Sunday 25 January 2015

Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

In my continuing project to read, or re-read, all the fiction of Kingsley Amis, I was particularly looking forward to getting to his James Bond pastiche, Colonel Sun (written under the pseudonym Robert Markham). And I wasn't disappointed. Amis was a genuine Bond fan (just like he genuinely loved science fiction) and he approached the task of penning a post-Fleming 007 novel with respect, love and knowledge. For example, although Amis personally hated Bond's boss M, he is smart enough and fair-minded enough to understand that Bond loves M and write accordingly.

In his earlier novels Amis was accustomed to the sedate pace and minimal plotting of literary fiction so it's impressive to see how effectively he adapts to the need of a high octane thriller. By page 23 of Colonel Sun, M  has been abducted and his household staff murdered. And Bond himself is about to be given an incapacitating injection ("Keep your feet quite still and lower your trousers") and taken prisoner. Our hero escapes, but not before he's injected and there is a great sequence as the drug takes hold while he flees ("he had forgotten everything except the necessity to take the next stride, and the next...").

And, this being 1968, when he stumbles into a police station and receives medical attention, the first thing the doctor does is give Bond a cigarette: "He drew the life-giving smoke deep into his lungs." Given that cigarettes killed Ian Fleming — and didn't do Amis much good — "life-giving" is coming it a bit strong. What's more, in a subsequent meeting when someone has the temerity to ask to open a window to remove some of the metric ton of cigarette smoke hovering in the room, Bond observes "hatred of tobacco was a common psychopathic symptom, from which Hitler among others had been a notable sufferer." And later on Bond's "cigarette tasted wonderful." Of course. Bond ain't no psychopathic tobacco-hater. One begins to speculate that the book might have been partly sponsored by Morland of Grosvenor Street, 007's tobacconist.

Traces of the drug linger in Bond's system, giving an unreal tinge to things, allowing Amis to display his superb gift for disturbing off-kilter surrealism: Bond has the feeling that M's empty house is a "derelict stage set... if he got up and pushed his hand at the wall, what was supposed to be stone would belly inward, like canvas." But the agreeable lightning pace of the novel continues and by page 46 the story shifts to Greece, where M is being held captive, and Bond is soon in Athens (where Amis describes the "calm permanence of the ancient buildings") to track him down.

Kingsley Amis had studied the Bond novels closely — he wrote a book about them — and he has fun with Fleming's tics and tropes and clich├ęs. Amis's is affectionately parodying Bond's creator when he describes not only "firm, dry" handshakes — naturally Bond abhors, limp, wet ones; don't we all? — but also (in Chapter 7) a "firm dry" kiss.

Amis's own gift for description is sharpened by his project to emulate Fleming's vivid concision. So the heroine of the book, Ariadne, has memorable "sherry-coloured eyes". There is also the sensual appreciation of food; "they ate a meal of black olives, fresh bread, delicious plum-shaped tomatoes, sliced raw onion and manouri cheese, followed by peaches and tiny sweet seedless grapes." And drink: "Bond savoured the smooth ferocity of the vodka" (Stolichnaya, in case you're interested).

Incidentally, Ariadne is a terrific Bond girl. Gorgeous, with an interestingly complex background — she is a loyal communist, and the political aspects of the book are deft and convincing, as is all the Russian detail. (I suspect input here from Amis's friend Robert Conquest, who was an expert on such matters.) The impressive Ariadne is also able in a pinch to employ a tommy gun with deadly efficiency — "It was just like you said... vibration and a pull to the right, but mostly I hit him."

Intriguingly, Amis is ahead of the literary spy genre by some decades. At the height of the Cold War he wrote this novel in which the bad guy is not Russian, but Chinese. In fact, the Russians are Bond's allies here. Even more intriguingly, China was also the enemy in Amis's own 'straight' spy novel The Anti Death League. And, being an unreconstructed Fleming-style Bond novel, we get racist references to the Chinese and talk of a "yellow faced devil" (Colonel Sun himself).

The Anti Death League is also referenced in a clever hint about tactical nuclear weapons — "'Atomics," said Bond grimly. 'Close support type'." — which turns out to be a total red herring.

The need to be faithful to Fleming has an interesting, bracing, and wholly positive effect on Amis's prose. The heightened sensuality of the proceedings goes beyond an appetitive appreciation of food and sex. It even colours the descriptions — quite literally. 

