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Double Or Die

Style: Average

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Fairly Positive

In Brief: Action-packed detective-cum-adventure story, combining fairly realistic if sometimes sickening action sequence and crossword-style puzzles. One boy is poisoned by being forced to swallow Gin. Several boys deceive their teachers and guardians in order to help James. Fast driving by a young teenager which ends in a crash.

Cover of Double Or Die

Author: Charlie Higson

Series: Young Bond

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 2007

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Early 20th C

Setting: Eton / Cambridge / London

Genres:  AdventureBoys


Characters:

  • James Bond is a resourceful if impetuous Eton schoolboy
  • Pritpal, Perry and Tommy are schoolfriends of James who risk getting themselves into trouble on his behalf.
  • Sir John Charnage is a gambler and a drinker who employs ruthless thugs and who kidnaps and coerces to assist his plan of creating and selling a code-cracking computer to the Russians.
  • Red Kelly and his sister Kelly are Eastenders who help James in return for the help he gave Red in Scotland in the first story.

Synopsis:

James Bond becomes entangled in the schemes of a rich gambler when a schoolmaster leaves mysteriously and sends James' friend Pritpal a cryptic letter explaning his departure. Pritpal realises that the letter in fact contains crossword clues which hint at a kidnap and a bigger scheme. James chases the clues around the south of England, meeting Alan Turing in Cambridge, getting lucky on the the roulette wheel in the East End and ending up taking the disused pneumatic railway under London to the Docks to rescue the missing teacher and destroy the machine he's been forced to build.

Notes:

Reading a series of Young Bond books, I was guardedly looking out for coy references to Martinis shaken and not stirred, beautiful girls with outrageous names, and licenses to kill. I must admit to being surprised so far. (Unless you can count a horse called “Martini” whose girl rider is called “Lawless Wilder”). The series is almost disappointingly determined not to mine its own future with knowing winks, and concentrates instead on the trials and tribulations of a not unrealistic schoolboy. No inventor friend whose name begins with “Q”, no young female companion with the surname Moneypenny. James is perhaps more courageous and daring than most of his contemporaries, but far less so than, say, Alex Rider.

The James Bond franchise itself, at least in its film incarnation, is effectively timeless. The internal evidence of a story may tie it to an historical moment, but the basic conceit of the debonair Bond dashing to defeat the bad guys, foil a villainous plan, and save the world works outside any real chronology. In contrast, the Young Bond is tied to inter-War Eton, and somehow this brings James' exploits down to earth. I'm sure there is literary license taken with the descriptions and facts, and once or twice you wonder: would he have known that? But the social setting is realistic and interesting. The attitudes of the different social classes to each other; the regulations at school including the ration of coal and the fagging system; the readiness of adults to allow youngsters to drive fast cars; and the legal prohibition of gambling.

In particular there is a smattering of social commentary. James is not rich, but he does go to Eton, and in contrast the family of his friend Red Kelly lives in poverty, their father unable to get stable work and turning to drink. The Eastenders live several to a bed in conditions of squalor and a single large room in a discarded cruise ship is grander than anything they've ever encountered. On a different level, Sir John Charnage is an embittered survivor of the Gallipoli campaign who feels he was lied to by his military and political leaders, only to discover that the “inhuman” Turks were just young men like himself. None of this should be eye-opening to any youngster reading books these days: poverty and the hardships it brings, and the true plight of young men fighting for their country are both common themes among socially-themed books. But it's interesting to see it within what is essentially an action-driven book.

In some respects this story is not for the squeamish. One of a pair of vicious hoodlums loses part of his anatomy every time he and James clash. If I have a slight regret, it is that the two sides of this nasty pair of East End brothers do not really reconcile. One moment they're truly vicious, wielding bayonet-laden guns and spouting sadistic banter. The next they're grumbling like an old married couple. I imagine this was intended to lighten up an otherwise dark aspect of the story, but it doesn't quite work for me. And they both do die quite gruesomely.

More so in this story than in either of the previous two in the series, James relies on his friends: Pritpal, Perry & Tommy from school; and Red Kelly and his sister Kelly Kelly (!) from the East End. Somewhat unrealistically, when James turns up at chez Kelly half-dead, the entire neighbourhood turns out to buy him a drink on account of his actions in Scotland (in Silverfin). Red & his sister do everything they can for James, but his Eton friends are no less generous on his behalf. James himself, in spite of terrible mistreatment at the hands of Charnage and his men, drives himself on to rescue a kidnapped teacher and to undo whatever dealings Sir John Charnage has with the Russians. It verges on the unrealistic, not least because James is never quite sure what the bad guys' plan really is, but it is at least an admirable example of fortitude in the face of adversity!

Themes:

  • Code-breaking and early computers
  • Social conditions

James dropped into a lower gear and stamped the pedal right down to the floorboards. The engine complained but the Bamford and Martin speeded up. After a second with the revs almost off the dial, he changed up, then up again. The car was flat out now, going more than sixty miles an hour. He overtook two cars then pulled back over to the left of the road, spraying muddy water over a line of people who were waiting at a bus stop.

He kept his speed up but was blinded by the sleet that was slamming into him. He wiped his face and saw that the buildings had dropped away and he was in open countryside. Out of town there were no streetlights and all he could see clearly was the small patch of brightness that his headlamps carved out in front of him.

James was gripped by a mixture of panic, fear and excitement. He had never driven this fast before. He could feel the body of the car shaking and rattling. Every tiny bump in the road felt like he was hittting a great boulder. His face was frozen, his lips forced back from his aching teeth. He fought to keep the car under control as it bounced over the road, but his hands were numb on the slippery wheel.

Monday 7th May 2007