation crystallises and Bond is sent out on his mission. This scene could be dry and expositional, but the inclusion of the clueless Rideout, a blue blood who thinks he is above everyone else in the room, the scene is genuinely funny - and rather than detracting from the stakes, having Rideout there undercuts the sense that Bond's team are in control of what is going on.

The plot is based on an idea from Fleming's From Russia With Love - MI6 know that the clue to Greece is a lure, but they decide to follow it anyway. Here it has a greater sense of urgency, since M’s life is in the balance.

As far as the titular character, Amis's portrayal is based on the familiar stereotype of the evil Asian sociopath, but I give him credit for giving Colonel Sun his own voice and motivations. Generally speaking, Fleming does not do that - he hardly ever plays the story from his villains' POV, leaving the reader to piece them together from Bond's vague assertions. While Amis does not externalise Sun's evil, as some kind of physical scar or disability, in the way that Fleming did with his villains, Amis prefers to dig into Sun's mind. One creepy detail he gives Sun is his accent - he learned English from torturing British soldiers and his accent is an combination of a variety of  regional dialects and inflections.

So much of what makes this book stand out is the way Amis gives extra meaning to rote scenes - such as Bond’s first meeting with Ariadne, a Greek agent of the Soviets - he knows it is all fake, but goes along with it anyway, partially for the sake of his mission, and partially because he is enjoying himself. Once again, I feel like Amis is adding a little more shading to a sequence that Fleming may not try for.

As with Sun, Amis bothers to give Ariadne her motivations and ideology - in some ways she aligns with Bond, but their relationship does not lead to her having a change of heart. There is an air of fatalism to their rapport which makes it more meaningful - because of their jobs they both know it cannot last, and do not pretend otherwise. 

While the plot ends up being relatively straightforward, Amis does add a neat wrinkle: the Russians think Bond is trying to interfere with their conference, and end up getting in the way. Their leader, General Arenski, is a familiar secondary bad guy - he is a lazy politician with no imagination.

The Greek setting is well-handled, and Amis adds a neat layer of cynicism and melancholy to Bond's observations that feel more profound than Fleming's xenophobia - his Bond ponders globalisation, and how American pop culture and commercialism is starting to affect all of the places he loves to visit. In line with the plot and Bond and Ariadne's relationship, every element of Amis's book seems to be pre-occupied with the end of an era. This was Amis's only Bond novel, and I wonder if Colonel Sun was his attempt to signal that the world and ideas that had created Bond in the first place, were dying out.

In the Bond completes his mission, but there is a bitter after-taste to it all. Colonel Sun is appalled by his own actions, Bond and Ariadne go their seperate ways, and - in a tragic beat - no one ever finds out that an innocent fisherman who sold them a boat had been tortured and killed by Ariadne's employers. It adds an edge of bitterness to the ‘happy ending’, by leaving threads dangling.

Once again, Amis is doing something that Fleming could not. In all of his books, Fleming goes on about the dirtiness of Bond’s job, but Amis finds ways to layer that into the story, by creating juxtapositions, like the death of the fisherman, that undercut the romanticism of Bond's adventures.

Overall, Colonel Sun is a fine thriller that hits all of the tropes you would expect, but in ways that make it more involving.

If you are interested in more Bond-related content, check out the reviews below. You can also subscribe to the podcast I co-host, THE JAMES BOND COCKTAIL HOUR, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Den of Geek articles

Bond reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill


Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

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