By William Boyd Harper/Paperback/ 322 pages/$46/ Major bookstores
3 and a half out of 5
As a James Bond novel, Solo ranks among my favourites. As a book by William Boyd, it is somewhat disappointing.
Ian Fleming Publications, which holds copyright to Fleming's spy, has previously brought in literary author Sebastian Faulks and thriller writer Jeffery Deaver to continue 007's adventures.
Like Faulks' Devil May Care (2008) and Deaver's Carte Blanche (2011), Solo is certainly licensed to thrill.
Bond's mission now is to stop a civil war in the fictional African country of Zanzarim. The year is 1969, the time just after the spy's 45th birthday and his armament for the assignment includes a canister of poisonous aftershave lotion.
The expected roster of love interests and antagonists with startling disfigurements presents itself. It takes all Bond's wits to distinguish allies from enemies and figure out the puppeteer pulling his strings.
Like Bond creator Fleming, Boyd is no stranger to spy stories. His very first published novel, A Good Man In Africa (1981), was about a British civil servant roped into covert operations in Africa, though that comic heart-of-darkness tale won the Whitbread Award (now Costa Award) for its humorous deconstruction of the colonial psyche rather than any thriller techniques.
His three most recent novels have moved into thriller writing of the psychological sort which quietly and consistently deceives the reader, slowly building the pace for a satisfactory final reveal. There is the elegant Costa Novel Award-winning Restless (2006), about a female spy in the British secret service; the convoluted chaos of Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009), where a chance encounter ruins the life of a weather scientist; and the charged gaslight atmosphere of last year's Waiting For Sunrise, where a young man is arrested for rape. The gripping action never sacrifices character development and readers make emotional connections with protagonists that enhance the whiplash of every plot twist.