x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Carte Blanche: Dubai-based James Bond novel is a licence to bore

The latest incarnation of the British secret agent is wearily anachronistic, annoyingly pretentious and just plain dull. He does, however, have surprisingly good taste in newspapers.

Bond's first assignment took him to Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional seaside resort on the coast of northern France, sandwiched between the real-life towns of Montreuil and Le Touquet.

It was 1953, and even the faded grandeur of the Casino Royale, just a few miles across the slate waters of La Manche, was a remote and impossibly exotic world to most of Ian Fleming's readers. Indeed, while 007 celebrated the downfall of Her Majesty's enemies with a late breakfast of three scrambled eggs and a pint of orange juice, Britain was still a place where even butter and sugar were rationed.

Now it is 2011 and the coast of Picardy has become a place where the English middle classes, snug in their Volvos and Range Rovers, are deposited by car ferry or Le Shuttle to begin the great race south to their villas in Provence and Tuscany.

Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche is likely to be a popular poolside choice this summer. The latest Bond episode is, depending on how you count them, the 39th or 41st novel to feature the world's most enduring secret agent, of which only 12 were written by his creator.

An American thriller writer with a fondness for the grotesque (his best-known creation is a quadriplegic detective called Lincoln Rhyme), Deaver was hand-picked for the job by the Fleming estate and presumably not just because his seriously cadaverous appearance would make a terrific Bond villain.

In Carte Blanche, Deaver has our hero once again packing his passport, but a day trip to Calais will no longer suffice. Instead Bond heads to Dubai (where he famously outs himself as a fan of The National), pauses to administer some brief mayhem, then catches an Emirates Airline flight - sorry "Air Emirates" - to South Africa for the denouement.

And here's the first problem with 2011 Bond. Been there. Done that. And bought the T-shirt. Bond arrives in Dubai by private jet, but Paris Hilton and Donald Trump have already beaten him to it. English footballers own half the houses on the Palm Jumeirah, and it's hard to imagine anything less exotic than that. South Africa feels equally familiar, and not least because several billion of us watched the World Cup there last year. It's another favourite of the travel supplements. Arriving at Cape Town's international airport, you are more likely to be confronted by a parentally funded gap-year student heading for the Kruger National Park than a team of assassins employed by a mysterious billionaire bent on world domination.

It's a problem 007 faces wherever he goes these days. Skiing off-piste in Zermatt? So are half the accountants in Switzerland. Taking cocktails on a Caribbean beach? Watch out for those honeymooners from Ohio. Bond may be a man of the world, but thanks to easyJet and Trip Advisor, so is everybody else.

So what are we left with? Well, there's Bond's air of invincibility. He is still the master of everything, from the rules of baccarat and the vintages of Burgundy - "Puligny-Montrachet, the highest incarnation of the chardonnay grape" - to the nuances of 20 different types of caviar (although not yet the variety that is made in Musaffah) or exactly the right way to disassemble his favourite Walther PPK.

But here's the second problem with 2011 Bond. He's not so much a sophisticated man of the world as a pretentious nuisance; a lethal combination of a pub quiz bore and Google. Listening to him is like being trampled to death by a stampede of Wikipedia pages.

Whole sections of Carte Blanche sag under the weight of these encyclopaedic detours. When Bond pursues saboteurs off road in the Balkans, we pause to learn that the car "crashed over brush, saplings, narcissi and the raspberry bushes that grew everywhere in Serbia".

Reaching South Africa, 007 turns his attention to a scene in the arrivals hall; "some wore traditional African garb: men's dashikis and brocade sets and, for the women, kente kaftans and headwrap, all brightly coloured".

Walking to his next rendezvous, Bond detects "several distinct languages and many more dialects". He is "fascinated by the clicking in African languages; in some worlds, the mouth and tongue create that very sound for consonants. Khosan - spoken by the original inhabitants of this part of Africa - made the most use of it, although Zulus and Xhosas also clicked". Useful to know.

Elsewhere, Bond demonstrates his mastery of Arabic by using the word "shukran" after being handed a glass of "the King of Moets, Dom Perignon" on a private Grumman 650 jet (the Rolls-Royce engines are faster than the villain's regular Grumman) to the Gulf.

The stewardess apologises for waking him with the pop of the cork. Soon she brings him lunch. "Iranian caviar - beluga of course - with toast, not blinis, crème fraîche and capers." The onions, grated, of course, "are Vidalia, from America, the sweetest in the world". Somehow "beef or chicken" seems less fuss.

Paul Johnson, the left-wing writer and journalist, once described Fleming's Dr No as "without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read". with "the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult".

Deaver's Bond is none of these. Instead he's a bit dull really. One reason is that there are some things that are so wearily anachronistic that no modern writer can touch with a straight face. Bond's womanising is almost a thing of the past. His secretary "resembles Kate Winslet" and is called Mary Goodnight, but mainly, it seems, so he can greet her with "Good morning Goodnight".

Bond runs a vaguely covetous eye over his brilliant and beautiful assistant, Ophelia Maidenstone (seriously), but backs off when he discovers she is engaged to be married. Eventually he gets lucky with one Felicity Willing, which must be satire.

This brings us to the biggest problem of Bond 2011. What is he for? The old Bond battled Soviet counter-intelligence, SMERSH and later SPECTRE, a secretive terror criminal network bent on global extortion. The Cold War banished the former, while Dr Evil in the Austin Powers spoofs surely finished the latter as a credible plot device.

Deaver's bad guys wear an environmentalist disguise, as did the principal villain in the second Daniel Craig Bond, Quantum of Solace (continuing to find believable plot lines dogs both the latest print and film), but neither make you exactly fear for the future of western civilisation.

Sebastian Faulks, without doubt the most significant writer since Fleming, attempted to restore some of the earlier excitement by taking his Bond back to the 1960s with Devil May Care in 2008, but the tension was missing (we all know who won the Cold War). The latest Bond is a veteran of Afghanistan, ex-special forces etc, but nothing of that struggle in carried over into Carte Blanche.

Instead we have Severan Hydt, a weirdo who doesn't cut his fingernails and has necrophilic tendencies. Hydt is clearly Deaver's invention but the problem with an assignment like Bond is that it doesn't allow a lot of scope. The books, and perhaps above all the films, have created the artistic equivalent of a full body cast. You might as well attempt to replace Monty Norman's James Bond Theme with the title music from Sex and the City.

All writers like Deaver can do is tinker. Bond now drives a Bentley Continental GT, with his father's E-type Jaguar as backup. He is given a smart mobile device packed with secret gadgets called the "iQphone." There's an attempt to justify the often mocked "shaken not stirred" martini because it chills the drink better and "aerated it too, improving the flavour considerably". Deaver even engineers a clever little backstory about Bond's parents, that suggests he may be angling for a sequel.

But Deaver can't kill Bond, change the colour of his skin, question his patriotism or do anything radical at all really. There's nothing he can do but lay the ground for the next instalment in a franchise that refuses to die another day. As they say in the movie credits: "James Bond Will Return".

James Langton edits the Weekender section of The National.