Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis, 1968

Ian Fleming passed away in 1964, but his superspy alter ego seemed to be made of sterner stuff, especially in the Cold War era of the 1960s.  James Bond was, for all intents, the right hero — or antihero, depending on your point of view — for the right job.  Despite the loss of Fleming, 007 was going strong on the big screen and reaching ever-greater heights.  The sheer amount of knock-offs and spoofs only confirmed Bond’s popularity.  It was only natural that Bond’s original literary incarnation should continue.

Published in 1968 by Gildrose Productions, Colonel Sun was the first of the official “continuation novels” to carry on the legacy of Ian Fleming.  And not counting a couple of screenplay novelizations and John Pearson’s James Bond: The Authorised Biography of 007, it was also the last Bond novel to be published until John Gardner’s 1981 release of Licence Renewed.  That wasn’t the original plan, however.  Gildrose Productions had intended a series of James Bond novels by different authors in classic pulp novel fashion under a single pseudonym, “Robert Markham.”  I was unable to find a reason for only releasing one novel, but I suspect part of it may have something to do with the winds of change on screen.  One year after this novel, George Lazenby would take over for Connery, then Connery would step back in, and ultimately Roger Moore would claim the role as his own.  I don’t know to what extent the films played on the publishing mentality, but I’m certainly inclined to believe that world events and shifts in popular culture played a large part in the decision to pull the plug after this novel.  Or perhaps the book simply didn’t sell as they hoped.  I really don’t know.

That said, there is discussion to be had surrounding a continuation novel entitled Per Fine Ounce by Geoffrey Jenkins, almost the first of this line, which EON co-producer Harry Saltzman had rallied behind.  It was written in 1966 and ultimately rejected for publication, which caused Saltzman to “blackball” Colonel Sun for any possibility of future film treatment.  Be that as it may, there are most certainly elements of Colonel Sun that have inspired several tidbits in James Bond films.  The Grecian setting of For Your Eyes Only and M’s kidnapping in The World is Not Enough are notable possibilities that feature prominently in this book.  The elements that can be confirmed outright are a nod via the character of Colonel Tan-Sun Moon in Die Another Day and the torture sequence from SPECTRE, the latter of which was directly adapted, earning Kingsley Amis’ estate a screen credit.

The novel opens a few months following the events of The Man with the Golden Gun, with mention of the wounds Bond received from Scaramanga.  Bond and his best friend in the service Bill Tanner are playing golf.  Ostensibly, they are discussing M and recent health mandates passed to him from the service’s medical officer.  Unbeknownst to them, they are being watched.  Bond has been tailed in the weeks since his return to England as, according to the narration, it’s not usual for an agent to be tailed off-assignment.  There are no second guesses, no checkpoints, just routine and the illusion of safety which adds up to boredom, the number one enemy of 007.  Usually boredom leads to some manner of self-destruction for Bond.  This time, it’s an exterior threat that, quite frankly, seems immediately out of character to Fleming’s overtly careful shell of a man.  In short order, Bond makes his way to M’s residence, where M is tied up, hunched over, and clearly under the hostile control of the professional gunmen Bond encounters who seem to want him both “helpless and undamaged.”  After being subdued by the same drug used on M, Bond awakes in a police station after being found wandering in the woods.  From there, the service is alerted to M’s kidnapping, and the adventure begins.  Much ado is made about how M being smuggled out of the country by enemy forces unknown is “unprecedented” in peace time, and I can’t help but think that this convenient little story point, similar to Bond’s own lapse of caution, would never be allowed to happen if not for the sake of setting the adventure into motion.  I’d like to believe the kidnappers really are just that good, but if Bond can be caught unawares and the entire service seems to follow that pattern, it really just makes everyone look bad from the top down in the first three chapters alone, especially when the plan is to merely “sit and wait” for contact from the kidnappers in what is obviously not a typical ransom situation.  This, my friends, is the difference between a writer like Fleming, who knows how things operate, and a professional novelist with no practical experience in civil defense or espionage.  Then again, I also have to remind myself that by this point, “realism” — even Fleming’s idea of it — was no longer a factor in the minds of James Bond’s movie-going audience.

[Note: I promised myself I would keep an open mind and not compare this back to Fleming, but it’s so difficult not to do that now, all things considered.]

Thankfully, Bond is a man of action who is not only able to work through the clues and deduce a lure, he also understands that whatever the game is, the kidnappers are interested in him specifically, otherwise they would not have left him alive in the first place.  Seems like an awful lot of effort and high profile exposure to catch a single spy, which really is the name of the game in all the best pulp novels, so it’s hard to call that out without a grin.  All that remains is to spring the trap, encounter the femme fatale, and confront our supervillain.

Following the lure to Greece, Bond walks purposefully into the trap set by Ariadne Alexandrou.  Her loyalties are to Greece, but she is a Communist, so the allure (and illusion) of danger is produced by having a foot in each camp.  Bond ultimately teams up with her and her fellow agents as they attempt to discover more about, and to stop, an “event” that has the Soviets worried.  Ariadne enlists an old friend of hers, one Niko Litsas, who seeks vengeance upon a former Nazi officer Von Richter for horrors committed during World War II.

