Kingsley had been a Bond fan “ever since he discovered the first paperback, ‘Casino Royale’, on a railway bookstall” (The Times Educational Supplement) and had already written the seminal The James Bond Dossier, and The Book of Bond (under the name of Lt Col William ‘Bill’ Tanner) and naturally was in the running as Ian Fleming’s successor.
Some expressed reservations about the leftie author of Lucky Jim taking on the project, including Ian’s widow Ann Fleming:
“Amis will slip Lucky Jim into Bond’s clothing, we shall have a petit bourgeois red-brick Bond, he will resent the authority of M., then the discipline of the Secret Service, and end as Philby Bond selling his country to SPECTRE.’” (The Letters of Ann Fleming)
As Amis stated in 1970 in ‘What Became of Jane Austen‘:
“fears were expressed in some quarters that I might produce a sort of Lucky Jim Bond, rampaging through the back streets of Wigan with a packet of fish and chips in one hand and broken beer bottle in the other. Not a chance. […] Some sort of valid continuation, neither parody nor radical new departure nor mere rechauffage of fleming ingredients, had to be worked for.”
Despite Ann’s reservations, Glidrose chose Amis, but took the decision to use Robert Markham as pseudonym, so that other authors could write Bond novels under the same pseudonym. Amis agreed with Glidrose’s decision and in an interview with Raymond Benson in August 1982, said that it was “less confusing to the public and more convenient to market the books”.
Ann attacked the use of a pseudonym, remarking with acidity:
‘I think Amis should publish under his own name and show the world his left-wing intellectual pretensions were easily turned to money-grubbing – like everyone else.’
Ann failed to recognize that Amis was a true admirer of her late husband and of his creation. He had met Ian a couple of times in fact and been to lunch with him to vet the typescript of his The James Bond Dossier before sending it to the publishers. According to Amis, Fleming had nothing to say about any of his critical comments, only pointing out factual inaccuracies in areas such as golf and noting, “Oddjob was sucked out of the cabin and not blown out”.
In 1970 Amis fondly looked back on the job of continuing Bond’s adventures, with deference to Fleming:
Like any other writing it was great fun and a great grind. […] But a little more often, came the realization that he would have been so much neater, quicker, more inventive. I am in a unique position to appreciate that.
The novel begins with the kidnapping of M from his house, ‘Quarterdeck’ and the murder of his servants, ex-Chief Petty Officer Hammond and his wife. Bond travels Greece and teams up with a Greek Communist agent, Ariadne Alexandrou. Arriving at the Aegean island of Vrakonisi (meaning Dragon Island), they discover that the villainous Colonel Sun plans to sabotage a Middle-Eastern détente conference being held on the island, and frame Britain for it. Bond attempts not only to thwart the Colonel’s plans, but also to rescue M.
Colonel Sun was lower-tech and lower-scale than most of Fleming’s novels. This was no accident; Amis admitted in his 1970 essay A New James Bond, that he was not the man to take Bond inside Casinos or advance him down a ski run, but he could still offer something to the consumer to “justify resuscitating Bond in more than just name.” His first-hand knowledge of WWII weaponrywas “easily supplemented by research […] No gadgets, rockets, hovercrafts, no helicopters and no lumps of caviar.”
Amis’ Bond went back to basics and eschewed the ever increasing absurdity of the Bond movies, which were moving further away from the books, to the point of using the title and nothing much else (as was the case in You Only Live Twice). Fleming’s Bond was still a gun and fists man, which grounded him as a believable hero – someone that the reader (with a little training) could stretch their imagination to believe they could emulate.
Amis retained some classic Bond tropes: he sets the opening of the novel within the familiar context of a round of golf at Sunningdale and Bond drives a Bentley. The geographical locations were well chosen, providing some similarities to Moonraker, with the Home Counties as the backdrop, along with Windsor Park. Greece was chosen as a primary location, providing the requisite amount of exoticism without re-treading Fleming’s old haunts. Amis had a good friend who lived there, and Greece provided geo-political subtext, being “one of Russia’s areas of interest.”
A young Martin Amis provided notes on his father’s draft for ‘Dragon Island’ (Colonel Sun), pointing out timeframe inconsistencies and discrepancies in the plot and character motivations, but otherwise endorsing it:
Just a couple of points, Dad.
Apart from the odd repetition or slightly inept term, the style is excellent. Just like Fleming. All the little philosophies are very well timed and the ‘Ionides’ bit about his girl and her parents apart from being interesting, is a good break in the action and a very Fleming-esque turn.
Last point. M’s harsh treatment of Bond just before the torturing is a bit too much. A stern old shit as he undoubtedly is, there’s a nice atmosphere at the very beginning of that scene which would be in-expensive to maintain.
Otherwise faultless and bloody good for all concerned.
Amis brought back familiar characters, making heavy use of Bill Tanner and M, who gets drugged and kidnapped. For thevillain, he created a Chinese mastermind with a penchant for torture. Ring any bells?
Amis was on record as admiring Dr. No, both for its setting and antagonist. In The James Bond Dossier, critical analysis of Fleming’s Bond, Amis complains that outcry from critics forced Fleming to drop bravura torture scenes from his novels. So in Colonel Sun Amis devised a torture scene worthy of the ball-busting Casino Royale, one that makes the reader squirm with not only pain but also sexual discomfort. Part of the reason Colonel Sunis still considered the best James Bond continuation novel is that it dates from Fleming’sera, being written in 1968. Times changed greatly between Fleming’s last novel in 1964 and 1968, but Amis stayed true to the pre-free-love era.
Amis had Bond team up with a tough female Russian agent, but Amis did not goeasy on the Soviets, who are portrayed in harsh light. They maim and kill the Greeks that Bond traded boats with, while Ariadne’s boss is presented as not merely incompetent, but also a pederast! However, Amis was perhaps naive in thinking the Anglos and Russians might team up against the Chinese.
The Soviets are portrayed in extremely harsh light. They maim and kill the Greeks that Bond traded boats with, and Ariadne’s boss is presented as not merely incompetent, but also a pederast! True, Amis was naive in thinking the Anglos and Soviets might team up to combat the Chinese, but that prospect might still come to pass…
The 1st edition cover by Tom Adams departed from the Trompe l’oeil style of Richard Chopping and paid homage to Salvador Dali. Ann Fleming was asked to review the book in 1968 for the Sunday Telegraph, but her draft was rejected, due to fear of libel. The reviews of the day were varied; but perhaps Alexander Muir, from the Daily Mirror of all papers, put it best: “an exciting, violent, sadistic and sexy piece of reading matter”, although, partly because of Amis’ abilities as a writer, Colonel Sun “is altogether too meticulous and well written – Fleming was a hypnotic but slapdash writer. And, at times, I sensed parody. This could be fatal.”
47 years after publication, Colonel Sun remains the most convincing of the James Bond continuation novels, having been written by a master novelist, student of Fleming, and Bond fan. As the old devil himself put it:
“I consider it an honor to have been selected to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming.”