Throwing up the dead: the novelists mimicking Ian Fleming and Stieg Larsson

Anthony Horowitz and David Lagercrantz have produced two crime novels that stick to the tried and tested formulas.

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Most novels are, of course, derivative puke, and most novelists no better or worse than the book dealer Nicholas Lane, who at the beginning of Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) – a great book, the ur-book beneath and behind all Sinclair’s superfluent um-and-er books – sits “on severely angled knees”, gazing upon “the partly fermented haddock, mixed with mucus, that poured from his throat, that hooked itself, bracken-coloured, over the tough spears of roadside grass”. Welcome to the colourful world of letters – a rich, ­regurgitated bouillabaisse of imitation, plagiarism, forgery and lies.

The capacity to absorb and ingest vast and heterogeneous amounts of material and then to throw it all up again in vividly colourful new patterns is an essential skill for novelists; more essential, frankly, than any fundamental ability or interest in telling stories, and certainly more important than having profound ideas and opinions about the meaning of life. All the greatest novelists are first and foremost great regurgitators and gastromancers: Cervantes, Sterne, Austen, Dickens. They are also excellent mimics. Even Virginia Woolf was at her best when imitating herself – which was no mean feat (the great temptation for writers, as for all artists, is to turn into one’s own tribute act, a burlesque show, mimicking one’s own mannerisms. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” writes John Updike in his memoir, Self-Consciousness).

So, all novelists are amateur mimics, but some become professional impersonators and get paid to perform or reprise specific roles: Sebastian Faulks doing Bond, Sophie Hannah giving us her Agatha Christie. Like Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, this is the equivalent of the West End star turn. It is by no means a new trick and there are indeed many similar publishing practices, such as the completion of an author’s unfinished manuscript, or the unveiling of a work never intended for publication – all of which enterprises might be regarded as either entirely dubious or utterly magnificent. Some people just can’t get enough Harper Lee. Or David Foster Wallace.

This brings us to the bold and daring antics of two prize impersonators, Anthony Horowitz and David Lagercrantz. Both men have form as ventriloquists: Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist, is credited with co-authoring the autobiography of the Paris Saint-Germain striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic – which is absolutely excellent, if you’re a fan of footballers’ autobiographies – and Horowitz has already given us his Sherlock Holmes in the Conan Doyle Estate-authorised The House of Silk (2011). Now Lagercrantz reprises Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander with The Girl in the Spider’s Web and Horowitz does his Bond in Trigger Mortis.

It’s the less well-known Lagercrantz who perhaps achieves maximum intensity in his performance, though this is only because of the maximum intensity already achieved by Larsson’s celebrated Millennium trilogy of novels, which are magnificent, hallucinatory, paranoid visions of a world lost to corruption and violence, with the tattooed Lisbeth and the dishevelled investigative journalist Blomkvist as avenging angels.

As in the Larsson trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web continually digresses and diverts into dead ends and detours, with paragraph upon paragraph detailing minor characters’ backstories. The plot is fabulously complicated, the pace frenetic, the personal is political, the physical violence an expression of emotional and intellectual turmoil. All in all, the book is as lively and strange as any Larsson.

Trigger Mortis (despite the punning title) is much cooler and more restrained in comparison. Nordic noir it most certainly is not. But then the original Fleming novels are much cooler and more restrained than one perhaps remembers: the Bond books are not the Bond films. Fleming’s best work was possessed of a rather insouciant tone, almost reminiscent of the work of a stylist such as Osbert Lancaster; a wry, weary, mid-century tone that Horowitz captures exactly. This is Miss Moneypenny: “She was watering a potted plant – an aspidistra – that was a recent addition to her desk and she looked up and smiled. She liked Bond and she didn’t mind that he knew it.” Potted plants, thwarted desires. There is certainly none of the dismal, tormented Bond evident in the recent Daniel Craig incarnation.

Both novels stick to the tried and tested formulas: Lisbeth and Blomkvist are once again investigating a conspiracy that goes to the very heart of Swedish society; Bond is once again up against SMERSH and the Soviets, involved in a race against time (in this instance quite literally a race against time, at a Grand Prix, and with a nail-biting space-race countdown). And this is right and proper: the first responsibility of the writer in any genre is to learn the formula. However, it is only ever the minimum requirement. The good writer goes further. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary in 1755, dismissed the mimic as “A ludicrous imitator; a buffoon who copies another’s act or manner so as to excite laughter”. Boswell – Johnson’s mini-me – came much closer to the truth, in imagined conversation in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). “It is amazing how a mimic can not only give you the gestures and voice of a person whom he represents; but even what a person would say on any particular subject.”

The true mimic is no mere parrot or performing monkey. The best are bone-conjurors, bringing back the voices of the dead, able to express what a person would say about anything you can think of. Horowitz and Lagercrantz are in this club of crafty necromancers. What the dead might make of this I have no idea, although there’s been much controversy over the publication of the Lagercrantz – some members of Larsson’s family are distinctly unimpressed. But what are we supposed to do? Let sleeping Larssons lie? Let the long-flown Fleming well alone? Be satisfied with what we have and not ask for more?

When Saul persuades a medium to conjure up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel in the Bible, Samuel is none too pleased. “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” he asks. Why indeed? Then again, why not? Surely the dead are there to disquiet us, and to be disquieted. Me, I’d give anything for one more Richmal Crompton.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz is published by MacLehose Press (448pp, £19.99). Trigger Mortis: a James Bond Novel by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion (320pp, £18.99).

This article appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy