“Colonel Sun,” a non-Fleming Bond novel that feels right

I have always divided the literary and cinematic James Bonds in my mind.

I enjoy the movies, with the mini-helicopters and automobile ejector seats and explosions, but they seem to be about some other fellow, not the brooding but dutiful man Ian Fleming wrote about in his books. Sure, the two Bonds share some traits, and the similarities grew in the later novels as Fleming came to embrace some aspects of the movie version of his superspy. But still, to me, they remain separate guys, in separate universes.

I have had to do some more mental subdividing between Fleming’s 007 and the spy depicted by John Gardner, one of several writers who continued the Bond series of books after Fleming’s death. Gardner, and others after him, performed much the same maneuver as the film series adopted as the years marched onward, by taking the character out of the Cold War trappings Fleming depicted and updating everything to modern times with new technologies and new enemies. The character is still noticeably Bond, but the whole vibe is very different from what Fleming created. 

When reading those post-Fleming novels, I pull a maneuver of my own; I tell myself that “James Bond” is teally just a code name used over and over again for MI6’s top superspy and blunt instrument. This guy running around with cellphones and drones, fighting post-9/11 terrorism, isn’t really the same guy who battled SMERSH and the Russians back in the day.

 And it works, to a degree. I can enjoy a reasonably decent spy adventure about a guy who calls himself Bond, but isn’t, and that enables me to forgive the book for not being very Fleming-like. But I don’t love any of the Gardner books the way I love the Fleming books, and I felt no real desire to continue along with other 007 authors after exhausting Gardner. James Bond divorced from his Cold War era simply isn’t as much fun for me.

All of this brings me around to “Colonel Sun,” a Bond novel credited to Robert Markham, which was a pseudonym for Kingsley Amis. This novel, the first to carry on Fleming’s legacy, had been described in reviews as much closer in nature to the original than any of the subsequent Bond books. This was what made me track it down.

I can’t speak for any of the post-Gardner books, for I have not read them, but I can say that in reading “Colonel Sun” I did not have to deploy my “not really the same guy” trick. The prose style is different from Fleming’s — although similar, I should say — but the character is the same guy Fleming wrote about. Set in England and among islands near Greece, with a plot that could easily have been Fleming’s and occurring timewise right on the heels of “The Man with the Golden Gun,” this book grabbed me in a way none of the Gardner novels did. 

It’s Bond, minus the car chases and gadgets of the movies and minus the modern gadgetry and attitudes of Gardner. It’s Bond, in his original element tangling with a sadistic bad guy, surviving brutal torture and still getting the dangerous job done. It’s Bond, with the beautiful woman and a helpful sidekick or two and the sneaky, deadly action we’ve all come to expect.

I would recommend “Colonel Sun” to anyone who enjoyed the Fleming novels. It is not Fleming, but it is as close as anyone is likely to get.

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