Riding on the Wall of Death one more time: Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Trigger Mortis’

Review by Craig Arthur © 2015

The previous three James Bond continuation novels prior to Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis did not elevate the literary Bond brand. Sebastian Faulks’s Devil May Care showed contempt for actual Fleming aficionados, evident in the hubris of his assertion that he was ‘writing as Ian Fleming’. Every aspect of Devil May Care is weak, with a minor villain who cannot feel pain stolen from the movie script for The World is Not Enough, haphazard plotting and unexciting action sequences.

Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche wasn’t much better. There was nothing wrong with the idea of an updated reboot of the character – it’s effectively what the Raymond Benson continuation novels were in the 1990s. Benson’s Bond was effectively a much younger, more up-to-date version. But somehow Raymond’s books worked and Carte Blanche didn’t. Carte Blanche lacked any tangible connection to Fleming and the plot and characters were too forgettable, the writing too pedestrian.

William Boyd’s Solo should have been better. His prose style was fine but again the story was forgettable. Again his Bond just didn’t seem to ring true. Like the later, weaker John Gardner Bond novels, it was too low key, too personal in a way that seemed apocryphal. Ian Fleming could have gotten away with writing Solo – we just wouldn’t regard it as one of his better works – but continuation novelists don’t enjoy the same freedom to stray from the existing formula.

BOND front cover hi resFans disappointed with these previous efforts could be forgiven for being unwilling to shell out again on Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis. Just as retailers were reluctant to stock the Raymond Benson Bond books due to the lacklustre performance of the later John Gardner titles, so Trigger Mortis faces an unfair challenge to restore lost faith.

Even the choice of title, when it was announced on what would have been Fleming’s 107th birthday, seemed an unfortunate choice, a bad pun combining Roy Roger’s famous horse and death made it appear that Ian Fleming Publications were flogging a dead horse. But Trigger Mortis is not another train wreck like its predecessors. Even the title is much better once you know its context in the story. Just as the US space programme that provides the background for the plot would eventually overcome its early failures, so Trigger Mortis succeeds in overcoming the disaster of what has gone before it, soaring on the intended telemetry.

In terms of structure it is relatively formulaic, following the basic pattern of Raymond Benson’s first two novels Zero Minus Ten and The Facts of Death a Goldeneye or Tomorrow Never Dies style movie plot, with series of encounters with the major villain leading up to a ticking bomb plot.  But just as it was important for Benson to deliver that type of formula to make up for the lack of urgency and spectacle in later John Gardner, so Anthony Horowitz also needed to adhere to the established formula in order to revive the literary Bond brand.

Many of Trigger Mortis’s set-pieces also appear in Gardner Bond novels: car racing in John Gardner’s For Special Services, German castles like Jason Sin’s Schloss Bronsart appear in a couple of other Gardner Bond adventures – most notably in Never Send Flowers – and the final confrontation between Bond and Sin in a New York subway tunnel bears a close similarity to the climax of Death is Forever inside the Channel Tunnel. But the asset that he has that Gardner and Benson didn’t have is that Trigger Mortis is set as part of Fleming’s timeline and succeeds in pulling off a literary sleight-of-hand, making it seem that we’re reading a follow up to the novel Goldfinger.

This is not strictly a pastiche. Anthony Horowitz is not writing as Ian Fleming like Sebastian Faulks. But in terms of content is an attempt to write the novel Fleming might have given us in 1960 had he not turned his hand to short stories that year, with the publication of For Your Eyes Only instead of a new Bond novel.

AH-TM

Setting the novel at this point in the Bond chronology suits Trigger Mortis’s more formulaic structure perfectly. We are in Fleming’s middle period, before the darker tone and world-weary malaise of the later books. The period when he was writing Dr No and Goldfinger the books that held the foremost appeal to the film-makers, exhibiting the most likely cinematic potential, becoming the movies that would define the template for subsequent Bond films.

Setting a thriller that depends upon the Bond ticking bomb/anticlimax as denouement formula in the past is problematic given the expectation that such a story will appeal to contemporary anxieties. The enclosed setting of the ‘Golden Age’ crime formula or even the noir world of the hard-boiled detective stories works even better in the closed historical setting of period fiction. So, for instance, setting an adaption of an Agatha Christie story, setting it in the 1920s or 30s helps enclose the closed world of the physical setting where the suspects have to be confined to a single locale in order for one of them to be the murderer. The past tightens the enclosed fictional microcosm. But with Bond the stories occur in an open universe – the broader the canvas the more possibilities for danger and excitement, hence why the movie adaptations tend to add increasingly more locations and set-pieces than appeared in the original novels.

