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Never Say Die: James Bond Returns to the Page

When author Ian Fleming died in 1964, his great literary character James Bond was in sorry shape.

"Bond had been brainwashed and damaged and didn't really know if he was coming or going," says Sebastian Faulks, author of Engleby and Birdsong. There was even a question that the indomitable spy might be "damaged beyond repair," Faulks tells NPR's Robert Smith.

If anyone is familiar with the state of Bond, it's Faulks, the man Fleming's estate contracted to craft a new 007 thriller on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of Fleming's birth.

In the opening of Faulks' new book, Devil May Care, the debonair 007 has temporarily sworn off drinking and women. He stands naked in front of a mirror, studying his "network of scars," experiencing a rare moment of self-doubt.

It's a sentiment that Faulks shared when faced with the challenge of continuing the Bond saga. Fleming, a newspaperman, wrote in short, action-packed sentences and took just six weeks to finish his books. Picking up his series, says Faulks, was like trying to write "a perfect three-minute pop song."

"Initially I was very doubtful about whether I could really pull it off — or not sure that I wanted to," says Faulks.

His apprehension turned to excitement, though, as he re-read all of Fleming's books, discovering along the way that they were were "much, much better" than he expected.

"What they had above all was the sense of a man in terrible danger. Within 20 pages you feel your heart beginning to beat a bit faster, and you're worried for this guy," says Faulks. "Fairly quickly I began to think this is something that I could have a lot of fun doing."

To judge by Devil May Care, Faulks did have fun with the story — the book includes a villain with a hairy, apelike hand and a psychopathic killer named Chagrin. But he also developed a deeper, more serious affection for Bond, a character that brought sunshine and panache to postwar Britain, just as the nation was experiencing pangs of an empire lost.

"When you read the books in chronological order, you see just how appealing [Bond] must have been to Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s," says Faulks. "Suddenly along comes this guy who is jetting off all over the world, the sun is always shining. And the adventures that he has make it seem like Britain is still — or was still — a real power in the world.

"It does remind someone of my age, how I grew up, expecting in Western Europe to be annihilated more or less anytime in the Cold War. ... There is still resonance in that: the resourcefulness of one rather coldhearted — but very quick-witted — man pitted against a huge, vast implacable enemy."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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