SOLO: A James Bond Novel, by William Boyd. Harper, 322 pp. $26.99.
For the Ian Fleming centennial in 2008, the author's estate kicked off a series of stand-alone James Bond novels, each penned by a notable novelist. Three writers -- Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and now William Boyd -- have undertaken the mission, and just as they're a mixed bunch (two Brits and an American), so, too, has this series proven a mixed bag.
For "Solo," Boyd sets his story in a fictional West African country in the late 1960s. Just after his 45th birthday, Bond is assigned to travel to Zanzarim, where two tribes are engaged in a civil war over "a vast, apparently limitless, subterranean ocean of oil." This post-colonial nation remains of intense interest to the Brits, who have sided with the official government, while the rebels have proved steadfast under the leadership of Brigadier Solomon Adeka, "the African Napoleon." Bond's mission is to travel across the rebel border in the guise of a French journalist, meet Adeka and neutralize him.
Joined by the service's station chief in Zanzarim -- young, beautiful, Cambridge-and-Harvard-educated -- Bond is introduced to casual mercenaries, a disillusioned foreign press corps and a spirit of "frontier recklessness." He then travels south into what he thinks of as "the real Africa." A moment on the roadside finds Bond musing about man's frail place in the natural world; a glimpse at the fate of children in the war-torn region seems some "surreal vision of hell" and leaves him feeling so powerless he wants to weep.
Even after the mission seems to have been accomplished, fresh betrayals and brutalities reveal themselves. Disillusioned and angry, Bond strikes out on his own -- solo -- for London, then Washington and deceptively placid Northern Virginia, to discover the truth and get revenge.
It's no small thing that Bond reads Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter" on his flight to Africa. Ultimately Bond finds some darkness in his own heart -- a burst of savagery, even sadism, that may startle even hard-core Bond fans. As much as Boyd is channeling Fleming here, "Solo" also includes echoes of Joseph Conrad, whose stories of adventure are deeply infused with a sense of moral inquiry and consequence.
Each of the books in this series has been enjoyable in its own way, but "Solo" is perhaps the boldest departure -- still demonstrably a Bond novel but also a Boyd one, with richer and deeper concerns coursing right alongside the Fleming-esque flourishes that should keep fans satisfied, as well.