Trigger Mortis - Image courtesy of Orion Publishing

Image courtesy of Orion Publishing

The plots are a ‘forward construction’ as opposed to the ‘backward construction’ of the crime genre. Whereas in the crime story the crime has already happened, the victim has been murdered, or a series of crimes are ongoing and the detective must find the solution, in the thriller the threat has yet to occur, it is something the protagonist must prevent the antagonist from achieving their endgame. It is harder to pull that off in a period setting, where the reader knows that historically the villain’s plan did not succeed. We need to feel that the threat is contemporary, part of our contemporary macrocosm and whatever we happen to fear on the cusp of tomorrow.

Devil May Care and Solo both tried to reflect twenty-first century geo-political concerns – the Middle East and the Iraq War in Devil May Care; peak oil in Solo – while setting their stories in the 1960s. In both books this just felt anachronistic and forced, trying to connect mid century characters with a future they could not possibly predict. All it did was enhance the remoteness of their narratives from the sense of danger and threat they could only hope to achieve by setting them today. Both authors wanted to have their cake and eat it to, writing about the open-ended uncertainties of our era while setting their books in the closed world of yesterday. And neither author could even get their chronology correct.  Neither bothered to research the timeline of when the Bond novels were set.

Sebastian Faulks wrongly assumes the novels were set in the year of publication: “The last novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published in 1965 and the last stories, Octopussy, in 1966. This suggested 1967 as the likely year for my ‘added’ Fleming books. The Summer of Love.” (Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel, Random House, 2011). William Boyd takes Faulks faulty timeline as apparent gospel too, claiming that Bond is 45 in 1969, the year Solo is set, at odds with the revised timeline of Fleming’s later novels. Generally two years before publication. Result: while set in the past, neither Devil May Care nor Solo succeed in convincing us that we’re back in Fleming’s imaginary world, plus they fail to convey any threat or danger despite trying to shoehorn in today’s troubles. Anthony Horowitz is more successful. He has done his homework. He has worked out that Goldfinger is set in 1957 and sets his book in its immediate aftermath.

Goldfinger original HB

Image: Ian Fleming Publications

Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only were written at a time when Fleming’s tendency to present Bond’s world in medias res was in full bloom, convincing us that what we are reading is whatever was happening to him at that point in time, providing as a suspension of disbelief device, convincing us that deception and danger are always surrounding Bond and – by association – surrounding us, and the coincidences leading up to Bond’s ultimate interference in Goldfinger’s ‘operation Grand Slam’ are somehow prophetic.

By giving us the aftermath of Goldfinger, showing us the conclusion of Bond’s relationship with Pussy Galore and including an epilogue to the events of that story while carefully not linking the incident to his main plot, Horowitz uses the same device. He manages to convince us that we are back in the world of the past and experiencing it in medias res. We are back in time and in the midst of events in a way that we are not in Devil May Care or Solo. 

The episodic quality of the novel Goldfinger stems from the fact that both the opening canasta sequence and the finale aboard the BOAC stratocruiser were originally conceived as short stories. And, after Goldfinger, For Your Eyes Only was a short story collection, allowing Fleming to recycle his treatments for the proposed CBS James Bond TV series as the basis for several of the stories. Had he written an additional novel in this time period instead of For Your Eyes Only, it is logical that he might have recycled more of these TV outlines (as he had previously done, incorporating ideas from the failed Commander Jamaica TV project in Dr No and would later do using the James Bond of the Secret Service screen treatment as the basis for Thunderball). Allowing Horowitz to incorporate the previously unpublished outline for ‘Murder on Wheels’ adds an extra dose of authenticity.

Also the use of the troubled Vanguard rocket launches is exactly the central plot MacGuffin Fleming might have also incorporated given his similar use of the early failures of the American space programme in Dr No and Drax’s rocket in Moonraker. (Note: using the Vanguard launch in Trigger Mortis does, however, create a minor, unintended paradox in the Bond saga because in the novel Thunderball where Bond and Felix Leiter are flying over the launch pad of an Atlas rocket and Bond recalls the Moonraker affair, just as Charlie Higson’s use of a Dr No-style obstacle course in Hurricane Gold creates a similar paradox where the adult Bond obviously has no memory of ever being in a similar predicament. But Horowitz is careful not to include Felix Leiter in Trigger Mortis, minimising the impact of the paradox in Bond and Leiter’s conversation in Thunderball.)

