While this book is the 39th in the official line of novels, my buddy read with BrokenTune is going straight into this after completing Goldfinger. It seemed only right to do so, seeing as how Trigger Mortis picks up shortly after the events of that original Fleming novel.
This is my second read through the book, the first being right after it was first released a year ago. I recall being astounded at how well Anthony Horowitz made the voice of this book sound as though Ian Fleming himself had written it, which for me is a primary point of consideration in a continuation novel. I’m pleased that my opinion of this still holds true. So far as pastiches go, this is one of the finest I’ve ever encountered for any character, which says something considering how many of them there are out in the wild. I’m also pleased I found this before I discovered his work on Sherlock Holmes, as I was so revolted by his efforts there that I would probably have not given this book a chance as a result. Thankfully I read this one first, and I can give it proper credit, separating the author’s efforts accordingly.
The author explains in the acknowledgements that perhaps only 400-500 words of this are actually Fleming’s, but that lost scrap of idea catapulted into quite an adventure. In the ’50s, Fleming wrote several episode treatments for a potential James Bond TV series that never saw production. Many of those ideas became the short stories found in For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy and the Living Daylights. Several more still remain untapped and unpublished. For a Bond fan, it sends geekbumps up my spine to know the origins of Trigger Mortis.
Picking up roughly two weeks after the events of Goldfinger, Bond is still in the company of Pussy Galore in much the same way he’s done a time or two before with carry-over Bond girls. In other words, at this point he’s bored with her, and he’s looking to bail. Duty first, after all. In short order, his new mission is offered up, which puts Bond in new territory: the world of Grand Prix racing. By new, that is to say Fleming didn’t put him there before. From there, the adventure opens up into a high stakes gambit involving SMERSH, a Korean nihilist, and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In keeping with Fleming’s style, a couple of points need to be noted. The first is, Bond is a man of his times, which is to say he’s the empty shell now being inhabited by the ghost of Ian Fleming and all of his extremely un-PC attitudes. There is womanizing to be had here. Likewise, there is some political and racial awkwardness that reflect the attitudes of the time. But what’s interesting is that in both cases, these are handled in such a way that seem somehow less offensive to modern sensibilities than Fleming’s own work. Still offensive, to be sure, but tempered. There is a modern awareness here. For example, the Korean villain Jai Seong Sin has a sympathetic backstory and no weird physical deformity that Fleming might have otherwise given him. Likewise, the Bond girls – all three of them – are smart. Pussy Galore seems to have lost her claws when we meet her here, but by the end of her appearance, she’s back in form and out on the prowl. Logan Fairfax is very clearly capable and used to competing in an otherwise man’s world, and what she’s capable of doing is made very clear when we see Bond try his hand at it. The third and most important Bond girl in the story, Jeopardy Lane, is not quite Bond’s equal in many cases, but she’s his superior in others. She holds her own and knows Bond better than he knows himself at times. Masterful characterization all around, in my humble opinion.
Also in keeping with the Fleming style, we’re treated to several moments of “dazzles with bullshit.” I seriously doubt I need to list out anything. Readers will recognize these moments as they come. Casual readers will scoff, and Bond fans will simply nod their heads and move on accordingly, if the notice at all. After all, Bond is a lot like Batman in that he can do whatever he needs to do, whenever he needs to do it, no questions asked or warranted. It was like that in Fleming’s day, and with each passing of the torch to a new writer, Bond is reworked through new eyes and new perceptions. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is one tiny world building detail that bugs me to no end. Horowitz actually says outright in the climax of the book that Bond is “one of three” agents in the secret service to have a 00 number granting him the license to kill. Um… what?! Where did he get that idea? Even if you operate under some conceit that the numbers are assigned randomly and not all of them are in current sequential use, Moonraker lists off more than three such agents by code number. Has SMERSH been picking them all off behind the scenes when no one was looking? This is kind of unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive detail that killed his Sherlock Holmes work for me almost immediately. This is a considerably more minor offense here than the inexcusable mess that he pulled on Holmes, but the devil’s in the details. These are the things that make world building work and ultimately make or break pastiches.
As narrator, David Oyelowo took an absurd amount of flack before this book was released. It’s truly depressing that there was a racial backlash to this. “The first black Bond! Say it isn’t so!” Pay no attention to the fact that Oyelowo is hardly the first black man to narrate a 007 audiobook. For those who have listened to the 007 Reloaded versions of the original Flemings, one will find Hugh Quarshie doing a fantastic job on Dr. No. I don’t seem to recall any such turmoil surrounding that one. Nor is it Oyelowo’s first time to voice the part of a white character. Look to Star Wars: Rebels for his scene-chewing turn as the sinster Agent Kallus. One of the wonderful things about narration and voice acting is that casting is color blind, and by nature of the audiobook beast it can’t be gender-specific either. A voice actor has to match the demands of the role, and an audiobook narrator has to inhabit all of the roles provided. Much like Daniel Craig did when he was first cast for the screen role, Oyelowo stepped up and performed admirably. And while Oyelowo didn’t have to do any stunt work physically, he did have to pull off the vocal equivalent. Some of his female and foreign voices might seem a little cartoony to some, but I applaud him for playing it straight and going for broke with a subtle but commanding performance. As Bond, he’s easily one of the best I’ve ever heard, which I knew the first time around would be a no-brainer after hearing his work on Rebels. He’s got a gravitas about him. And because it was a running gag on the 007 Reloaded versions, I’m happy to report that instead of giving us a weird “oh-oh-seven” pronunciation like some narrators, we’re treated to the classic “double-oh-seven.” You wouldn’t think that’d be a problem, but I’m still surprised how often that happened.
In any case, for the diehard Bond fans who can deal with the character’s old-world quirks, this is a fantastic book. Originally it was a 5-star read for me. Time and a second reading have lost some of the luster for me, but by no means enough to sabotage it. For those Bond fans who have not read Fleming, I would strongly suggest doing so for perspective on the character, but at the same time, this is a standalone adventure and works accordingly. All references to Goldfinger are explained, and references to previous books are quick enough to be inconsequential to newcomers.