Wednesday, 20 November 2013

When Rebus met Bond: The Nine Quid Tesco Showdown

So I'm in Tesco (Big Huge version) in Glasgow's Maryhill, shopping, as ever during visits to the various offspring and grand-offspring, for cheap socks and to see if there's a discount on Duvel Golden Ale.

Now I know it's morally wrong to buy books in supermarkets. You should buy them in quaint independent stores where the charmingly irascible owner sits knitting, you get bad free instant coffee and the shelves are collapsible climbing hazards for toddlers. And a new lump of hardback fiction costs £18.99.
But the Rankin and the Boyd (and it's very much a Boyd) under consideration here were £9 apiece in the Big T. Less than half RRP. I'm sorry, but that's paperback pricing and, for an itinerant bibliophile suffering a late allergic reaction to Kindles of all shades, irresistible. So, no cheap Duvel, but I exited with hosiery and fictive skulduggery.

Boyd first, and Solo is the latest in the Fleming Estate's commissions of fresh Bondage by established contemporary authors. Step forward with a riddy, Sebastian Faulks. It is by some considerable distance the best post-Fleming Bond, and is arguably better than some of Fleming's own efforts. Faultless, no, but a splendid read nevertheless. And I admit that I was biased, in that Boyd's Any Human Heart is among my favourite novels of the past two decades and his Restless one of the slickest lit-thrillers I've read.

We find Bond in 1969, ageing but still indulging himself in booze, cars, fags and sex to a mordantly entertaining degree. At first I thought he was going to die of throat cancer by the last chapter. But no, that's just one of Boyd's little teases. He has Fleming's approach to Literary (not filmic) Bondworld nailed down with the exactitude of the real fan - all the brand names, gun-tech, anal-retentive car love and curiously coy randiness. But while it comes close to pastiche, this is no tedious tribute. Boyd's own deep affection for and knowledge of Africa provides the main setting and a degree of political insight which is both relevant to today and truly tough-minded. This Bond is much more socially engaged than Fleming's ever was, sympathetic and merciful, concerned and generous. And strangely vulnerable, even weak on occasion. Yes, the book has a truly horrible supervillain, and two women offering varieties of voluptuous charm. Bond has a form of very violent revenge but his triumph is questionable.

It's a compulsive read, but it's cool, not cold as Fleming's near-psychopathic creature was. It's on reflection after completion that the little references and resonances surface: The Jensen FF/Interceptor conundrum – a fly nod to Simon Dutton in The Saint and Robert Vaughan's The Protectors, and the car Bond never drove either on the page or in a movie. The eerie non-assassination's hints of both Deeley Plaza and (curiously out of print) The Day of theJackal. The CIA agent called Brigham, the wee tip of the hat to Puppet on a Chain by the great Alistair Maclean, and others I will leave you to find for yourself. Plot is where it falls down slightly, the explanation at the end by Felix Leiter just a bit too clunky to be meant ironically. But Solo is very good, bibulous company.

And so to Edinburgh, where Bond was of course educated (and there's loads of Caledonian references in Solo) and a somewhat earthier approach to drink. Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible uses a Jackie Leven quote as its title, as opposed to a misheard Leven lyric as the name of Rebus's previous outing, Standing In Another Man's Grave.

I thought SIAMG was a great read, and seemed looser and more playful than previous Rankins, with its whimsical road movie/whisky tour elements. It shared with his other books, though, one of Rankin's major strengths, which is more than an ability to evoke a sense of place. His books are properly located, not just in their excellent capturing of geography - the sights, smells, sounds and people – but in time, too. Saints of the Shadow Bible is set in today's Scotland, and both police reorganisation and the referendum debate inform and enliven the plot, giving it depth and edge.

There are clever TV references as well as the usual musical ones (the late Rory Gallagher's Sinner Boy at one point, providing synergy with the Rankin/Gallagher project Kickback City). Life on Mars is 'a documentary' when it comes to 70s policing. Rebus seems to be heading for an alcohol crisis (but when wasn't he?), and there are hints that healthy living may be staring him in his broken-veined face: Soda water and lime? Jings! Am I detecting a wee wink at Psycho, too? To say more would give too much away.

The book has one of the best-engineered plots of recent Rankins, and the bringing together of Rebus with Fox, his in-house adversary and main protagonist of the Complaints books, works brilliantly, paving the way I'd guess for future collaborations between the two. But as with Boyd's Bond, the use of branded detail is note-perfect (particularly good on using cars to define characters: eg a wonderfully awful white Range Rover Evoque) and there are some very funny moments.

Some people swear that Black and Blue is Rankin at the top of his form, but I prefer the assured delicacy of touch, complexity, humour and casual verve you find here. By now we know all the central characters – Rebus, Fox, Clarke – their quirks, foibles and annoying tics. And crucially, we care what happens to them.

Enough to pay nine quid for the next hardback...