FullSizeRender (61)

Image: Artistic Licence Renewed

Horowitz’s characters reinforce this sense of Fleming story authenticity. He understands what makes a Fleming villain tick and what makes a Fleming heroine alluring and more importantly how the two fit into Bond’s fictional universe. Trigger Mortis’ Jason Sin radiates Fleming’s recurring theme of accidie, ennui. He inhabits the elegant scene we expect from a Fleming villain, surrounded by wealth, residing in a fairy tale German castle and an American replica of Keats House in Hampstead. But even well-dressed in a Brioni midnight blue dinner jacket, sucking in any vitality from around him like a black hole, seeming

“to move in a void of his own making …  His eyes, shielded by the thick, almost opaque spectacles, sucked in every last detail of those around him but gave away nothing. It was as if this party – the silver platters of food, the champagne, the music, the chandeliers, the great hall with its tapestries and antique mirrors – had all sprung from his imagination.  He moved through it like a sleepwalker.” 

Like other former Fleming villains such as le Chiffre or Drax he is somebody displaced by war, his soul eaten out by the horrors inflicted upon his family by the Americans during the Korean War. Like Drax or Dr No and Goldfinger, he has amassed great wealth but the lavishness is hollow, a Gatsby-esque facade – ‘material without being real’ as Scott Fitzgerald would say. A hollowness perfectly evoked by a perverse Flemingesque touch: all the portraits in Sin’s castle have the eyes poked out. We sense the tainted reality, the vice and corruption of Fleming’s villains and in a broader sense the sterility of twentieth century modernity, the disassociation of sensibility.

Typically Fleming’s heroines are victims of this disassociation of sensibility, downtrodden by the tyranny of evil men, whether it is simply an abusive relationship or physical or sexual violence in their past. They are often, like Hardy’s Tess, descended from aristocracy or privilege but history has robbed them of all their families once possessed. Tatiana in From Russia With Love is one of the Romanovs (impossible as it would actually be for anybody living in the 1950s Soviet Union to possess such a name when the family had been wiped out). In Dr No Honeychile Rider explains that the Riders were a wealthy and powerful colonial family, given land in Jamaica by Oliver Cromwell for signing King Charles’s death warrant, but now she lives in the ruins of their Jamaican ‘Great House’, a victim of rape, disfigured by a broken nose inflicted upon her rapist.  Even if not descended from greatness, Bond heroines tend to be on the receiving end of injustice. Vesper is being coerced into acting as a double agent in Casino Royale; Solitaire is a captive of Mr Big in Live and Let Die.  Few, if any, of Fleming’s heroines are leading happy fulfilled lives devoid of past or present trauma.

Image: The Teeritz Agenda

Image: The Teeritz Agenda

At the same time Fleming’s heroines are representative of a wilder, freer nature that exists outside of masculine reason and the hollowness of modern society. Vesper, for instance, is linked to storms and the wildness and chaos of nature, born on a particularly stormy night. There are repeated references in Casino Royale to people in the sordid side of espionage caught up in the ‘gale of the world’. Vesper is part of this chaotic and dangerous world hidden beneath Fleming’s elegant world of casinos and high living. Solitaire’s clairvoyant abilities similarly link her to a supernatural world beyond the borders of everyday reality. Honeychile Rider linked to the natural world, living in solitude at one with the Jamaican fauna rather as part of humanity. Pussy Galore is part of a lesbian criminal underworld. Their beauty is frequently unconventional, such as Pussy Galore’s violet eyes, or they suffer from minor deformities such as Honeychile’s broken nose or Domino having one leg shorter than the other to remind us that they belong to an absolute reality that doesn’t conform to manufactured conventions of beauty – much like the glimpses of webbed feet that designated Sibyls in Late Gothic and Renaissance paintings.

In Trigger Mortis Jeopardy Lane is very much one of these women who belongs to a wilder world outside our own conventional reality, as Bond notes. He finds her dress too formal, her height too short, hair too closely-cropped and masculine, and yet he finds her attractive, defining her look as ‘jolie-laide’, ugly-pretty. Horowitz applies Fleming’s hallmark comparison of female characters to film stars, comparing Jeopardy to Jean Seberg, whose troubled personal life reads like that of a tragic Fleming heroine. In Godard’s Breathless her character inhabits a similar world of ennui and underlying violence to Fleming’s world and before that in 1957 she debuted in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan as Joan of Arc, the association Horowitz is directly drawing upon here, Jeopardy’s entrance into the novel occurring against the backdrop of Jason Sin’s castle party at Schloss Bronsart. She stands out from the glittering falseness, belonging to a greater reality underneath the mundane and superficial world of wealth and artifice, another potential Joan-like Bondian martyr.

