So I finally read it and boy, was it worth the wait!
It’s definitely the best of Horowitz’s three novels. I’d go so far as to say it might be the best continuation novel, period. Hell, I’d even go a step further and say that it’s better than some of Fleming’s work! Needless to say, it’s now one of my all-time favorite Bond novels.
The book really feels like a near-perfect blend of the more espionage-related Fleming novels (From Russia with Love and, to a lesser extent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) with John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Horowitz mentions re-reading the latter novel before starting work on this book in his endnote and the influence of Le Carre’s work is very much front and center here. It’s the closest a Bond novel (at least one I’ve read…there are plenty of continuation novels that I haven’t yet) has come to feeling like a Le Carre novel.
With a Mind to a Kill isn’t particularly action-packed or fast-paced, but it more than makes up for it by being a pretty intensive character study of Bond. Some of the best parts of the book are the passages where Bond is introspecting on his career, his life, and the shifting geo-political and cultural landscape. There are times when the book almost feels like a deconstruction of Bond - one bit that springs to mind in this regard is when Bond thinks about how defeating a Dr. No or Goldfinger won’t really make a difference to the outcome of the Cold War and that ultimately the Soviet Union can only be defeated from within by the Russian people. While Horowitz, as always, does a great job channeling Ian Fleming, parts like these make you realize that perhaps this was a story that simply needed to be told decades later by someone other than Fleming - by an author who knew how the Cold War would end and who is far less reluctant to critically examine Bond and his world than his own creator would be.
Of all the Horowitz novels, this is the one that makes references to the Fleming novels the most. But I love how these aren’t just casual continuity nods (though there are quite a few of them) but actually fit in pretty well with the narrative of this novel and Bond’s current frame of mind. In particular, I loved the call-back to Bond and Mathis’ conversation in the nursing home from Casino Royale.
And now onto that ending…
Horowitz, who’d already declared that he wouldn’t be killing off Bond, does manage to have his cake and eat it too. And he does it in a way that’s perfectly sublime. But whichever way you look at it, it’s a pretty bleak ending for Bond - the only one that rivals it for bleakness is perhaps the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I mean, consider the possibilities:
Bond gets killed. Which is terrible of course, but it puts him out of his misery and he gets to die a ‘‘heroes’ death’’.
Bond makes it home and resigns from the Service. But without a life of danger and service to Queen and Country, he will feel a purposeless hollow shell. And his inability to commit to a long-term relationship means that he’ll never be able to find lasting happiness with any woman.
Bond makes it home, and changes his mind about resigning. Cue the events of the dozens of other continuation novels. This outcome may be great for us fans sitting at home but is it a great outcome for Bond, who’s condemned to continue the cycle of inflicting physical and mental trauma on himself over and over again until finally he goes on a mission he won’t come back from?
Katya Leonova’s death also adds to the sourness of the ending. Tracy’s death was tragic, but as Bond himself notes, at least he made her happy till the end. Vesper’s death was tragic as well, but she was a traitor and Bond could make himself believe that ‘‘the bitch’’ deserved it. But Katya is someone who sacrificed herself to save his life after he rejected her, and arguably betrayed her, at least on an emotional level. Yes, Katya was never someone he even contemplated settling down with, but he did want to make things right with her and he was deprived of that chance.
On the whole, it was a great ride (well, more like a gentle cruise through mostly still but occasionally choppy waters) and a perfect coda to the Fleming canon. I sincerely hope that EON Production makes a deal with Horowitz and buys the rights to this one because I’d really like to see it form at least the skeleton of a Bond film. As for the novels, I do think the time has come to retire Fleming’s Bond and set the next iteration in the present-day (or some other time period) because I really don’t see anyone topping Horowitz’s work here.