Writing James Bond – a hero synonymous with Bond girls, murder, and patriotism – for a 2018 sensibility could be seen as a tricky proposition. But for Anthony Horowitz, who grew up with the character (for reference, his favourite Bond is Roger Moore, his pick of the films is Goldfinger, and he thinks the best book is From Russia With Love), it’s a challenge to relish.
“I can vividly remember first coming across James Bond in 1963, the year that Dr. No came out. I remember going to the cinema and being blown away by this film that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was in a pretty nasty boarding school, all austerity and bullying and unpleasant teachers – a very grey life – and the books opened a window into a world of glamour and fantastic food, fast cars, and sunshine. I just fell in love with the whole thing, and Bond has very much been illuminating the path of my life, in a strange way.”
As well as influencing Horowitz’s globally successful Alex Rider series of books for young adults, Bond crashed back into Horowitz’s professional life when the Fleming estate started inviting contemporary writers, including Sebastian Faulks, Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham) and William Boyd, to create continuation novels.
“All those writers did a great job, but I was sitting on the sidelines fuming that the estate hadn’t come to me, wondering what I could do to attract their attention because this was something I’d always dreamed of writing. When I wrote articles, even in interviews, I would always mention how much I wanted to do it in the hope they would find out, and in the end, they did. Two years after William’s book, they came to me, and the result was Trigger Mortis.” Three years later, Horowitz has penned a second Bond novel - Forever and a Day.
One of the things I’m most proud of in Forever and a Day is Sixtine, a woman who entirely gives Bond a run for his money, who is every bit his equal, and has a lot to teach him.
The book is a prequel to Casino Royale, taking place immediately after Bond receives his 00 status and is sent on his first mission to the south of France, to discover how and why his predecessor was murdered. Positioning the book as an origin story gave Horowitz an opportunity to tackle some of what can make Bond tricky: “This book is about the making of him; what is it that makes Bond such a cold assassin? How can he be so unfeeling, how can he be so cruel?
"It’s impossible to write or read a book in which the central character is not even slightly likeable. I think Bond is likeable because, first of all, he is doing good, and secondly, I hope his character is one you can understand, and if you understand somebody, that’s the first step towards liking them.”
While investigating a mafia kingpin who seems to have links to his predecessor’s death, Bond meets the mysterious Madame Sixtine, a glamorous older woman who trades in international secrets. Sixtine may be our female lead, but Horowitz refuses to use the term “Bond girl”, as “it’s objectifying and objectionable”.
“Through either prescience, good luck or common sense, one of the things I’m most proud of in Forever and a Day is Sixtine, a woman who entirely gives Bond a run for his money, who is every bit his equal, and has a lot to teach him,” he says.
Considering how to tackle female characters in a James Bond world inevitably takes you back to the core hurdle with Bond: “I would never for a minute say that Fleming was racist or sexist, but it is, nonetheless, incontestable that certain attitudes within the books would offend a modern audience. I don’t see it as a difficult thing to do to adjust the balance, though. Modern sensibilities, the #MeToo movement and all that, are to be applauded and embraced; they’re not something that made me fearful.”
Horowitz also makes it clear that the attitudes of Bond, and of the book, are not his; that he is writing fiction: “Obviously 1950s Britain is a world away from 2018 and where we are now, and it’s very interesting to see how people respond to the book in terms of the type of Britishness which it is promoting. Bond captures a chunk of British history – the Cold War, the atomic age. It’s set five years after the end of the Second World War, and the attitudes aren’t attitudes people have now. A journalist asked me yesterday whether Bond would have voted Brexit, and I said that I have no idea and wouldn’t say if I did! It’s important not to use Bond to score points.”
So a large part of Horowitz’s job is to navigate the need for Bond to evolve, while also remaining fundamentally Bond. Indeed, any change to the character's essence is something that fans would be sure to pick up on: “When I write the books, the fans are the first people I think about," says Horowitz. "It’s not fair, if you love something, to have someone, a stranger, come in and change or undermine it. Obviously, the book has to reach a wider audience, but the fans are the first port of call. If the fans don’t enjoy the book, it doesn’t have a hope of succeeding.” And so far, so good: “It’s early days but the über-fans, as you might call them, have been very happy.”
Another sign of success is that Horowitz is the first writer to have been asked to write a second Bond continuation: “I can’t answer the question of whether I’m going to write more Bond stories because I don’t know, but if the estate were to ask me to do a third, I would certainly be tempted! My aim is to stick as close to Ian Fleming as possible; to write in his voice, use his style, his tricks, his mannerisms, his world, his timeline. The job of a writer in continuation novels is to be invisible, to lose the ego, to not think that you are better than the writer whose work you are continuing. Ian Fleming is the master, and I try to write something that I think would make him smile.”
Horowitz is hesitant to be drawn on other writers who might have an interesting take on Bond (“I’m frightened to say because I’d be putting myself out of a job!” he jokes), but he does admit to being interested to see how Bond would be translated through the pen of Charlie Higson, Robert Harris or Sarah Waters. Whoever is at the helm, though, Horowitz is confident of Bond’s ability to slip through time and political sensibilities and remain fascinating to modern imaginations.
“In some ways, he’s a dark knight, or, as Kingsley Amis identified, the Byronic hero,” Horowitz says. “He’s impossible to know, and he has a quixotic, mercurial side. He’s here one minute, gone the next, and it’s why he can be played in so many different ways. Whatever age he lives in, whoever plays him, whatever he wears, he somehow still exists and comes out intact.”