Luna-ParkEven Jeopardy’s name links her to a more dangerous reality outside safe boundaries. Her mother named her that because of a sign warning people against venturing into the hazardous railway yards on Coney Island where she was born. Coney Island is significant, given its history as a strip of land artificially cut off from mainland America by the digging of a canal and its subsequent transformation into a fantasyland of competing fin de siecle amusement parks where visitors could ride mechanical thrill rides, including recreations of famous historical disasters or visit imaginary lunar cities or replica Venetian canals or take a cable car journey up a refrigerated mock up of the Swiss Alps without ever setting foot on actual Coney Island soil. A place apart from everyday reality, a world of the imagination offering a similar escape from the mundane to that offered by Ian Fleming and subsequently the James Bond films.

By Jeopardy Lane’s lifetime, of course, the unbridled extravagance of the Coney Island amusement parks was much diminished (Dreamland, the grandest of the amusement parks burnt to the ground in 2011; neighbouring Luna Park in the 1940s). Coney Island has become the wrong side of the tracks, a place of alcoholism and despair; Jeopardy’s father drank himself to death, her mother died of liver cancer. But, a bit like Honeychile existing in the ruins of colonial Jamaican glory, Jeopardy is still connected to Coney Island’s former fantasycape. She spent her adolescence as a carnie, learning to ride on the Wall of Death on an Indian motorcycle before becoming a ward of a more respectable middle class Washington couple and later becoming a US Secret Service agent. (It is this carnival background that separates her from the hollow cardboard female agents that have become endemic to the Bond movies and their literary counterparts such as John Gardner’s Flicka von Grusse or Sebastian Faulks’s Scarlett Papava. Horowitz understands how to give a Bond heroine depth.)

Coney Island 'Wall of Death'

Coney Island ‘Wall of Death’

Aside from Bond’s female motor racing instructor, Logan Fairfax, the other major female character is of course the much-publicised return of Pussy Galore. Like the evocation of Coney Island in Jeopardy Lane’s backstory, this is another clever piece of sleight-of-hand on Horowitz’s part. Pussy has no connection to the main storyline, just a residual relationship with Bond from Goldfinger. Her presence helps reinforce the connection to Fleming’s timeline and our sense of re-entering that chronology in medias res. But also thematically, by emphasising the incongruity of her presence in Bond’s world after the events of Goldfinger, she provides a cipher for the idea that we cannot cling to our favourite Fleming characters beyond their original context. The past is past.

Skyfall presented us with the conceit of Bond as an anachronism in the high tech twentieth century world as summed up by M quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:  “We are not now that strength which in old days/ Moved earth an heaven, that which we are, we are.”  Like Ulysses Bond must find his way home, returning from the dead and using the old methods of the character’s glory years, complete with the incongruous Goldfinger Aston Martin, to triumphing over the modern to restore a fifty year old on-screen persona to his former cultural status. Trigger Mortis on the other hand is a novel about knowing when to let go, to accept the fleetingness of time, that we can never go home.

The trigger mortis of the title refers not to a terrible pun on rigor mortis but to a self-destruct fail-safe device for the Vanguard rocket but it also applies to Bond’s relationships and by extension our relationship with Bond’s fictional world. Jason Sin is somebody haunted by past events, unable to let go of them, corrupted by childhood suffering. He lacks the ability to instigate trigger mortis whereas Bond and Jeopardy learn to let go of their relationship, accept it has no future for the same reason that Bond’s relationship with Pussy had no future beyond the pages of Goldfinger, even if it takes Bond a while to realise this.

FullSizeRender (58)

Image: Artistic Licence Renewed

Horowitz makes subtle revisions to Fleming’s 1950s prejudices, introducing sympathetic gay or bisexual characters (Pussy and Logan Fairfax, openly homosexual Station G head Charles Henry Duggan) and treating his Korean villain with sympathy to counter-balance Fleming’s depiction of Koreans as ‘lower on the mammalian hierarchy than apes’ in Goldfinger.  But fundamentally the world of Trigger Mortis is the world of the past, a foreign country. And Horowitz is resurrecting Pussy to show us that we cannot cling to the past, just as Bond cannot. Fleming’s 1950s world is a place inaccessible to us today much like Horowitz’s description of Brooklyn residents’ view of neighbouring Coney Island as somewhere “forbidden to them, except as a view through a grimy window pane, offering more space than they would ever enjoy in their lives.  It was almost like the difference between life and death – with a cold, white moon bathing both in its spectral glow.”

