Picture the scene. James Bond dons his wetsuit, jumps into the murky, debris-filled water in a flooded tunnel, and swims in a race against time. His goal – to defuse a series of bombs that threaten the existence of the city above. If this scenario seems plausible, that’s because it’s based on a film treatment written for the follow-up to GoldenEye (1995).
Ultimately, the plot idea, along with the rest of the story outline devised by thriller writer Donald E Westlake, was never used, but, in fine tradition (think of Ian Fleming and Thunderball, Peter Vollmer and Per Fine Ounce, and Anthony Horowitz and Murder on Wheels), the author put the material to good use and created a novel. The result is not exactly a Bond novel, but is an exciting page-turner all the same.
In Forever and a Death (a solid, typically vague, Bondian title, though I don’t know whether Westlake gave his treatment this title), Singaporean businessman Richard Curtis has a new device, the soliton, that can reduce buildings erected on reclaimed land to rubble. Facing financial ruin following the handover of Hong Kong to China, he plans use it to destroy Hong King Island, wreak his revenge on the territory, and at the same time steal the gold in its vaults. Standing in his way are two environmentalists, Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf, a diver named Kim Baldur, and Curtis’s engineer, George Manville, who, having built the soliton, finds himself on Curtis’s hitlist when he begins to question Curtis’s judgement and plans.
The plot could easily grace a Bond film. There are shades of Goldfinger (1964) and A View to a Kill (1985) in the final act, and the novel contains the sort of elements that we’ve read in the Bond books or seen in the films: thrilling underwater swims, gunfights on boats, daredevil escapes, a beautiful woman, global travel, and submarines. Richard Curtis can also call on the services of several henchmen, who are nasty pieces of work, though more in the line of Horror and Sluggsy in the novel of The Spy who Loved Me, than Jaws or Oddjob.
So, out of all characters set to oppose Richard Curtis, who is the James Bond figure? There is no spy sent to investigate Curtis, and the police are a little slow on the uptake. (I was reminded of A View to a Kill and Sir Frederick Gray’s response when Bond expresses suspicion towards Zorin: ‘Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist.’ Curtis is similarly able to deflect suspicion from himself almost simply by dint of his reputation as a successful businessman. In today’s world of perceived corporate greed and exploitation, that doesn’t ring quite so true.)
Initially, it’s George Manville who seems to take on the mantle of James Bond. He’s resourceful, knows a thing or two about guns, and makes love to the heroine, Kim Baldur. But there are long periods when he is absent from the narrative. In any case, his moral ambiguity, at least at the beginning, is more redolent of the anti-heroes of an Eric Ambler novel than of Bond. The environmentalists, who take on some of the investigative elements, are candidates for Bond, but again are sidelined across many chapters. Kim Baldur also has Bondian characteristics, for instance having a crucial role at the end which would have gone to Bond had it appeared in a Bond book or film. It seems that all these characters play Bond to some extent, as if, in recasting his story outline, Donald E Westlake divided Bond duties between them.
Indeed, somewhat in defiance of convention, it’s the villain who’s the central character, who dominates the narrative and is rarely away from the book’s pages. This is his story, not that of George Manville, Kim Baldur or others. (I must admit that the villain’s name is a little distracting, since in the UK, the name is associated with Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and a Funeral and other creations far removed from Bondian plots.)
The structure of the novel and its characterisation reminds us that we aren’t reading a James Bond continuation novel or a novelisation of a never-produced Bond film script, but a Donald E Westlake novel, complete with the traits of his work, among them a focus on flawed characters and multiple viewpoints.
This took nothing away from my enjoyment of the book. It’s a terrific read, containing edge-of-your-seat descriptions, shocking moments of violence that somehow keep you glued to the page, and a masterful, subdued ending that almost elicits pathos from the villain’s fate. The afterword, provided by Jeff Kleeman, recounts the history of the novel and its role in Bond lore, and is also a must-read.
Forever and a Death by Donald E Westlake is published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books.