In his "own" books Amis tends to flat, uninspired monochromatic descriptions (except of course when he's being funny). But here we have "Steel-coloured water, lightly touched with the lilac of the opening dawn" and "fantastic horizontal bands of igneous rock, black lava, porous white and yellow tufa, harder, more violently coloured strata of crimson, royal purple, seaweed-green."  You certainly don't get this richness of evocation in One Fat Englishman. Amis is having fun in Colonel Sun and it shows — and communicates itself to the reader.

Great descriptions abound. Bond receives a disabling blow and "The muscles of his upper arms seemed to turn to thin streams of cold mud." Or we find a giant granite slab on the volcanic island, "canted like the deck of a foundering stone ship." As Bond tells M that his housekeepers have been murdered, "M... flung up a hand in an odd and touching gesture, as if to ward off a blow." (The latter is also a surprisingly moving moment, in which reality enters this world of lurid melodrama for an instant.)

And just as Ariadne is a top notch Bond heroine, the eponymous Colonel Sun is a genuinely first rate Bond villain, with a philosophical and metaphysical basis for his (very scary) sadism. The torture scene is genuinely hair raising and almost unbearable, even though we know that Bond must survive — and triumph.

Colonel Sun is an enthralling thriller. And Amis has genuinely absorbed the lessons of Ian Fleming; we see this most clearly in the way the pace of the novel accelerates towards the end; a hallmark of vintage Bond. (If you ever want a lesson in pace and compression, read the end of Goldfinger.)

The book does have some weaknesses. In one scene there's sloppy uncertainty about just who the hell is in the room (again, oddly reminiscent of The Anti Death League). In another there's a sudden and jarring shift of narrative viewpoint (from Bond to Ariadne). And, considerably worse, the ending involves Bond escaping thanks to the deus ex machina intervention of a character we've seen too little of earlier. But these don't torpedo what is a fine Bond adventure, carefully planned and told vividly and with great gusto.

In achieving what he set out do so successfully with Colonel Sun, Kingsley Amis proved himself to be an outstanding literary craftsman. He also wrote what will I suspect will stand as the best non-Fleming Bond novel for a long time to come. This is partly because Amis was so close to the source, loved the original so honestly, and lived in a world which was still the world of 007 and Ian Fleming.

But it's also because Kingsley Amis was such a bloody good writer.

(Image credits: As usual, the bulk of the covers are from Good Reads. But the Coronet edition with the red cover and the Bantam are from the excellent Piz Gloria. The text free Frank McCarthy Bantam painting is from Good Comics. The original Andy Walker art work for the red Coronet is from Illustrated 007. The glorious Tom Adams original art for the Cape hardcover is from Absolutely James Bond. The intriguing — Chinese devil mask? — Australian book club hard cover is from The Quietus. Incidentally, the best site for Pan Fleming cover images is Cats Paw Dynamics.)


  1. Absolutely excellent review Andrew! Makes me want to re-read the novel, especially as its been some years since I last did. I have the paperback with Bond reflected in Col Sun's glasses....a magnificent cover.

    1. Thank you for your response! Very gratifying. This was a considerably longer and more in-depth post than my usual, and it was something of a labour of love. Comments like yours make it all worth while.

  2. Agreed; this was the only Bond pastiche I enjoyed. The others I've read (only a few) seem distant from Fleming's world. Amis lived closer.

    1. Hey Al, I didn't know you were a Bond fan! Hope to see you in the States soon and talk 007.

    2. Oh, yeah. I love Bond and the whole 60's spy genre. I'm mostly interested in the novels and the early films, but so far I'm enjoying Craig. And 'Spectre' has made me very impatient. Can you believe it? 'Spectre'?

    3. I think 'Spectre' is a *great* title for a Bond movie. I was so delighted when I heard it. Let's hope they live up to the fantastically high standard of Skyfall!

  3. I've dipped in and out of the non Fleming Bond's over the years and haven't really enjoyed them. Sebastian Faulks Devil May Care was OK and I've yet to read William Boyd's most recent one, but the only non Fleming Bonds I've read and enjoyed where - believe it or not - the Young Bond series by Charlie Higson!

    1. Thanks for the tip, Mark. I was trying to work out which of the non-Fleming Bonds I should try next -- and I'm surprised to learn it perhaps ought to be Charlie Higson's!

  4. An interesting read though my own experience with Colonel Sun a couple of years ago was that it was quite dry. That said, reading this might lead me to re-read it. Have you had the chance to read Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis yet by any chance?