Last year the well-known thriller writer Anthony Horowitz penned Trigger Mortis, the latest in a loose series of revisionist Bond novels by contemporary authors attempting to revisit and reimagine Ian Fleming’s 1950s hero for a modern audience. The first three entries have had rather mixed results; each has some gem of interest, but none has been paved with gold. Horowitz mines a similar seam.
Trigger Mortis takes place immediately after Fleming’s own Goldfinger and utilizes the bones of a short story the Master abandoned called ‘Murder on Wheels’, an episode to be included in a prospective James Bond T.V. series. Horowitz has genuine passion for Fleming and his enthusiasm about the inclusion of this story is well intended. My concern is that he dotes on it too much and that in doing so he has now actually written two adventures poorly bound together.
There was a reason ‘Murder on Wheels’ was a short story: it hasn’t got the meat on the bones to sustain a novel’s full structure. Horowitz invitingly expands the motor racing scenario, but in doing so he relegates the original story to almost a footnote, which begs the question why he bothered to include it in the first place. More on that later. It is heartening to note the fine stuff on display here, including some well annotated racing scenes, but the author commits another tactical error by failing to place the villain centre stage during these early confrontations [unlike say in the opening chapters onMoonraker, Goldfinger or even Gardner’s License Renewed]. This allows the exercise to lose much of its significance later in the novel as the actions seem only barely related. In fact, the further I read, the less I cared about the events at the Nurburgring and the Soviet spy Ivan Dimitrov. So unsure is the author he has tagged on a sinister prologue describing the death of a prominent U.S. rocket scientist which, unlike the motor racing, is much more relevant to the overall narrative.
Horowitz also brings back one of Fleming’s own heroines, Pussy Galore, and has Bond engaged in a frigid relationship, warmed only by sex, both partners equally desperate to end it. There was much press fanfare about this, but when The Mail on Sunday makes a statement like: ‘the return of the best Bond girl of them all, I’d have to question the reasoning. Pussy hardly features in Goldfinger and for the most part she is a willing accessory to a madman’s plan. Her sudden change of heart is as unlikely as her seduction by James Bond. Her character, while consummately well-drawn, wasn’t believable. Perhaps though, her sudden change of heart here is a reasonable reflection of her indifference to commitment.
In fairness Horowitz makes a decent stab at dissecting Bond’s home and love life. Added to this awkward domesticity is some stage-managed nastiness involving American hoodlums, nudity and gold paint at a Stone Age site, the Devil’s Own. All this early action though seems entirely irrelevant, merely another nod towards Fleming-ism, so much so we even have another softly spoken lesbian love affair for Pussy, this time provided by Bond’s racing instructor, the fetching Logan Fairfax. This grated with me too as while Horowitz has made much effort to affect Fleming’s world, one feels Bond’s creator would never have put the female of the species behind the wheel of a Cooper-Climax T43. It’s simply all too convenient in Horowitz’s world.
Once the motor race kicks off, the novel picks up considerably. A few exciting circuits of the Nurburgring later and Bond is attending a swish party at a grand castle and doing some surreptitious spying as he sips champagne. It’s all very grand, outrageous and good fun; very Fleming. I enjoyed the scenes at Schloss Bronsart. The introduction of both Sin Jai-Seong (the Korean bad guy, handily re-termed Jason Sin) and Jeopardy Lane (an American spy of dubious talents and many good looks) are handled well and there is an element of surprise and daring here. But too quickly Horowitz begins to make the same mistakes as all the other recent continuation authors. His villain becomes a pastiche of a Fleming creation – in this case Hugo Drax – and the heroine has to be a secret agent. This is a never spoken nod to the politically correct and wholly emancipated 21st century; Fleming’s women were rarely spies and when so rarely displayed such solid capabilities.
In fact, Jeopardy Lane is an excellent character. She is closer to Gala Brand, certainly in the sex-less friendship she strikes with OO7, but also in that she is intelligent, opinionated and prone to the occasional lapse which will put her and Bond in peril. Indeed, as I mention above, she felt a little too modern and that doesn’t sit well in a novel set in the late 1950s.
Jason Sin meanwhile is your typical rapscallion psychopath, a one dimensional deluded monster. I had little sympathy for him – I’m not sure the reader is supposed to – and his long winded tete-a-tete with bond only exposes the convoluted nature of his plan to destroy the Empire State Building. To do this, Sin plans to explode a device underneath the tower which will simulate the impact of falling debris from a Vanguard nuclear missile, one that will be destroyed in mid-air seconds before. I didn’t buy it for a minute. If Sin can successfully explode the missile, why doesn’t he simply explode it over New York in the first place? The potential ramifications would be the same, his aim of Soviet domination achieved; ah, but then there would be no long-winded train-borne climax for Horowitz to construct.
Before that extended and entirely forgettable enterprise we have the best section of the novel, where Bond plays Sin’s game of death and chooses his own execution from a stack of playing cards. This tense sequence is slightly spoilt by us already having seen it [a cinematic device Fleming would never have employed] and by Sin’s petulant displays; far better surely to have the adorable Jeopardy Lane seal Bond’s death warrant? After all she wouldn’t know the cards can be marked, would she? Mind, the nineteenth chapter, cryptically entitled ‘Six Feet Under’, is a proper tour-de-force of drama and suspense as our hero is buried alive in a bald coffin: “So dark in this tiny space. Blind. No room to move. The weight of the earth pressing down. No air.” There is a real sense of fear and futility. It’s a page turning scene indeed and reminiscent of the best of Ian Fleming.
The remainder of the piece, an extended chase through New York, is all a bit hit and miss. Much of it I could do without. Ends are neatly tied, nothing surprises. That sounds like a criticism, but I wouldn’t expect anything else in a Bond novel. Trigger Mortis is a comparative triumph compared to its immediate predecessors. It’s easy to read and I didn’t consider it poorly written. It isn’t as slack as Faulk’s Devil May Care, as intricate as Carte Blanche or as dull as Solo; in fact it’s very pacey and has a strong central character in an emotionally uncertain Bond, who only finds satisfaction in the danger of his work, but who fears his own death and the people who can administer it.
I feel I should say ‘Bravo!’ to Mr Horowitz. Trigger Mortis misses the florid speak of Fleming, but it doesn’t lack urgency and proceeds with some guile. It’s certainly on a par with the very best of Gardner as well as Kingsley Amis’s lone follow up Colonel Sun – a novel which feels better and better as more and more continuation stories appear. A touch less Fleming-fawning would aid this book’s impact, but I can’t argue that I didn’t enjoy it, for in the main I did. Bravo then, just.
6 from 10