“Bond crossed the threshold of M’s bedroom…and came face to face with M himself. A gasp of horror tore at Bond’s throat. M sat in a…chair. His shoulders were hunched…and his hands hung loosely between his knees…his eyes fastened on Bond. There was no recognition in them…”
“Colonel Sun” by Robert Markham (1968)
I’m a completeist. I want “the whole set”. I was fascinated by the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and when I learned that it was based on a series of books I sought them out and began buying them at book stores and garage sales. I bought a handful of them before I even read the first one, Master and Commander (1969). After reading the first one, it was several years before I tackled the second, Post Captain (1972), a novel I really struggled with. I eventually abandoned reading it, something I never do, and this got me thinking about my completeist tendencies. Do I want “all of them” because I want all of them or just because I want to see the whole set – no holes – on my shelf? This also got me thinking about James Bond books.
Most people know that novelist Ian Fleming created the character James Bond, initially featuring him in 1953’s Casino Royale, and subsequently writing eleven more novels before passing away in 1964. I have no regrets about collecting, owning and reading all of Fleming’s Bond novels. I’m additionally pleased to own them all in mid-1960’s Pan paperback editions. But Bond the literary character lived on after Fleming’s’ death. As the Bond character could not be copyrighted, the company that owned the rights to Fleming’s work decided to order a sequel of sorts, thus enabling them to retain the rights to the “Bond product”. Earlier, English novelist Kingsley Amis had written two books on the James Bond phenomenon; The James Bond Dossier (1965), which I’m proud to own and The Book of Bond also in 1965. While at the time it was a “novel” idea, having an established author carry on with another writer’s character, Amis was considered a good choice. Amis used the pen name “Robert Markham” to write this sequel, Colonel Sun.
Kidnappers have infiltrated the stately home of M, James Bond’s boss. They have taken M by force and killed the lovely couple that had been working for M. Bond surveys the scene and gets his back up; he is involved personally in this situation because of his feelings for his boss and his fondness for the dead couple. Through a minor clue, Bond realizes the perpetrators are summoning him to the Aegean Islands and Bond goes knowing he must be “caught” in order to find M, discover the villain’s nefarious scheme and thwart it. Bond begins to piece things together and he learns that one Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is bent on sabotaging a Middle East détente conference that the Soviet Union is hosting in the area. Sun intends to firebomb the conference and leave M’s and Bond’s bodies in the rubble, thereby implicating Britain and inciting global unrest.
Bond joins forces with local Soviet agents who are in the region to see things go smoothly; in this case, England and the USSR have joint interests. It does not hurt that the Soviet agent James “joins forces” with is a gorgeous Greek woman named Ariadne Alexandrou. Ariadne recruits a friend of her father’s to help them, Listas, who is a World War 2 veteran. Listas is all in when he hears of the involvement of Nazi Von Richter, an infamous butcher on whom Listas hopes to exact revenge.
Bond discovers Sun’s headquarters, stationed above the place where the Soviet conference is to take place but he is caught and taken prisoner. When he awakes, Sun proceeds to torture Bond in a most hideous manner. With the help of a floozy in Sun’s entourage, Bond escapes the torture chamber. While Listas focuses his vengeance on Von Richter, Bond tangles with Sun in an effort to free M and to keep the conference and it attendees from being incinerated.
Colonel Sun is a good read. As good as Fleming? That’s a tough call. Does it read like Fleming? I’m sure it doesn’t but, really, in a “blind taste test”, if you gave an avid James Bond fan two random passages to read – one from Fleming, one from Colonel Sun – they likely couldn’t tell the difference. Thing is, an “avid James Bond fan” would know which is which just from the text. Critics of the day noted Amis’ abilities as a writer but decried the absence of “Fleming’s own persona” from the novel, saying it was a “pale copy” of Fleming. Others enjoyed it, saying Fleming’s reputation was “intact”, the villain would make Bond fans “salivate” and that Amis had successfully emulated the “Fleming Effect”. To me, none of this matters. If you loved Ian Fleming’s Bond books but want more, Amis offers you more. The copyright owners must not have been terribly thrilled, though, as it was many years before further Bond books were written. John Gardner picked up the torch in 1981 with Licence Renewed and wrote many more Bond books before Raymond Benson took over in 1996. Various other writers brought the literary Bond into the new millennium and – much like the recent films starring Daniel Craig – reset the timelines and had Bond operating in a universe parallel to Fleming’s books and the classic films.
“The thought crossed (Bond’s) mind that there might be a worse sin than the cardinal one of boredom. Complacency. Satisfaction with the second-rate. Going soft without knowing it.”Bond craves action after an extended break
I enjoyed the book. I noticed on the very first page; golf (and a Ben Hogan driver), M’s Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, a detailed food description and a reference to the previous adventure in which Bond went up against Francisco Scaramanga. This could be perceived as a copycat move by Amis or as comforting for Bond readers not knowing what to expect. This beginning means that this book is not a reboot like Gardner’s Licence Renewed; nothing is being reset here, we’re just carrying on.
“Bond drew the life-giving smoke deep into his lungs and exhaled luxuriously.”Bond enjoys a butt
When Bond initially meets Ariadne, she is not yet aware of their common interests. It’s Aridane’s job to lure Bond in and take him to her Russian superiors. Bond knows this but must be taken to find M. The scene depicting this “capture” is well written. Amis makes the reader believe that she is truly sorry for her role in this treachery and her being attracted to Bond is credibly described.
“You must understand that I’m not the slightest bit interested in studying resistance to pain or any such pseudo-scientific claptrap. I just want to torture people.”Col. Sun makes plain his motivations
Colonel Sun is not without some reputation in Bond World. Colonel Sun is a vicious sod who straps Bond into a chair and tortures him in a most vivid and uncomfortable scene. This chapter was adapted for use in the 2015 Bond film, Spectre. In fact, so much of Blofeld’s dialogue in that scene was written by Amis for Sun that an acknowledgment to Kingsley Amis can be seen in the end credits of Spectre. Also, M’s kidnapping from this book was employed in the film The World is Not Enough and Colonel Tan-Sun Moon from Die Another Day owes his name to Colonel Sun Liang-Tan.
I have in the past collected and read many Bond continuation novels including all of the John Gardner books. While I enjoyed them, the same thing began to happen that happened when I read the later Matt Helm books by Donald Hamilton. The books written more recently just seemed less like “Bond” to me. I decided to abandon reading every latter-day Bond book I could get my hands on and to focus on re-reading the Fleming books. But I can highly recommend Colonel Sun. It’s a good read but additionally it’s interesting to see the literary James Bond in the hands of another author.
**You can hear me review this book on Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation radio show podcast**