Double or Nothing: A Double O Novel

  • By Kim Sherwood
  • William Morrow
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Art Taylor
  • May 12, 2023

A new Bond book doubles down on the franchise — and comes out a winner.

Double or Nothing: A Double O Novel

“Bond, James Bond.”

It’s already an iconic and ubiquitous phrase, but lately it seems Ian Fleming’s equally iconic hero has become even more ubiquitous himself.

Just consider these releases and happenings in the past year or so:

  • February 2022: Ian Fleming Publications announces plans for reworked editions of the original novels, re-edited to remove racially insensitive content.
  • April 2022: The Folio Society previews a limited-edition Casino Royale, celebrating 70 years since Bond’s debut (750 copies only, $725 apiece).
  • May 2022: Anthony Horowitz’s With a Mind to Kill, his third Bond outing, set soon after the events of Fleming’s final novel, The Man with the Golden Gun.
  • November 2022: Percival Everett’s Dr. No, which borrowed (and skewed) elements from the Bond universe in delightfully zany ways.
  • May 2023: Britain’s favorite superspy saves Coronation Day by thwarting a terrorist plot in Charlie Higson’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service, commissioned to celebrate the ascension of King Charles III to the throne.

Speaking of Higson, it’s worth mentioning the Bond fandom in our own household, since my wife and I are currently reading his Young Bond series aloud with our son, Dash. We’re also working our way through the films; we’re up to Timothy Dalton, for better or worse. And then there’s the LEGO Aston Martins (plural!) and the Funko Pop figurines and the Shaken cocktail book and the 007-themed sock collection and...

Seriously, though: I’ve been a fan of the many continuation novels in the Bond canon, from Kinsley Amis’ Colonel Sun through the John Gardner and Raymond Benson novels and then to the latest one-offs by Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, and William Boyd (the latter especially). And the Horowitz trilogy has proven brilliantly pitch-perfect.

But fresh works and adaptations that skip past high-level pastiche can reframe our views on a beloved figure or spin a series in a new direction. In that context, Kim Sherwood’s Double or Nothing — the first in a planned series focusing on MI6 agents beyond 007 — delivers a thrilling experience on various levels, both honoring tradition and pushing forward into uncharted territory. It promises to offer greater diversity across a new generation of superspies; updates to familiar characters and elements; and a bit of contemporary thematic urgency.

Fast-paced action, however, remains a hallmark in Sherwood’s novel, even from the opening mission to rescue a Double O agent being held by “terrorists for profit.” It’s a whirlwind two chapters echoing the mini-adventures at the start of so many Bond films and ending classically with a bit of suave banter (cue the opening credits and the theme song).

But James Bond himself is missing at the beginning of the book — presumed dead, in fact, after a mission goes wrong — so the focus of Double or Nothing is on those younger agents, including 009, Sid Bashir, who’d been accompanying Bond on his last (last?) ill-fated mission.

Sid is representative of the diversity in the new ranks — Islamic, with a Sudanese father and Pakistani mother. He graduated with a first-class degree in philosophy and mathematics from King’s College and a mastery of chess, which has translated into superb strategizing in the field.

Another agent, 003, Joanna Harwood, was studying to be a surgeon before joining the Service, and she’s the target rescued in the opening scene by Bashir himself, who’s not only her colleague but also her ex-fiancé. (More drama: Harwood had been Bond’s lover previously.)

The third major player here, 004, Joseph Dryden, has a military background and is to my knowledge the first openly gay Double O agent in the canon. After having suffered a traumatic brain injury from an IED in Afghanistan, he’s been equipped with a brain-computer interface courtesy of Q, who’s not a person in this iteration of the Bond universe but a machine — perhaps the most powerful computer in the world.

Another update: Moneypenny is now head of the Double O section, appointed by a new M, who himself rose through the Double O ranks. Fans of the series will be glad to find Bill Tanner still in the mix and will appreciate the cameo by Tiger Tanaka of the Japanese Secret Service, as well as the various smaller allusions to prior novels and films.

Sherwood’s villains seem particularly Bond-esque, too, in a dual plot whose strands intersect. But while saving the world is always a major concern, the stakes here seem more personal — adding richer dimension to the story.

Rattenfänger (ratcatcher in German, “the original name of the Pied Piper”) is the terrorist group that held Harwood and has killed several other Double O agents (one can’t help but see some lineage with SMERSH and SPECTRE). A threat, clearly, but the most engaging conflicts in the narrative stem from Harwood’s capture, her rescue, and her relationship with Bashir.

“You need to know if I broke,” she tells him early on. “What I told them. How many assets I jeopardized. If I could have been turned. My loyalty, scale of one to ten. Anything under six, you take the Glock 17 you removed from the safe when we walked in here, shoot me in the head, and save M the paperwork.” Those questions deepen and redouble throughout, intensified by the emotions swirling between the pair.

The central case in the novel involves Sir Bertram Paradise, a tech billionaire who promises to “use his fortune to heal the earth” through a geo-engineering initiative called Cloud Nine; climate change is a nicely contemporary theme here. But Britain is worried: Sir Bertram’s chief science officer and head of security have disappeared, and “he’s regularly dropping money in shady accounts around the world.”

Paradise shares some DNA with Goldfinger and others in the Bond universe (big money, big egos, big ambitions), and after 004 Dryden is dispatched to investigate, there’s plenty of intrigue and explosions ahead. But again, the personal angle is just as compelling. Dryden’s entrance into Paradise’s world comes via an old Army comrade, Luke Luck, who’d also been Dryden’s lover. How is rekindling that relationship going to complicate things?

One scene with a brawl brewing in Dryden and Lucky Luke’s direction stands out in several ways and highlights Sherwood’s attentiveness as a prose stylist:

“The decibels of the bar were suddenly swallowed. The usual toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye, get it out and measure. The usual curt words. The usual drift to the coat as the man with the sour taste in his mouth prepared to pull a knife. The usual clench of muscles as the factory worker folded his meaty fingers around a bottle on the bar.”

A “usual” scene here, maybe — and a usual set of elements in Double or Nothing. But Sherwood, acutely aware of the traditions she’s working within, knows how to call out the usual and re-energize it.

I’m eagerly awaiting Higson’s coronation Bond novel, wending its way across the Atlantic to me now. (That limited-edition Casino Royale? That’s one to dream about.) But I’ve got my eye more eagerly on Sherwood’s second Double O book, thrilled by what she’s accomplished in Double or Nothing and ready to follow her wherever she goes next.

Art Taylor is the author of The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions. He’s an associate professor of English and creative writing at George Mason University.

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