Young guns, having some fun

I’ve had boys on the mind in the last week or so, but only in a good way. I’ve been reading the adventures of young James Bond (Silverfin by Charlie Higson), young Sherlock Holmes (Death Cloud by Andrew Lane) and young Alex Rider (Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz). Young Alex of course has never been anything but: the series started when he was 14 ten years ago and a decade later his fifteenth birthday is scheduled to happen shortly after the end of the book (“next Thursday”). The other two are prequels to the adult adventures, authorised by the respective estates and drawing on what we know of the protagonists’ early lives to give pointers as to how the boy became the man. Horowitz however can do what he likes with Alex – and frequently does – without having to worry about staying canon: we’ve never seen the man Alex and don’t know what he will turn out like.

The secret of a good boy’s tale is get rid of the adults as soon as you reasonably can and have them drawn into good, wholesome, sex-free adventures without too much wild coincidence or suspension of disbelief. That is an inevitable weak point of both young Bond and young Holmes. As adults, they always have the advantage of being given a case or assignment to solve, though in Bond’s case coincidence also played a part a bit to often – in both Goldfinger and Thunderball he has a chance encounter with the bad guys before it becomes official. That is the genius of Alex – he is a kid recruited by MI6, so he too gets given the assignment, though again not without some helpful coincidence first to pave the way.

In order of enjoyment:

3rd place, Silverfin. It’s not bad, you understand. Charlie Higson knows his Bond. Ian Fleming could never quite decide how old Bond was: in the early books there’s a reference to work he did “before the war”, whereas by the later books he was obviously too young for that; Higson seems to have fixed on a 1920 date of birth, meaning that he could have been in naval intelligence by 1945, if not 1939. The original books provide a good deal of information about young Bond in the form of an obituary published in You Only Live Twice (don’t worry, it’s premature). That’s how we know his father is Scottish and his mother Swiss; he was raised by his aunt after the death of his parents; and educated in reverse order at Cambridge, Fettes and Eton, having to leave the latter after only a couple of terms because of an “indiscretion” with one of the maids. Apparently a later Higson book tells the truth of that “indiscretion” and it isn’t what you might think. However I will be very surprised if he also covers the trip to Paris aged 16 on which Bond lost his virginity – also canon in the original books and a little less susceptible to reinterpretation for a young audience.

And that is the problem with Silverfin, really. Higson’s young Bond is a nice lad. Adult Bond is anything but. He is arrogant, sexist and minimally moral – they don’t hand out Double-O licences to boy scouts, you know. Young Bond does not have to become old Bond: these could be the adventures of any 1930s boy hero.

Also, the coincidence level that gets him into the adventures is just a bit too high for my liking.

2nd place: Crocodile Tears. This series has ranged from middling to superb and this is at the upper end. A few years ago there was the feeling that Horowitz was just turning them out and quality declined accordingly, as it always must – but this comes after a couple of years’ reflection and recharging. Still not quite up to my favourite, Scorpia (the eponymous organisation is quite obviously SPECTRE by another name), and the baddy isn’t up to Damian Cray of Eagle Strike, who was quite obviously an evil Elton John. But fun.

Alex of course is young James Bond, essentially: he has similar adventures with similar suffering, similar gadgets, similar villains and even a similar on-off girlfriend, Sabina Pleasure (think about it). But what sets him apart is that he emphatically isn’t Bond: he hates the things he has to do and he is aware of how each adventure damages him. In almost every case his motivation is to prevent the widespread suffering that will ensue if the bad guy has his way. Alex is a likeable, moral lad and there is a good chance that the adult will turn out the same way.

1st place: Death Cloud, and I’m not just saying this because I happen to get a mention in the dedication. Young Holmes is well drawn as a sympathetic, slightly insecure, very intelligent, socially awkward boy and here you can actually see the seeds of the man being planted. He already has a querying, analytical mind and during the novel it is taken and moulded by a tutor who teaches him to use it, as well as have adventures.

There is very little early Holmes biographical material in the original stories, other than the existence of Mycroft, so Andrew Lane fills in the gaps with his own invention and by plundering the canonical, off-the-cuff references to earlier adventures. The villain of this one is Baron Maupertuis; the next will reveal the truth about the Red Leech. Andy knows his Holmes and he knows his Victoriana, which gives the book a good period setting. Young Holmes is much easier to get on with than the adult but you can still see how the one will lead to the other; and even at his most insufferable, adult Holmes has redeeming qualities: a deep unspoken love for the people closest to him, a thirst for justice and the plain enjoyment of the intellectual challenges of each case. But he too is a damaged man and without pulling many punches we see the first signs of the damage being inflicted.

And absolutely no Watson or Moriarty. That would not be canon.

I wasn’t planning on doing any further plugging, but random web searching led to Andy’s original proposal and thus the official web site. The proposal itself is worth the price of admission: this is how these things should be done.