Note to the reader: this review discusses several twists and surprises. If you haven’t read the book, do so before proceeding further!
Review by Revelator.
In his New Statesman review of The Man with the Golden Gun, Kingsley Amis described the expectations set by You Only Live Twice:
One could hardly wait for the follow-up: inevitable capture by the KGB, questionings and torturings and brainwashings, break out (aided probably by some beautiful firm-breasted female major of the Foreign Intelligence Directorate), the slaying of Colonel-General Grubozaboyschikov of SMERSH, and perhaps of Lieutenant-General Vozdvishensky of RUMID for good measure, in revenge for what happened on the Orient Express in 1957, and final escape over the Wall.
Instead, Bond went to Jamaica and battled Scaramanga in what is regarded as the weakest Bond novel. What Fleming didn’t do, whether from illness or disinclination, Anthony Horowitz has done in With a Mind to Kill. And he’s done it well. The worst thing about the book is the title—not since the days of John Gardner has a Bond continuation novel sported a memorable one. But that hardly matters with a book this strong.
Horowitz is a natural storyteller: prolific and good with plot. Though not a stylist, his functional prose never gets in the story’s way. Fleming was a stylist and wrote his thrillers in a headlong rush with less concern for plot; he compensated with pace, detail, and the quirkiness of his imagination. Kingsley Amis was a literary novelist whose pace and approach to character and style were more deliberative than Horowitz or Fleming’s, as shown even in a genre book like Colonel Sun. Whatever the differences, I think Amis and Fleming would consider With a Mind to Kill an effective Bond thriller.
It has moments of style too. The first line—“In death, as in life, the navy leaves nothing to chance”—is a fine one. A few others stand out: “The car was a two-tone Hillman Imp, grey on beige, the colours trapped in a loveless marriage.”
Horowitz’s use of detail astutely evokes Fleming’s, whether in describing the source of black roses, a bugged Selectric typewriter, BOAC flight details, or the repugnance of a Russian spy (“His lips were bulbous, the words spat out like grape pips”). Bond’s mental takedown of Schönefeld Airport is perfectly in keeping with Fleming’s knowing tone.
As in Fleming, pain is important, not merely for the sake of sadism, but to provide a heightened sense of existence and reality. Hence Scaramanga’s lifesaving bullet, embedded in the narrative and Bond’s body.
Further in the Fleming tradition, Bond wins his way to a woman’s heart by listening to her story. Katya Leonova, like so many other women in the series, is a bird with a wing down. As he did with Tracy DiVicenzo and Tiffany Case, Bond provides the therapeutic combination of someone to talk to and a lover. But for poor Katya this isn’t enough.
Readers will find plenty of direct callbacks to prior adventures as well. Horowitz reuses two Fleming chapter titles (“The Finger on the Trigger” and “The Inhuman Element”) and his chapters in Russia are inspired by the meetings and architectural descriptions in From Russia With Love. Overall, there are a few too many spelled-out references to past books and characters. I also note a handful of anachronisms and infelicities. “Had sex” is a phrase Fleming didn’t use; he preferred “made love.”
Fleming also would have given the torture scenes in the Magic Room not just greater detail but more sensual immediacy. And while Horowitz tells us how the getaway boats operate in the Tower Bridge scene, Fleming would have told us their make, model, and the technical term for their propulsion system. But enough nitpicking. What’s most important is that Horowitz has an undeniable understanding of Bond’s character. This comes through even in small details, like Bond refusing to read his Times obituary.
Horowitz has also shaped a villain up to Fleming’s standards. Colonel Boris, only a name in The Man With the Golden Gun, is revealed to be a smug and prissy sadist-hypnotist. In the tradition of Bond villains with physical abnormalities, he has heterochromia; Bond’s revenge takes delicious notice of that attribute. Like Le Chiffre, Colonel Boris uses an inhaler, but for aromatherapy, a New Age-ish habit suggestive of changing times, along with the book’s references to LSD and psychedelics.
General Grubozaboyschikov is also back (undoubtedly to the delight of Amis’s ghost), though he has come down in the world, thanks to Bond. General G’s thirst for revenge proves his undoing, though it’s disappointingly left offstage. SMERSH itself is seemingly repackaged under the name of “Stalnaya Ruka” (Steel Hand) and Bond must infiltrate Soviet Russia to defeat its potentially world-shaking scheme by pretending he’s still brainwashed and has succeeded in assassinating M.
