007 suffers from a mid-life crisis

Nobody can accuse Sebastian Faulks of lacking courage. For his latest work, the British author who brought us Birdsong is attempting the literary equivalent of steering a speedboat through the window of an office tower into the Thames. It's the kind of stunt that could prove fatal.

The exploit in question is Devil May Care, the new James Bond novel produced by "Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming", as the jacket puts it. The stakes are high.

The book is being promoted with the hoopla reserved for a blockbuster film, complete with supermodel Tuuli Shipster stalking the deck of a British warship. And Faulks is attempting to recreate an author who, at least in terms of his popularity, could rank among the most influential writers of the postwar era.

Does the book merit the hullabaloo? Faulks has assembled the tools necessary for the task at hand. Unfortunately, he's a few olives short of a thirst quencher.

His sentences are punchy, just like the original books about agent 007. Bond is acerbic, snobbish and lecherous. The villain is a batty megalomaniac with a physical deformity. Miss Moneypenny flirts and M grumps.

Yet Faulks doesn't get it right. The problem is his decision to set the book in 1967, casting Bond as a grumpy middle-aged man moaning about the swinging 1960s. Bond is a character capable of constant reinvention, which is why so many different actors have played him. But of all the different guises for Bond, golf-club bore seems unfortunate. "London seemed to have gone slightly off its head in the time he'd been away," Bond notes as he drives through London. And when 007 reaches the office, Moneypenny informs him that M has taken up yoga.

"Has the whole world gone raving mad in my absence?" splutters Bond, who seems to grow wearier, even when he finds the heroine, Scarlett Papava, in his room.

"Bond had never encountered a British female agent before, but it was just like SIS to think they must 'move with the times'," writes Faulks. But surely we all know what Bond thinks when he finds a babelicious secret agent in his room?

Besides, all the grousing about the '60s doesn't fit. Bond was all about embracing modernity, with nothing fuddy-duddy about him. If his author had lived to see the summer of love, Bond would have applauded. Free love? Sounds right up his street.

At the end of the day, Devil May Care isn't a bad book. It's an enjoyable pastiche. The whole enterprise reeks of professionalism. It's just hard to see the point of it all.