Review | Who says 007 has to be White, British and male?

Before his death in 1964, Ian Fleming wrote 14 books about James Bond, and the literary franchise, just like 007 himself, has proved unkillable. Writers from Kingsley Amis to Anthony Horowitz have taken up the mantle and produced Bond novels. But we’ve had to wait until now, with Kim Sherwood’s new novel “Double or Nothing,” for the Fleming estate to pass the baton to a woman.

Although it would be misleading to say that this latest Bond novel is actually about Bond. More than an addition to the canon, “Double or Nothing” is an expansion of the universe, and an exploration of how the Bond archetype can be channeled into other characters. The man himself is notably absent from this story: “Double or Nothing” takes place in the aftermath of Bond’s disappearance. An MI6 operation has gone sideways, and Bond has been either kidnapped or killed. A trio of Double 0 agents are tasked with finding their missing hero — and, for good measure, saving the world from the schemes of an evil tech billionaire.

This trio of agents, who form the narrative backbone of the novel, are considerably less famous than 007, but also considerably more diverse. We have Sid, a child of South Asian immigrants; Joseph, a Black man who grew up rough on the London streets; and finally Johanna, who is part Algerian and a woman. The secondary cast of characters in “Double or Nothing” are also visibly diversified. Sherwood seems to have made a conscientious effort to bring MI6 into the 21st century.

Her choices are refreshing, and long overdue. Since Fleming’s first Bond book, “Casino Royale,” was published in 1953, we’ve had a firm picture in our heads: Bond is a dashing Brit who shoots steady, drives fast, drinks martinis and looks great in a tux. There’s been some variety within the archetype — Daniel Craig with his craggy-action-hero stunts, Pierce Brosnan with his megawatt lady-killing smile, Roger Moore with his wry comedic charm — and the books and movies have reflected the world’s evolving technological and geopolitical realities, but one part of the franchise seemed immune to change: James Bond has always been a White man.

This particular assumption showed signs of changing a few years ago, when rumors began to circulate about Idris Elba replacing Daniel Craig as the next 007. It now seems definitive that Elba is not taking the role, but those long-simmering rumors did, perhaps, have the effect of broadening the imaginative possibilities. It turns out that no law dictates that 007 must be a White man. It also turns out, according to the most recent Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” that 007 doesn’t even have to be a man, period.

When “No Time to Die” begins, our hero, played by an increasingly grizzled Craig, has retired from his position at MI6 for the umpteenth time. He is living quietly, if not quite peacefully, in a seaside home in Jamaica, when an old friend from the CIA tracks him down and asks for his help in an operation against Spectre. Bond has no interest in this. Until, immediately after this meeting with the CIA, he is contacted by an agent from MI6 and warned explicitly not to get involved in this American operation.

The MI6 agent in question, a young Black woman named Nomi (played beautifully by Lashana Lynch), identifies herself to Bond as a Double 0 agent. And not any Double 0 agent. “I’m 007,” she clarifies. “You probably thought they’d retire it.”

Bond reacts with staunch indifference. “It’s just a number,” he says.

Sure, we think, as Bond, drawn to the action like a bull to the flag, resurrects himself from retirement and gets back into the game. In one of the scenes that follows, back at MI6 headquarters, Nomi is addressed by a colleague as 007. “That must bother you,” she intones to Bond, who is standing next to her when this happens.

Even though Bond himself is absent from “Double or Nothing,” Sherwood is careful not to stray too far from the reliable pleasure-centers of the franchise. Every Bond trope we have been trained to expect is present in this novel. We have the monomaniacal billionaires, the abandoned Soviet facilities, the sleek Aston Martins, the perfectly mixed martinis, the high-end casinos, the low-rent fight nights. We have hand-wavey descriptions of technology that will apparently destroy the whole world and bad guys who can’t resist giving speeches right before they get killed. If there is a silliness to the novel, there is also a lot of campy fun: man-eating tigers threatening to escape their cages, bodice-ripping seductions. Bond himself only appears in the occasional flashback, but the other Double 0 agents have all self-consciously molded themselves in his image. With their constant echoing of his gestures and maxims, his essence permeates the entire novel, even though the man himself isn’t present.

In this subtle but refreshing way, Sherwood manages to shift the perspective in “Double or Nothing.” Because if the Bond of our imagination is really just a series of gestures — the martinis, the gunfights, the sex — then it opens up a much wider array of possibilities. What if Bond were Black? What if Bond were a woman? Would that change anything about the essential Bond-ness of Bond? And if not, then what are we waiting for?

Anna Pitoniak is a novelist who lives in New York City and East Hampton. Her new spy thriller, “The Helsinki Affair,” will be published in November.

William Morrow. 368 pp. $27

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