Friday, 17 July 1998

Robert Markham: Colonel Sun (1968)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1968
Review number: 90

I don't think that the existence of this book is terribly well-known. It's a James Bond book written in the late sixties, and is not by either Ian Fleming or John Gardner, who was licensed to continue the series by the Fleming estate. In fact, Robert Markham is a pseudonym used by Kingsley Amis, of all people, a big fan of Ian Fleming.

Bond goes to meet M at his home in Surrey, and is surprised there by a gang of thugs who have kidnapped M and want to take James as well. Escaping from them with a superhuman effort, he returns later to find clues pointing to Athens. Knowing these to have been planted by his attackers, Bond decides he has to put his head into the trap in order to be able to save M from them.

The kidnapping is part of a complex Chinese plot to sabotage a conference of Middle Eastern countries taking place on a remote Greek island; the conference is run by Russians without the knowledge of the Greek government. The idea is to attack the conference with British-made weapons and then leave the bodies of Bond and M to make it look like a British attack, causing a loss of esteem for British interests and embarrassment for the Russians.

The book is exciting, and Amis-as-Markham has rather more of a sense of humour than Fleming. I would say its standard is at least on a par with the majority of Fleming's own novels, and better than the worst of them (such as The Spy Who Loved Me). The tension drops a little bit in the middle, which describes what is basically a short cruise in the Aegean, perhaps more exotic to readers in 1968.

In the end, I felt the book reminded me rather more strongly of Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise series than the Fleming Bond books. There is a slight tendency towards "pornography of violence" in that series and here; there is an extremely unpleasant torture sequence conducted by the half-mad Chinese Colonel Sun on Bond to test the theory of the Marquis de Sade that torturing another human being would make him feel like a god. (He later admits that it made him feel evil and ashamed, which is perhaps better than expected from this genre of fiction.)

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