Happy birthday to Kingsley Amis, who was born on this day in 1922. In his 1975 Art of Fiction interview, Amis says,
I think it’s very important to read widely and in a wide spectrum of merit and ambition on the part of the writer. And ever since, I’ve always been interested in these less respectable forms of writing—the adventure story, the thriller, science fiction, and so on—and this is why I’ve produced one or two examples myself. I read somewhere recently somebody saying, “When I want to read a book, I write one.” I think that’s very good. It puts its finger on it, because there are never enough books of the kind one likes: one adds to the stock for one’s own entertainment.
Amis was always a staunch defender of genre fiction—and one of the “examples” he speaks of having produced is Colonel Sun, a James Bond novel he published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham.
Amis had a predilection for Bond; a few years earlier, he’d published The James Bond Dossier, a critical analysis of Ian Fleming’s novels. When Fleming died, new writers were called upon to carry the torch of the franchise, and Amis was eager to try his hand. Aug Stone, writing at The Quietus, has the story of Amis’s unlikely entrée into the Bond canon. He was not a shoo-in. Anne Fleming, Ian’s widow, greeted Amis’s with a resounding harrumph:
“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,” she wrote in a review of Colonel Sun requested by the Sunday Telegraph.
And then there were there was the unsettling cover of Colonel Sun, whose first hardcover printing, pictured above looks like charmingly cut-rate Dali. Other editions weren’t much better, though they come closer to suggesting a thriller:
But anyone who feared that Amis would fuck up the franchise with some kind of measured, literary razzle-dazzle had it all wrong; he knew how to plot. As its flap copy makes clear, Colonel Sun was not about to traffic in high-minded nuance:
Lunch at Scott’s, a quiet game of golf, a routine social call on his chief M, convalescing in his Regency house in Berkshire – the life of secret agent James Bond has begun to fall into a pattern that threatens complacency … until the sunny afternoon when M is kidnapped and his house staff savagely murdered.
There’s no doubt in that “savagely murdered”: this is not lit’rit’chur. It has wanton violence, exotic locales, and a megalomaniacal villain from the East—from reddest Red China, even!—with a penchant for torture and wordplay. (Redundant?) As Stone writes,
Amis considered “Russia versus Britain too old-hat” … “Red China as villain is both new to Bond and obvious in the right kind of way. And Chinese master-villain would be fun…” His Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army, is an Anglophile with a madman’s sense of destiny. Fond of British culture, Sun speaks English with a bizarre mixture of regional pronunciations, treating his captives, M and later Bond, with the utmost civility. This is, of course, all a prelude to the monstrous torture scene that surpasses even that of Casino Royale, and this simply a preliminary exercise before 007 is to take up his role in Sun’s grand terrorist scheme.
Still, Amis had to indulge, on occasion, his literary pedigree. The torture scene finds Colonel Sun quoting, insidiously, the Marquis de Sade—though whether this is a comment on the torture or a part of it remains unknown. And Amis’s Bond has more dreams—Amis had recommended those to Fleming in the Dossier. “What about a few dreams?—known as the handy off-the-peg method of injecting significance into any form of fiction.”
Really, though, Colonel Sun only shies from thriller conventions when it comes to sex, which one would think Amis could’ve piled on. But in its absence he was only observing tradition:
Amis has pointed out that on average Bond seduces “one girl per trip,” and that this is hardly excessive … But there is surprisingly little sex in Colonel Sun, especially considering Kingsley’s reputation (Martin Amis wrote in Experience, “A promiscuous man, and a promiscuous man in the days when it took a lot of energy to be a promiscuous man, Kingsley was excited by his contiguousness to yet more promiscuity”).
Colonel Sun was, given the celebrity of its author and its tough position as the first post-Fleming Bond novel, surprisingly well received; the general consensus seemed to be that it was a ripping good yarn, worthy, perhaps, of Fleming himself. (Too bad his widow probably never read it.) The novel has yet to be adapted for film, true—but after more than twenty years out of print, it’s now available as an e-book. The next best thing.