Friday 5 December 2008

for Queen and country

Black Butterfly
by Mark Gatiss

With the arrival of Daniel Craig and even a new novel penned by Sebastian Faulks, Bond has made a hell of a comeback into the public imagination. Lucifer Box, the secret agent created by The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss first inhabited Edwardian England in The Vesuvius Club, a period he was perfectly suited to as a wit, dandy, and general man about town. His second adventure, The Devil In Amber found Box a good twenty years older but his passions undimmed as he foiled the ambitions of a fascist conspiracy in 1920's New York. It was almost inevitable that his third and final outing would be set in Bond's 1950's and find him unwillingly on the verge of retirement. After the suspicious suicide of an old flame he finds himself drawn into a final test of his skills, 'If not exactly raging against the dying of the light, I was at least a little cross with it.'

The plot follows a Bond like structure, exotic locations from Egypt to Jamaica and in spite of his age there's even a bit of action between the sheets for our hero (his advantage in this regard being that he bats 'for both the the First and Second Eleven, if you recall'). It doesn't quite hit the heights of his previous two outings but Gatiss has plenty of fun along the way, the Bond genre a perfect arena for his joyous punning. Every name and organisation is there to poke fun at something. Take for example 'Whitley Bey', half Turkish, half Geordie, 'the secret leader of a cadre of psychoanalysts-cum-mercenaries called the Jung Turks. Their speciality lay in imagining themselves into the mind of the enemy and then working out, through analysis, what their next move would be. If this failed they fell back on good old-fashioned Balkan brutality.'

To describe these books as a guilty pleasure would be a disservice to the writing. It's easy reading but in a joyous way, with plenty of wit to keep you chuckling. As stocking fillers go you could do far worse. There's also something still a little thrillingly controversial about having a bisexual leading man. Bond may be appealing to both men and women in his Speedos but I'm not sure he'd be prepared to go as far as Lucifer Box for Queen or country.


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