The James Bond I prefer, the “real” James Bond, is the one that exists outside of the bloated, by-the-numbers films. The highly profitable franchise produced few faithful adaptations, the genuine articles being Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), the loyal-in-gritty-spirit For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Casino Royale (2006). Otherwise, cinema JB is a cartoonish, pale comparison to the Bond that I highlighted in “The Gadgetless and Tired Assassin.”
That’s the 007 who has the feel of a tired public servant who's one martini away from turning his gun on himself or drinking himself into an oblivion. Not a handsome man—he has a visible scar on his face—but undeniably charismatic. He’s particularly ruthless, as in “The Hildebrand Rarity” (1960) where he covers up a murder by dumping a body overboard. There’s no bullshitting that the secret agent has a license to kill, and he takes the opportunity to use it if need be.
After James Bond creator Ian Fleming died, Kingsley Amis wrote one of the best continuations, Colonel Sun (1968), which was briefly considered for a film but then dropped. Hard to fathom that a character-driven plot with blistering action like Colonel Sun would have been passed over for the cartoonish drivel of Moonraker (1979) or A View to a Kill (1985). But it was because the formula had been more or less established with Goldfinger (1964), and why gut the goose that laid the golden egg.
In an information-rich afterword to Forever and a Death, Jeff Kleeman—who worked for United Artists and was responsible for bringing Donald Westlake on board—goes into detail how the producers made the decision to hire Westlake to write a treatment (actually, more than one) and then ultimately not use it. Westlake’s Bond would have been the follow-up to Pierce Brosnan’s GoldenEye (1995), a huge financial success, but the ambitious plot was constructed around the then impending handover of Hong Kong from the British to China, and the Chinese government had already shown their dislike for GoldenEye by blocking the film. So, movie producers—not wanting to further alienate their bottom line—went back to the drawing board with another rewrite, leading Kleeman to explain:
The schedule for Bond 18 necessitated that locations be scouted, stunts planned, actors cast long before a shooting script would ever be completed (as it turned out, the actual shooting script wasn’t completed until three weeks before production ended.) If Don continued, he’d have to change out most of what he’d created, going back to the drawing board yet again, while continuing to do the thing that wasn’t his natural writing method—creating an outline before he wrote the script.
What would have happened if Pierce Brosnan would have played 007 in a Donald Westlake plot? I’m positive he would have done quite well. The actor wasn’t served very well by the James Bond material he had to work with over the years. I often hear that he’s considered one of the worst actors to portray the part. Not so, it was the two-dimensional retread scripts that became also-rans in a Jason Bourne-dominated world that let him down. Check out Brosnan in The Matador (2005) where he plays an assassin and tell me he couldn’t have tapped into a Westlake hardboiled script. It’s a shame it never came to be.
So, what does all this have to do with Westlake’s novel? Well, Forever and a Death is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the aborted Bond screenplay. I must confess, when it comes to Westlake, I’m biased. I’ve never read a book of his I didn’t like. Ever. The Richard Stark Parker novels about a career criminal are my favorites, followed closely by the other criminal, albeit much funnier in tone, John Dortmunder. Of the standalone novels, I’m partial to Memory (2011), likewise published by Hard Case Crime. Forever and a Death is right up there with the rest of them. The basic gist: a wealthy businessman is not too happy with a transfer of power and plots revenge.
… Curtis couldn’t stop staring at the island, as they moved out away from the Mallory.
Mud. Soup, as he had predicted, in which every mark of man had sunk and crumbled and disappeared. And when he was ready, the same thing, the same sudden stripping away and finality, would happen again, on a much vaster scale. The buildings that fell then, when he was ready, the buildings that would crumble and melt away into the sudden soup, would not be low half-rotted barracks, but skyscrapers, concrete and metal and glass, some of which he himself had built, or helped to build.
I gave them, he thought, I’ll take them away. And with just as much pleasure, just as much skill, just as much efficiency, the buildings he had helped put up he would knock down again.
So, it’s a bitch that we didn’t get a Donald Westlake James Bond film starring Pierce Brosnan, but for me, we got something even better … a brand-new Westlake hardboiled novel.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.