A Licence To Read Colonel Sun

Jonathan Cape first edition
Jonathan Cape first edition

After the death of Ian Fleming in 1964, two James Bond books were published posthumously. These were the novel, The Man With The Golden Gun and the short story collection, Octopussy and The Living Daylights. By the time that the latter was published, in 1966, Bond and indeed the entire spy genre had become a global phenomenon. It was unthinkable that there would be no more Bond novels written. The first of these turned out to be Colonel Sun, by Robert Markham.

A Man In Sunglasses

Robert Markham was a pseudonym, and the identity of the author of Colonel Sun was none other than Kingsley Amis, an acquaintance of Ian Fleming and a Bond fan “ever since he discovered the first paperback, Casino Royale, on a railway bookstall” (The Times Educational Supplement). Amis has already written The James Bond Dossier, and The Book of Bond (under the name of Lt Col William ‘Bill’ Tanner) and was an obvious choice as Ian Fleming’s successor. It has been suggested that the use of the Robert Markham pseudonym was so that other authors could write Bond novels under the same pseudonym.

The first edition of Colonel Sun was published by Jonathan Cape on March 28, 1968. The cover artwork was a radical departure from that created by Richard Chopping for the Ian Fleming novels. The striking cover featured Salvador Dali-esque artwork by Tom Adams. The first US edition was published two months later by Harper & Row.

From the book The Letters of Kingsley Amis, edited by Zachary Leader, there are a couple of insights into the production of this first non Fleming James Bond novel.

In one letter dated May 21 1967 written to the English poet, novelist and Jazz critic Philip Larkin after a more in-depth look at his own personal health than one really needs to know he states “Otherwise I am in fine fettle. My Bond novel (Colonel Sun) is finished, and I have just put together a book of beautiful poetry (A Look Round the Estate) to show I am full of integrity after all.” This statement about integrity is most likely being his own belief that he could walk in both worlds of literature -that of the more high brow as well as the more commercial -obviously his 007 project being the latter.

Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis

In another letter dated September 28th 1967 he writes to a Tom Maschler: “There is a snag in the proof of Colonel Sun at page 187. I wrote a revised version of this passage and included it in the final copy I dropped at Cape’s or was it Janson-S’s? (Ian Fleming’s Literary Agent) just before leaving. What appears in the proof is the earlier version. I imagine that the written corrections on that draft were all duly noted and incorporated, but that this, being a properly typed page, slipped through the mesh. I could re-do the thing: the snag would be that I did the revision from notes supplied by Mike K (Edmund ‘Mike’ Keeley) that I haven’t got here, or probably anywhere.”

Luckily being in possession of an uncorrected proof of Colonel Sun, we have been able to find the passage that Amis is referring too. Although the passage isn’t a totally revelationary one, it is interesting to see how such an esteemed author has revised one of his works. So here follows in italic the original passage and then in bold the revised version. Sadly the passage doesn’t involve 007.

Uncorrected proof passage pp. 187

By way of immediate return for these efforts, George would be entitled to talk to Maria, to hold her hand and above all look at her. He would not, of course, expect to spend any time with her alone. He had never done so. That was the way life was arranged. George was tall and well-built and dark-eyed, and working in the tourist trade brought him plenty of sexual opportunities. He took them. Nobody minded that, but a great many people would have minded a great deal if he had started trying to treat his affianced bride like a German or English office girl on holiday. Not that he had ever seriously contemplated this. The system was the system and it worked reasonably well. (It had never occurred to George to wonder what Maria thought of the system.)

Corrected version (from first Pan edition pp.163)

By way of immediate return for these efforts, George would be entitled to talk to Maria, to hold her hand and above all to look at her. He would not, of course, expect to spend much time with her alone. That had always been part of the system, the way life was arranged. George was tall and well-built and dark-eyed, and working in the tourist trade brought him plenty of sexual opportunities. He took them. Nobody minded that, but a great many people would have minded a great deal if he had started trying to treat his affianced bride in public like a German or English office-girl on holiday. He knew that some of the younger people made a mock of the system, but it suited him well enough. (It had never occurred to George to wonder what Maria thought of the system.)

Amis James Bond Dossier
Amis James Bond Dossier

Seeing these two passages only really reveal to today’s readers that Amis’ novel is written during what is really just beginning of that period where old fashioned values and “free love” are beginning to form very distinct opposing camps it is a novel of its time and was published directly after the summer of love and the advent of hippies. Of course it was during the spring of 1967 that Amis was writing this novel.

In a letter to The Editor of SPECTATOR Amis writes a response to comments made about him and his writing of Colonel Sun some years after its publication:

March 6, 1971

“Anyway, according to Mr Summers, I cannot hope to surprise anybody now that I have sunk to my ‘proper level masquerading as the concocter of crypto-fascist fake James Bond tec yarns’. I suppose he refers to the single yarn, Colonel Sun, which I published under a pseudonym while letting everybody I know I had written it. I did not masquerade as its concocter, or concoctor: I concocted it. Mr Summers comes near libelling me by implying I got someone else to write the thing and then passed it off as my own work. And anybody who had read a Bond adventure and a few tec yarns, and imagines the one to be an example of the other, cannot of understood what he has read.” This gives us the readers of this extract a real insight to how personal Amis took criticism with regards to his standing in the literary world, and yet wholeheartedly and unashamedly stood up for his sojourn into the terrtory of 007 literature.

Dragon Island

The novel begins with the kidnapping of M from his house, ‘Quarterdeck’ and the murder of his servants, ex-Chief Petty Officer Hammond and his wife. Bond travels to the Aegean, and to the island – Vrakonisi – meaning Dragon Island, working with a Greek Communist agent, Ariadne Alexandrou. The intention of the villainous Colonel Sun is to sobatage a Middle-East détente conference being held on the island, and blame Britain for it. Bond attempts not only to thwart the Colonel’s plans, but also to rescue M.

The Theory and Practice of Torture

The novel features many familiar characters and elements which readers of Fleming had come to know and enjoy. One of these is the torture sequence, first used in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale. Colonel Sun’s torture is one of the most memorable as Bond has a metal skewer inserted into his skull through the ear.

As a whole, Colonel Sun is perhaps the single continuation novel which most closely resembles the novels of Ian Fleming. Perhaps the key reason for this is that is occurs in the same timescale as the original Fleming books, whereas those written by later continuation authors had to be updated for a new time period, such as the 1980s in the case of John Gardner. Excluding The Authorised Biography of James Bond by John Pearson and two film novelisations by Christopher Wood, Colonel Sun was to be the last James Bond continuation novel until 1981 and Licence Renewed by John Gardner.

Tom Adams Daliesque cover art
Tom Adams Daliesque cover art
Cover Gallery

Bantam paperback edition
Bantam paperback edition

French edition
French edition

Paperback edition
Paperback edition

Uncorrected proof
Uncorrected proof

Pan paperback edition
Pan paperback edition

Coronet paperback edition
Coronet paperback edition

Panther paperback edition
Panther paperback edition

Titan comic book
Titan comic book
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