DOUBLE OR DIE
Double or Die has a misleading title.
While playing and winning the card game ‘Hearts,’ the young James Bond is actually advised to “shoot the moon.” When he ventures ill-advisedly into the illicit Paradice casino and wins over seven hundred pounds at roulette, he isn’t advised to do anything, making his own lucky rash decision to bet on his favourite number, which unsurprisingly turns out to be 7. This small quibble aside, Charlie Higson’s third continuation novel carries on pretty much where the other two left off by following a fairly generic pattern.
Once more there is foul play amongst the Etonians. This time the science master Alexis Fairburn has been kidnapped by Russian Communists who want him to construct a number crunching code breaking machine called Nemesis, a very basic and exceedingly large computer. James Bond and his pals Perry Mandeville, Pritpal Nandra and Red Kelly are first forced to solve a baffling crossword and then battle London gangsters and Soviet hard men.
It’s an untidy mix. The faffing about with coded letters, secret societies and cryptic clues reads like something from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. The dealings with the odious villains meanwhile feel palpably real, much more so than in Blood Fever, which was an agreeable cut above Silverfin. What sets Double or Die apart from all that came before in Higson’s world is his protagonist’s sudden preoccupation with death.
The chief villain, Sir John Charnage is a drunk, a gambler and an idealist. All three Achilles heels were formed during The Great War (“He never understood how any government could send its young men off to die like that…the country that sent [him] to Gallipoli… the men who rule this world are nothing but a bunch of gangsters”). I suspect his name should be pronounced with a silent ‘h’ to reinforce his anger and remorse. These experiences turned him into a communist and were fundamental to his seed of treason. Unfortunately, as Higson saddles Charnage with a love of material success, there is a contradictory pattern to the man’s behaviour that renders him ineffectual as a Bolshevik, a point emphasized by Colonel 'Babushka' Sveda, a wicked black-eyed bitch of a woman, who ultimately tempts James Bond to murder. The young Bond is not yet equipped for that sacrifice: “He felt cold and alone.”
This young man is clearly growing up. He may still struggle to cope with the attentions of the impish Kelly Kelly, a ragamuffin of a girl who clearly takes a shine to our Master Bond, but he also understands that the rich can be as embittered as the poor and “people were pretty well the same the world over.” The annoying rich boy-poor girl romance has overtures of Titanic, but I think it’s worth glossing over this dumbed down romantic mini-subplot as it is clearly designed for light relief amongst a very bleak story.
James Bond however, is a quite different fish however; one of his friend’s eugolgises that he’s “a magnet for danger,” a comment he does nothing to refute. He also has several moments of inner reflection, for his Aunt, his uncle Max or his deceased parents; Christmas is a bleak time “swallowed up by the black shadow of sadness.”
Unlike the previous adventures, James Bond comes ever closer to his own death, nearly crushed between boats, nearly killed in a car crash, nearly shot, nearly poisoned by gin. The latter scene is wonderfully described, as the virtually teetotal James Bond is forced to down pint after pint of gin until “the room began to spin, greasy and dizzying…the blood roaring and whining in his ears… the fumes were coming back up his gullet and shrouding his face in a foul mist.” This clearly explains why Bond prefers vodka and not the traditional gin martini.
Equally he experiences much more. He finds a scientist dead at his desk (“a lump of flesh… the only part of Peterson that was alive was the bacteria in his stomach… already it was beginning to rot and decay”) and witnesses a man shorn in half by the whiplash of a tug rope. Twice he wanders the streets in a daze, unaware of where he is or what he is doing, as if his agony only has one end, “his body was numb, he had lost all feeling, he felt calm and peaceful. He wondered if this was how it felt to die.”
Even Highgate Cemetery, “a city for the dead,” is losing its fight against the inevitable, “like the corpses beneath the ground it was rotting and returning to chaos.” Indeed death is even stalking the living; one of the Smith Brothers, a pair of evil henchmen, resembles a living skull, and James Bond is constantly aware of his death-like appearance. It even haunts him in the Cabinet of Curiosities at the Royal College of Surgeons:
“underneath your skin was a grinning skeleton. Sooner or later we all die. If violence didn’t get you, disease would, and if somehow all diseases in the world missed you, then there was only old age to look forward to and the slow decay of the body.”
This feels very Fleming and I can only applaud Higson in his efforts to render something of the Master’s writing, his awareness, his melancholy, and frame it for the younger reader. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the prologue, seven pages of almost sublime indifference as a frightened man considers life and its consequences:
“The human brain is a remarkable object. It contains a hundred billion neurons, all talking to each other via tiny electrical sparks, like a never-ending fireworks display inside your skull… the brain is a hungry machine. It never shuts down. Even when you are asleep it is awake, keeping your lungs breathing, your heart beating, the blood flowing through your veins. Without your brain you can do nothing… Alexis Fairburn was painfully aware of this because there was a pistol pointing at his head.”
This is a bravura opening to a thriller, one to rival Fleming’s own for Goldfinger, and I immediately began to identify with the character of Fairburn. The later revelations from James Bond also made me much more aware of the adolescent growing, learning to be a man, and in the most desperate of fashions.
It’s a pity the labored Agatha Christie-ish crossword plot occupies so much Double or Die, because there are some genuinely provoking thoughts among the balderdash. For all that, many of the spine chilling scenes of violence and torture don’t seem suitable for very young readers. Higson has raised his game, but he seems to be aiming at a different market altogether.
5 from 10
Last edited by chrisno1 (7th May 2011 13:51)