Many readers, including myself, were nervous about the handover of the Young Bond books from Charlie Higson to Steve Cole. Higson’s five books were superb, much more entertaining and faithful to the spirit of Ian Fleming than the so-called “adult” Bond novels being published at the same time. Devil May Care? Ugh. Could a new author maintain the magic that Higson created?
Cole certainly knew what he was up against, so on the very first page of Shoot to Kill he sends a signal to old-school Bond fans that he knows his 007. The title of the prologue is “You Asked for It.” When Casino Royale was first published as a paperback in the United States, an editor who didn’t think Americans knew how to pronounce “royale” changed the title to You Asked for It. As someone who sprinkled his own teenage spy novel (The Boy Who Knew Too Much coming in June from Intrigue Publishing. Shameless plug accomplished) with obscure James Bond references, I have to say that’s a pretty obscure reference. Right from the get-go, Cole proves he’s a hardcore Bond nerd. Young Bond seems to be in capable hands.
But not merciful hands. Poor James is in trouble the moment he appears, clashing with an unusual bully at his new school. He doesn’t get many chances to relax. Cole concentrates more on plot and action than Higson, and the pace is often torrid.
Cole picks up soon after Bond’s expulsion from Eton, as detailed in Higson’s farewell novel, By Royal Command. We know from 007’s premature obituary in You Only Live Twice that he will wind up at Fettes College in Scotland, but Cole gives James a brief layover at Dartington Hall, a progressive school in Devon. James’ formidable Aunt Charmian arranges the short enrollment, correctly calculating that her nephew will be invited on a lavish trip to Los Angeles along with the school’s director of education and a handful of other students.
The Dartington contingent will be the guest of Hollywood studio mogul Anton Kostler, who flies them to America aboard his private zeppelin. Nothing screams 1930s cool quite like a zeppelin, and with an airship and the Hollywood setting, Shoot to Kill does have something of a Rocketeer vibe. If it were made into a movie, would Timothy Dalton play the villain, Kostler?
During the long zeppelin voyage from England to Los Angeles, James cottons to some skulduggery that may be linked to Kostler’s studio, Allword. He wonders if it is connected to something one of his new friends found just prior to the trip, a reel of film from his father’s cinema that apparently shows genuine torture and perhaps murder.
James would like to have a fun, relaxing trip for a change, but things heat up once his group arrives in Hollywood, and Bond becomes resigned to the reality that danger seems to follow him, or vice versa.
Cole’s take on the character is a transition from Higson’s Bond to Fleming’s Bond, from the personable schoolboy to the man who will lead a hard and solitary life. In Shoot to Kill, Bond laments the loss of his carefree past, but no longer sees a point in fighting it. If danger keeps coming his way, he might as well take it on and survive. Fatalism is creeping in to his worldview.
Not that Cole spends too much time on characterization. Shoot to Kill is leaner than the Higson books, moving rapidly from one action sequence to the next. The action is crisply written: a car chase in Los Angeles, an ingenious death trap on Kostler’s back lot, and — well, the villain owns not one, but two hydrogen-filled zeppelins. You can guess how it ends.
Cole also drops a few more references to make Fleming adherents smile. Bond gets into a nightclub by claiming to be Hoagy Carmichael’s son (in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd remarks that Bond looks like the singer). He also is introduced to judo, planting the seed that Bond will start a judo club at Fettes, another biographical tidbit from the You Only Live Twice obituary.
The Bond girl is Boudicca Pryce, Boody for short. She is named for a legendary Welsh warrior queen and is a bit tougher than most of the young women Bond has teamed up with. He meets an even tougher woman, too, a Chinese-American newspaper reporter named Tori Woo, who is investigating rumors that Kostler is connected to Chicago gangsters. Tori speaks in the cliches of a 1930s Hollywood newspaper melodrama, which is perhaps forgivable given the book’s setting. I can’t help but wonder if Cole is — consciously or not — foreshadowing Fleming’s own lamentable ear for American slang.
The villain, Kostler, doesn’t appear till the final third of the book, so he isn’t that memorable. His plot for world domination is a convoluted one built on blackmail and film tariffs. The problem is, we know from history that Kostler’s scheme would have fizzled after World War II began and Hollywood lost the European market.
The most enjoyable supporting character is one of Bond’s new schoolmates, Hugo Grande, a dwarf with a feisty attitude and a sarcastic tongue. Fortunately, it appears Hugo will be returning in Cole’s next book.
Cole has fun describing 1930s Hollywood, but he didn’t do all his research. A character drives a Corvette, a car that wouldn’t roll off the assembly line until 1953. And he drops the occasional word or phrase, like “paramedic” and “ski mask,” that wouldn’t enter American usage for another few decades. These anachronisms spoil the mood, especially the premature Corvette.
Shoot to Kill may not be as rich an experience as Higson’s books, but it is still an exciting tale and a worthy portrait of the spy as a young man. It reads more like an Alex Rider book, but that was perhaps inevitable. Cole was faced with the daunting task of following Higson, and he has proved he can take Young Bond forward. There is a development on the last page that made me groan, but I am still looking forward to his next book, which apparently will be one more American adventure before James enrolls in Fettes.