Nobody does it better, sang Carly Simon on the belter of a pop ballad that played over the opening credits of the 1977 James Bond film ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. The lyrics, by Carole Bayer Sager, made fairly naked reference to the character’s renowned sexual prowess, and, more implicity, to his skill as a spy. “Makes me feel sad for the rest … ”
Well, what about the rest? Was that song really being fair to Bond’s fellow secret agents in the elite Double O Section of British intelligence? Surely some might be similarly competent, at espionage if not at lovemaking? Less showy than OO7, so less of a liability perhaps? Or perhaps not, on the evidence of past books and movies. Other OOs have often popped up only to be killed off – both as a plot point and a means of underlining Bond’s sheer primacy.
They never got their own stories, until now. ‘Double Or Nothing’ is the first in a new trilogy of Bond-adjacent novels by Kim Sherwood, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh. She was personally commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications, which is still administered by the late author’s estate in what Sherwood calls a “very family-oriented business”. “When you write for the Flemings, you’re one of them,” she says.
“And it’s important to them that whoever they invite into this world cares about it as much as they do.” By her own admission, Sherwood is not the kind of household name that has previously been tasked for so-called “continuation novels” in the Bond series. Kingsley Amis wrote the first (albeit under a pseudonym) – the profoundly odd ‘Colonel Sun’ – a few years after Fleming’s death in 1964. Sebastian Faulks was hired for a one-off, ‘Devil May Care’, to mark the 100th anniversary of Fleming’s birth in 2008. Well-established genre author Anthony Horowitz turned out the most recent three, and, as his tenure was ending, the estate was looking to focus less on Bond than his colleagues.
“They wanted a new trilogy to introduce a diverse ensemble of heroes and follow their adventures in the modern world. And they wanted a massive fan to write it.”
Spies in the family
Which is to say, Sherwood’s love for the franchise did as much to get her the job as the talent demonstrated by her 2018 debut novel ‘Testament’ – a prize-winning historical fiction centered on the Hungarian Holocaust and drawn partly from her paternal grandmother’s experience as a survivor. On the other side of the family, her grandfather was the actor George Baker, who was Ian Fleming’s first pick to play James Bond when ‘Doctor No’ was being cast. The role went to that former milkman from Edinburgh, but Baker did take small parts in later Bond movies ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.
Sherwood didn’t know this, however, until she was already a pre-teen aficionado. Pierce Brosnan was her first screen Bond, and she was “less than 10” when she saw him dive off a dam in the opening sequence of ‘GoldenEye’. “I just loved the spectacle, the heroic scale of it.” Soon after, she read her first of the Fleming novels, ‘From Russia With Love’ – a Pan paperback from a second-hand bookshop in London’s Camden Town, where she grew up.
“I was completely entranced with Fleming’s vivid language, the lure of the locations and details.” Some time later, she was flipping through a Bond movie encyclopedia and found her grandad in it. “I was staying at his house at the time, so I ran downstairs shouting, ‘You never told me …’ He just laughed and said it was a million years ago. He was proud to be involved, but he’d gone on to lots of other things.” (Baker remains best known for playing Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford on the ITV series of the 1980s and 90s.)
On her majestic secret service
This personal connection may have helped, but the Fleming estate still had to sign off on Sherwood’s blueprints for a thoroughly modern Double O Section. “The brief was to create a wider cast of agents. So I asked myself, who would be a OO now? I went on MI6 recruiting pages and I was struck by their need for people who can go undercover all around the world. People from a broad variety of backgrounds, who speak all sorts of different languages.”
The intelligence requirements of the present thus gave her grounds to conceive of operatives like OO9: Azzar Siddig Bashir, a Muslim chess prodigy with a first-class degree from Oxford in philosophy and mathematics to complement his license to kill. Or OO4, Joseph Dryden, whose parents emigrated to England from the Caribbean in the Windrush generation, and who grew up to bleed for Britain first as a soldier then as a wounded, haunted secret agent. “I wanted the book to have a connection to Jamaica [Fleming lived and worked there], and a character like Dryden seemed to add a richness and a potential for conflict.”
Then there’s OO3, a French-Irish operative with her own troubled past and hidden motives. She’s a former lover of OO7 too, who is missing and presumed dead in Sherwood’s timeline – conspicuous by his absence. She takes her name, Johanna Harwood, from the Irish-born, French-speaking “script doctor” who worked on the movie versions of ‘Doctor No’ and ‘From Russia With Love’. Sherwood contacted the now-elderly Harwood for permission, and they have since become “pen pals”, she says.
Honouring Harwood’s contribution is also a means of paying dues to the abiding society of women who have helped make James Bond look good over the decades. “The Bond universe does seem dominated by maleness, but I think that’s only on the surface. Consider how instrumental Dana Broccoli was [wife and business partner of Bond film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli], and later [their daughter] Barbara.
“Then what about the co-stars, the costumers, the singers of those theme songs? Women have played a major role from the beginning.” In her academic career, Sherwood is something of a specialist on neglected female authors and the alternative literary canon that might properly include them. Her next non-Bond book will be ‘A Wild & True Relation’, a revisionist “heroical novel” in the 18th century mode, which proposes to challenge “women’s writing and women’s roles throughout history”.
Some are bound to ask why she’s also committed to the legacy of an author, and a character, whose attitudes to women have always seemed ambivalent at best. “Bond is a more complex character than he is sometimes given credit for,” says Sherwood. “If he wasn’t, I don’t think he’d still be around. Fleming designed him as this blank slate that people project onto, and I think that capacity for mutability has kept him evergreen.
“It’s also part of his personality, the way he hides himself behind a mask. Writing this book gave me an opportunity to look at him from the outside, and shine a light on some of his facets.” Where OO7 appears in flashback through ‘Double Or Nothing’, he is something of a cypher, or a spectre, if you will. As observed or recalled by others, he matches Fleming’s original description with his dark hair, cruel mouth, exterior charm, and stated belief “that an agent should take refuge in great luxury to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death”. He is not, however, the Bond of the Cold War.
Sherwood has cherry-picked from rich existing material to update the character. Her Bond is trained and deployed after 9/11, and now approaching the mandatory Double O retirement age of 45. “I have my own Bond canon in my mind, and some elements just don’t work in the modern world.” Indeed, Sherwood’s MI6 is primed to counter climate change, her agents infiltrating the security detail of a tech billionaire who claims he can tame the weather.
“Fleming wrote about the great fears of his time, whether communism or nuclear war. The greatest threat to us now is the climate crisis, so I took my leave from him to explore that.”
All time high
There is something of Fleming’s style in ‘Double Or Nothing’ too, with its lucid location-hopping from Kazakh spaceports to Macau casinos, and its appraising eye for luxury cars and watches. (The estate didn’t give Sherwood a Bond bible to follow, but they did sometimes request that she change a brand or model.)
In other ways, both obvious and subtle, the book is the work of someone whose values and worldview Fleming wouldn’t necessarily recognise. A product of a very different time, and a very different mind, that may upset the more conservative arbiters of Bond tradition.
“There will always be people who don’t like what you’re doing, for a whole host of reasons, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positivity of fans since the books were announced. The real, hardcore Bond community is inclusive, and celebratory.”
It’s a circus too, of course, and with this first of three books Sherwood is about to step from the lecture hall to the middle of the ring. “There’s writing, and there’s teaching, but Bond is a whole other thing, a whole other world. It’s a much larger stage to learn on.”
Picture credits: Sherwood – Rosie Sherwood; No Time To Die premiere – Jeff Spicer/Getty; books – lenscap67/Getty