(This post contains mild spoilers)
The latest Young Bond adventure, the second by Steve Cole, is now out. Heads You Die, set in 1934, takes the fourteen-year old James to Cuba, where his plans to relax after having a gruelling time of it in Hollywood are quickly scuppered.
After arriving in Havana with his school friend Hugo, James is met by Gerald Hardiman, a family friend. But things aren't quite what they seem, as James encounters pickpockets, a suspicious and tough girl called Jagua, and a man with a concrete fist, and learns that his friend is involved in a terrifying plot that threatens the world.
As usual when reading a Young Bond or continuation novel, there's fun to be had in spotting influences from Ian Fleming's novels and, indeed, the Bond films, or at least speculating on potential links. And Heads You Die appears to have its fair share.
Steve Cole has confirmed that he was inspired by the short story, 'The Hildebrand Rarity', whose influence is evident in the descriptions of James diving off the Cuban coast and character names of Valentine and Lana Barbey. More generally, diving and the sea feature often in the Bond books, and Steve Cole was keen to be the author to introduce James to it.
There are other nods to the Bond books. Take the villain's name. Scolopendra has a familiar ring to it, sounding rather like Scaramanga, Bond's adversary in The Man with the Golden Gun. It's also taken from the scientific name of the giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, a creature which shares Bond's bed in Dr No. In the film of Dr No, the centipede was replaced by a tarantula, presumably because the spider was thought more terrifying. In Heads You Die, James has another close encounter with a tarantula, which, as in the film, crawls up his arm.
At another point in the book, James thinks back to holidays at the seaside, recalling the feel of wet sand between the toes, collecting seashells, going rockpooling, and eating Cadbury's Flakes. The passage largely replicates the adult Bond's memories in the opening chapter of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Then there's a reference to A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies by the real James Bond. The young Bond comes across the book (or rather a typescript – the book wouldn't be published until 1936) in Jagua's room.
I thought a description of Scolopendra's lair, with its collection of exotic plants and wildlife not native to Cuba, somewhat reminiscent of Blofeld's 'Garden of Death' in You Only Live Twice, while Scolopendra's right-hand man, El Puño or the Fist, is a graduate of the Jaws' school of henchmen.
We are introduced to some of James' essential character traits, with frequent reference to St George (it's an allusion that Fleming made, and the concept of Bond as a St George figure is a favourite point of discussion in academic or literary studies) and luck, about which Bond often muses in Fleming's novels. Steve Cole also gives James what may be his first taste of an avocado, although in a club sandwich, rather than served as a dessert (Bond's unusual means of eating the fruit in Casino Royale).
Heads You Die is an exciting read that is packed full of Bondian thrills. As usual, though, I do feel rather anxious for James. Given all he's been through over the years, it's a wonder he doesn't shut himself in his bedroom at his aunt's house at Pett Bottom and refuse ever to come out. Still, I'm looking forward to the next instalment - Strike Lightning, which is out in the autumn.
Heads You Die by Steve Cole is published by Penguin