But Horowitz faces a hurdle left by Fleming: didn’t the KGB agents in Jamaica inform Moscow of Bond’s presence? Horowitz knows his solution (oblique control) isn’t quite convincing, so he throws a walk-on character from The Man With the Golden Gun into the game, creating a dilemma that’s deftly resolved, much like the rest of the plot.
In a book with this type of story Bond’s loyalty must be repeatedly tested and he must find ingenious ways to fool the enemy—just as Horowitz must find clever ways for Bond keep his cover, even when he’s tasked with killing British agents. At no point did I feel Horowitz cheated or fudged his way out of a problem, though Sam King’s fate was happier than expected and perhaps too conveniently saved Bond from a serious quandary. Throughout the book, Horowitz skillfully sets up plausible surprises and twists. One can’t help but contrast the storytelling craft with that of the past few Bond films. Horowitz’s book is a fleet 266 pages, while the films take three hours to tell haphazard stories confected by too many cooks.
With a Mind to Kill is a somber, low-key tale. There are few action set-pieces—the biggest, an ambush on Tower Bridge, comes early. There’s some humor in Bond parroting Communist boilerplate, but this book is a fundamentally serious one. Horowitz is effective at conveying the dreariness of Moscow (where not even young lovers are in sight). He’s too effective actually—he makes us realize that Moscow is too drab for a Bond locale.
The bleakness of the Iron Curtain, along with themes of loyalty, distrust, and betrayal, has led some reviewers to suggest there’s more of le Carré in this book than Fleming. But Horowitz never leaves the reader in doubt of the horror of the Soviet system. Nor does he suggest a moral equivalence between it and the West, or knock the British secret service. Bond’s faith in M remains unshaken, though Horowitz subtly and convincingly shows Bond not just feeling his age, but also experiencing exhaustion with his job and way of life. “Losing the comfort of certainty,” he has had more than enough of hardship, torture and the soul-shredding stress of saving the world from monsters.
And he is haunted by Katya Leonova, one of the most memorable women in his life. At first she seems to be a communist coldfish, a Ninotcha destined to be warmed and won over by Bond. This impression fades as we learn more about her past and background. She is not just susceptible to the west because of its charms; she is fleeing trauma and still undergoing it at the hands of someone too close to her. “Nothing I’ve ever done has been my choice,” she tells Bond. “But I chose you.” By the end of the book, you wish she hadn’t.
Aside from one false moment, when Katya says she’d be fine with Bond dropping her for another woman after they reach England, she is a convincing and affecting character, caught up in a vortex of repression, guilt, and betrayal. She might have the saddest life—and fate—of anyone in a Bond novel.
With Katya, Horowitz’s gift for twists turns wrenching. Bond doesn’t want to fall in love with a woman complicit in his torture and mind-rape. And when he does, the realization of her relations to his torturer and the system he stands for destroys his love for her. Consumed by justifiable anger, Bond is nevertheless cruel in a way that returns to haunt him, and his guilt arrives too late to make amends.
The final third of With a Mind to Kill evokes The Manchurian Candidate and has shades of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Chinatown. It also engages in a dialogue with Casino Royale, taking us full circle.
At the end of Fleming’s first novel, Bond put aside the tragedy of Vesper Lynd and became a “wonderful machine.” He dismissed Vesper as a traitorous bitch and decided to leave the business of espionage “to the white-collar boys” by going after the “really black target” of SMERSH, “the threat behind the spies” that doomed Vesper. But at the end of With a Mind to Kill Bond refuses to be a machine and stands in guilty horror at Katya’s tragedy. His definition of a “really black target” is no longer viable: “Evil in this country wasn’t just a group of men talking in a room—Smersh or Stalnaya Ruka…it was a huge machine, a sickness that had corroded itself into the souls of a hundred million people.” And so Bond’s desire to resign comes across more convincingly than it has in the recent Bond films.
In concluding his last Bond novel, Horowitz has fashioned a convincing end for Bond, one that is final and open-ended. It’s his end to the character, but its ambiguity allows for more than one meaning and outcome, because its level of finality is up to the reader to determine. Horowitz ends the character yet leaves him intact. So as a farewell to Bond With a Mind to Kill is more satisfying and sophisticated than No Time to Die. It leaves the door closed and open at the same time, with Bond on both sides.
Horowitz is done writing Bond novels, but it would be a shame if he was done with the character. He has genuine insight into Fleming, knows Bond intimately, is experienced writing scripts, and is a thriller expert who can devise good, coherent plots. The producers of the next Bond film should give him a call.
Buy With a Mind to Kill now.