Reading Trigger Mortis we are voyeurs looking back at a fictional no man’s land that is no longer our reality. He is celebrating its enclosed universe as post modern artifice in much the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark celebrated the artificiality of movie serial and 1940s Hollywood genre conventions, photographing the photograph rather photographing life as Stanley Kubrick once described his intentions to Jack Nicholson while filming The Shining.

We accept the implausibilities of that fictional world according to Fleming’s conventions, such as the myth that covering someone in gold paint will actually suffocate them. We accept the gold paint scene in Trigger Mortis because we are so deeply embedded in the world of Ian Fleming where gold paint killed Jill Masterton in Goldfinger.

Image: Artistic Licence Renewed

Image: Artistic Licence Renewed

Horowitz similarly indulges in the Bondian implausibility criticised by Kingsley Amis as the ‘talk plus time-bomb, or procrastination’ situation where, for instance, Dr No dines Bond, detailing his backstory, his intentions and his sadistic plans for Bond’s demise. Trigger Mortis repeats this same implausible scenario but it is again part of the Fleming formula; its inclusion convinces us that we are reliving the fantasy. (Horowitz uses an inventive ruse to cover the implausibility of Sin planning an elaborate death for Bond rather than simply killing him outright, with the use of a pack of Korean Hanafuda cards.)  And just as Fleming would cover a plot hole such as how Draco managed to explain himself to the Swiss authorities when flying back from blowing up Blofeld’s alpine HQ in On Her Majestys Secret Service – after being challenged en route – by drawing attention to the implausibility but not explaining it, so Horowitz plays the same game, asking how the sabotage on the Vanguard wasn’t detected. He is able to dismiss the problem by saying no one will know unless the pieces of the destroyed rocket can be retrieved from the seafloor, thus pushing the question beyond the pages of the text the same way Fleming does, with Draco saying his explanation will have to wait. We never find out. It is Fleming’s sport with the reader; Horowitz is playing by the same game, giving us the same Coney Island thrill ride. It works because Horowitz anchors his narrative so securely in the minutiae of Fleming’s world.

Waterstones Special Edition CoverHe might lack Fleming’s eloquence and command of imagery and metaphor – and his phrasing is often clumsy (an electric fence is ‘electrified’ not ‘electrocuted’) – but he manages to deliver us the right dose of technical detail and knowledge.  By doing so he is better able to replicate the thrills of Ian Fleming.

This isn’t the mid-twentieth century fantasy world is not the one we live in. Sin’s attempt to destabilise the American space programme and destroy the Empire State Building aren’t going to make us feel less safe in our beds in our post-911 world.  The anticlimax as denouement that was underlying central tenant of the traditional knife-edge of destruction Bond plot is something we no longer have faith in, just as actual disaster – the burning of Dreamland undermined the thrill of Coney Island’s mock historical disasters. But reading Trigger Mortis and accepting that we are merely voyeurs in its fleeting jolie-laide in the same way that Bond and Jeopardy Lane accept that they have no permanent place in each other’s reality, Horowitz allows us to ride on a Coney Island Wall of Death one more time.

Incidental Intelligence

For related material regarding the similarities between Coney Island and Bond, read Craig’s 2006 article:

https://www.mi6-hq.com/sections/articles/opinion_05_no_armour_left.php3

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4 thoughts on “Riding on the Wall of Death one more time: Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Trigger Mortis’

  1. I agree with everything in the first three paragraphs, but haven’t read the rest. I’m only fifteen pages into the book and don’t want to risk seeing any spoilers. Looking forward to reading the rest of this review once I’ve finished the book.

  2. Personally, I think the reason Horowitz succeeds is because he has developed a solid plot, taken Fleming’s high old tone and updating it by giving ‘Trigger Mortis’ the élan, sheen and tautness that modern thriller writers expect.
    I’ve just finished it and think he’s succeeded admirably. The book is an absolute stonker and I’d rate it ahead of the previous best continuation novel Amis’ ‘Colonel Sun’.
    Bravo for Horowitz – bit of a shame Orion couldn’t have given it a better dust jacket. The book may sit comfortably between ‘Goldfinger’ & ‘Thunderball’ but the cover art certainly doesn’t.

  3. Great and thorough review!
    I’ve only read Fleming’s Bond books so I can’t comment on other authors’ attempts to write a Bond novel, but I think Horowitz had a good starting point in that he has a practiced writer of spy novels (Alex Rider), he has been commissioned to write a Sherlock Holmes book by the Conan Doyle Estate in a similar way the Fleming Estate have done this time, and he is also a James Bond fan too.
    Here’s my review if you would be so kind to give it a little look 🙂
    https://rwh92.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/trigger-mortis/

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