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A new James Bond novel, from Ian Fleming, sort of

Ian Fleming (1908-64), creator of James Bond, just couldn't live and let die.

Ian Fleming (1908-64), creator of James Bond, just couldn't live and let die.

He'd have been 100 today. It's an occasion the debonair spy novelist, were he still with us, might have celebrated with a shaken-but-not-stirred dry martini, perhaps administered by slow drip at his luxurious Goldeneye estate in Jamaica.

Fleming's being dead, you might think, would count against our getting another Bond novel on the order of his immortally titled classics such as For Your Eyes Only.

But Bond novels, like diamonds, are forever - after all, they'd sold a mere 40 million copies at their author's death.

In 1981, Fleming's estate commissioned John Gardner, who had previously tweaked Bond in a book called The Liquidator, to continue the series. That first "posthumous" Bond novel bore the puckish title, License Renewed.

Today, in a more dignified tip of the hat to Fleming, Doubleday will issue Devil May Care by the 55-year-old English literary novelist Sebastian Faulks (best known for Birdsong), a new Bond adventure similarly commissioned by the Fleming estate.

In it, Bond, a "slightly more vulnerable" widower (says the author), faces the Cold War challenges of 1967 in wonted fashion - amid smashing locales, his libido intact, as ever impeccably polite.

In a statement released with the book, Faulks explains he was "surprised but flattered" to be offered the opportunity. He told the estate that he "hadn't read the books since the age of 13," but would take on the task if he still liked them.

He did. "On rereading," Faulks says, "I was surprised by how well the books stood up. I put this down to three things: the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero; a certain playfulness in the narrative details; and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn't dated."

Faulks' effort ranks as the most prominent in a flood of centenary Bond items and events that confirm how Agent 007 - the double zero, you may remember, signals Bond's right to kill - continues to rule his part of the cultural universe.

In London, the Imperial War Museum launched, on April 17, the first major exhibition ever devoted to Fleming. Exploring his whole life - the Museum even brought the writer's desk from Jamaica (where he wrote many Bond books) - the exhibit will stay open till March 1, 2009. Bloomsbury is releasing a companion volume written by Englishman Ben Macintyre.

Not be outdone, her Majesty's postal service - if not her secret service - is issuing six stamps featuring Fleming's most famous Bond novels.

The two First Class stamps honor Casino Royale (1953), the first book published, and Dr. No, the first one filmed (1962). For Your Eyes Only and From Russia With Love get 78-pence stamps. Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever bring up the rear with 54-pence stamps.

No word yet on whether that's Royal Mail literary criticism, pence by pence.

In July, the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland (Fleming describes Bond as half Scottish and half Swiss) plans an exhibit, "Bond Bound: Ian Fleming and the Art of Cover Design," paying tribute to the author's impact on paperback covers. (Fleming designed several of his own.)

And Bond fans who favor the hugely successful films over the books should sample the new edition of James Chapman's excellent License to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films (Palgrave, $19.95).

Who exactly was Ian Fleming? The London-born grandson of Robert Fleming, a Dundee Scotsman who made a killing in Scottish investment funds, Fleming grew up connected to wealth, but not awash in it. Like Bond, he managed only a year at Eton, and about the same at Sandhurst, the British military academy.

By the 1930s, Fleming had failed the British Foreign Service examination and become a Reuters journalist. As one, he covered a 1933 Soviet trial of British engineers charged with sabotage. Fleming failed to get an in-person interview with Stalin (the Soviet leader declined in a handwritten note), yet presumably picked up enough detail to shape future Russian villains.

A brief stint as a stockbroker followed before Fleming, in 1939, won the post of assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey.

There, say Fleming's biographers, he strategized about daring operations such as a parachuting mission into Berlin to assassinate Hitler. Along with his boss, he met such major players as J. Edgar Hoover and legendary director William Donovan of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. Also not bad preparation for Bond novels.

After the war, Fleming became the foreign manager for Kemsley newspapers in England. Having bought a home in Jamaica, he reportedly knocked out Casino Royale in six weeks. The Bond novels caught on, and Fleming produced them for 11 more years while pursuing his love of swimming, snorkeling, golf, cars and book collecting.

He died of a heart attack in 1964. On Sept. 30, the British Heart Foundation will host a gala benefit in his honor at London's Royal Festival Hall.

Where does Fleming's reputation stand today? As Chapman notes, "The critics have frequently been vitriolic about Bond and his world, branding it variously as sexist, racist, snobbish, violent and juvenile."

Still, the literary world often overlooks such elements in genre fiction, bracketing them as part of the territory rather than expressions of an author's mindset.

While Fleming hasn't experienced the literary apotheosis of genre heroes such as Raymond Chandler - who admired Fleming's work - literary appreciation for Bond's creator appears on the upswing: See a May 2 Times Literary Supplement piece extolling his high literary taste.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that Fleming also wrote "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the short story famously adapted into a film and musical. (Yes, there's a centenary edition.)

No one, of course, has hired a big author to write a sequel to it. Hard to get gals in skimpy bikinis into a flying car meant to charm kids.