Litsas and Bond overtake a guard ship meant to keep them from reaching the small island of Vrakonisi, where Colonel Sun Liang-Tan is holding M, and where a Russian-led peace conference is being held.  Bond fears the Chinese will prevent the accords by attacking them out right, with the bodies of M and himself left to be found to lay blame at the feet of the British.  Ariadne is unable to convince the Russians of the threat, but General Arenski sets a plan into motion to lure Bond that doesn’t work.  Bond finds Sun and Von Richter mobilizing for their attack from Sun’s neighbor’s house and assumes M is there.

Our protagonists attack and are captured.  Bond is tortured in what can only be described as the centerpiece of this entire novel, dare I say the entire reason it was written.  He is freed by one of Sun’s female operatives, allowing Bond to stab Sun and free the others.  Von Richter is prevented from firing a mortar into the conference, and Litsas takes his revenge.  Sun, however, survived his stabbing, so Bond stabs him again.

The overall impression I got from the first half of this novel is that Kingsley Amis is more than aware of every single trope “classic bit” from both the Fleming novels and the Connery films while being completely unaware of how and why they work and/or more keen to show how clever he is by having Bond comment in the back of his as to how obvious and trite the people around him are being at any given turn.  In this respect, Bond is still the empty shell for the writer, but in this case, the writer isn’t a former spy.  He’s just a writer whose stock in trade is to be cynical in an era when cynical was in vogue.  This might have been fine in 1968, and it reads like a curious byproduct of its time, not unlike the original Fleming novels in that regard.  Then again, it might also have been more enjoyable when I was a lot younger or if I hadn’t just finished a classic novel from a much higher caliber writer.  Anything is possible.  I also realize how unpopular it may be for me to say that, given how highly Amis is regarded in both British literary circles and in Bond fandom.  I’ve never read any of his work before this point, and about halfway through this book I decided I needed to look him up and find out exactly who I was dealing with before continuing on.  I admit I should have done that before I started the book.  Now that I do know something of his background, Amis seemed like he was picked for his popularity at the time and enthusiasm for the subject matter, without any consideration of the writer’s actual abilties.  Personally, his politics and his sometimes anonymous criticisms of Bond seem like points that would have factored against him being picked for an official novel.

As I say, that was how I felt for the first half.

As the second half of this book begins to unfold, it really starts to feel like Bond, both in terms of Fleming’s style and in something of the big screen version we got from Connery’s performance.  There’s a transition in play here that manages to find a kind of character truth in portrayal of both versions.  The story reaches some manner of political depth and complexity in the second half that is the hallmark of some of Bond’s greatest adventures.  But everything in this story leads to that torture scene, as I’ve said.  I’d be willing to swear that Amis had this scene worked out years in advance as a fan of the Bond character and constructed the entire plot around that later when he was approached to write this book.  It’s definitely right that Amis got the screen credit for SPECTRE for that, though Sun’s methods were far less technological and clean than what Blofeld dealt out.  Aside from that, it’s almost a direct lift from print to screen… and per usual, the print version is better.

In the end, for whatever reason, this novel marked the end of the official line of 007 novels for another 13 years.  Fleming’s original novels had more than their fair share of flaws, but there’s a bite to them that Amis was unable to deliver until towards the end, something that may simply be indicative of Fleming’s personal writing style and worldview that Amis couldn’t align.  I feel like the first half of the book needed a complete rewrite so as to match the quality of the second half and potentially to raise it to a status it otherwise may deserve.  In the final analysis, this feels to me more like highly functioning fan fiction until the book reaches its crescendo to the finale.  That assessment may change with subsequent readings, but for now, that’s where I land.  It may be that in the years after Fleming, this may indeed be the right book for the right job in terms of giving literary Bond an identity freed of his creator, if such a idea can truly be achieved.  John Gardner’s run was far more successful and well-received by all accounts, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that unfolds on the road ahead.  The contrast between print and screen should be quite fascinating given that’s well into the Roger Moore era by that point.

I’ve got two complete sets of the original Fleming audiobooks: the 007 Reloaded versions with celebrity narrators and the original releases with Simon Vance as narrator.  I’m a fan of his work on both the Bond novels (notwithstanding his “oh-oh-seven” pronunciation vs. a proper “double-oh-seven” that I tend to prefer) as well as a great many other audiobooks; I think he’s one of the top narrators in the business, incapable of a substandard performance.  Given the number of different international accents in play, it’s good to have someone like Vance who can push the boundaries of characterization as-written without venturing into something terribly cartoonish.  In a Bond novel, such abilities need to be categorized as a superpower.  Bonus points for a sense of continuity from the Fleming era just on account.

9 thoughts on “Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis, 1968

  1. Well, it never hit the top of the best sellers list in ’68 (Airport was the biggest seller, by a good margin), and from what I can tell it never hit the top 10, either. (US, at least – don’t know about the UK.)

    I’ve read Kingsley Amis before – I found Lucky Jim (his first novel) funny, and The Alteration one of the strangest books I have read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard Lucky Jim is pretty much his defining novel. I may give it a shot for comparison purposes simply because this one was written under a pseudonym to mimic Fleming. Makes me wonder why they’d hire someone like Amis to hide that fact, but I suppose we may never know.

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        • That’s what my research turned up, yes. It reads like it at times, sadly, in some of the wrong ways. It’s like the writer hat and the fan hat are two different hats.

          I can’t say I did, but that definitely gives me an idea of how to approach it.

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