Heads You Die is the 7th novel in the Young Bond series and the second book written by Steve Cole after Charlie Higson’s monumental first five novels in the series. This book picks up right after Cole’s last offering, Shoot to Kill, where Bond thwarted a dangerous Hollywood blackmail scheme. James (about 14 or 15) and his new school friend Hugo, a 16-year-old fellow student afflicted with dwarfism, are now in Cuba staying with family friend of Aunt Charmian, Dr. Hardiman prior to embarking on their return trip to Europe. We know from Fleming’s brief writing on Bond’s youth that Bond will eventually end up going to Fettes College in Edinburgh to complete his education, but Heads You Die has other plans in store for young Bond. This is quite simply Steve Cole’s best Young Bond novel so far especially for those readers who may have been discouraged by the Hollywood setting of the previous book. The Caribbean is prime Fleming territory and Cole knows this and utilizes it to optimum effect.
The plot is set in motion when Dr. Hardiman is harassed and then kidnapped by a dastardly villain named Scolopendra, a native of the island who has achieved wealth and power by acquiring a vast and comprehensive knowledge of the island’s botanical treasures. He needs Dr. Hardiman to work on a mysterious secret project and uses his henchmen to intimidate anyone who stands in his way. James suffers through several encounters with the aptly named El Puňo so christened due to the fact that after the massive man lost his hand he had a block of granite fixed on to his stump carved into the shape of a fist.
In addition to Hugo, Bond works with a new set of allies. Jagua is Scolopendra’s daughter who has grown disgusted with her father’s cruel methods and Maritsa is
Jagua’s best friend. Jagua is probably the strongest female character of all the Young Bond books. She’s fiercely rebellious and is able to handle multiple dangers to achieve her goals. She’s actually very reminiscent of Judy Havelock from Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only short story. Their motivations are different of course but their determination and their strong wills are very much similar. Together the group figures out that the only way to rescue Hardiman and end Scolopendra’s mysteriously cruel secret project is to get some kind of leverage to use against Jagua’s father. A strong box on a sunken cruiser may hold the key to foiling Scolopendra’s plans, but first they must dive. Here’s where Cole unleashes his inspiration from Fleming. The primitive diving equipment utilized by Jagua and Maritsa, who have grown accustomed to diving provides quite a challenge for young James. With a primitive diving helmet attached to hoses and bellows for air, Bond must dive deep down into the water to recover a mysterious strong box with Hugo pumping the bellows to provide air to the homemade helmet under water. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge to navigate, young James promptly discovers he isn’t alone and a thrilling underwater action sequence ensues.
Bond must also contend with the mysteriously veiled woman named La Velada who has Scolopendra under her spell much to Jagua’s contempt and decipher what to make of her connections to Russian Secret Police. Multple dangers are in store for Bond to contend with including many chases, being shot at by La Velada, and hiding while a murder takes place. The following sequence provides a glimpse at how Cole invests the reader in the psyche of Bond much like Fleming had done:
“ One thought kept spinning around in his head: If La Velada’s bullet had hit me yesterday, I’d be a corpse on the floor myself. Now Scolopendra had executed a man, and she hadn’t even flinched; clearly they were two of a kind. James shuddered. To shoot a man dead in cold blood, at point-blank range . . .
I could never do that.”
While demonstrating just the right amount of restraint, here Cole invests us in Bond’s youth and innocence in a way that foreshadows the man that James will become. These experiences throughout the Young Bond novels are slowly shaping who James will be, but at this stage the concept of killing in cold blood is shocking to the young man and appropriately so. Clearly, Bond doesn’t know how any human being could possibly commit an act of brutality without remorse or any emotional effect whatsoever. At the same time, Bond is constantly finding himself in dangerous situations in circumstances far beyond his control. Take this quote from an earlier chapter:
“Heart hammering as he raced away, James knew that he would never get used to the thrill of danger. That was its allure. So much of life was routine and boring, but danger had no rules. It happened anywhere, could take so many forms.
‘And it looks me up wherever I go,’ he muttered to himself.”
Note that in the book there is an italicized emphasis on the word “never.” Danger is something he would “never” get used to, but he still relished the thrill of it. For now, in James’s psyche the dangerous situations are not sought after but when he happens to come across said danger he enjoys it on some level because he contrasts it with “boring” and “routine” regular life. It should therefore come as no surprise that the adult Bond would subscribe to a life that guarantees danger with every mission perhaps to relive the same childhood thrill.
Heads You Die is a fantastic novel and I look forward to Steve Cole’s 3rd book, Strike Lightning due out in September where we will finally see how Bond settles into life at Fettes College. While I don’t blame anyone for missing Charlie Higson, Heads You Die has convinced me that Steve Cole has put Young Bond on the right course. Not only does he deliver thrilling action sequences for young James, he also builds upon the character we’ve gotten to know in the previous books. I highly recommend this latest book and I have no doubt that Strike Lightning will continue to provide the kind of suspense and thrills to exceed our expectations as Bond fans.
- As a side note, I highly recommend acquiring the limited edition hardcover of Heads You Die available only as an import if you live in the US. Cole provides his insights about where he drew his inspiration for the diving sequences with a notable selection from Fleming’s short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity.” He also provides a deleted / altered scene from his book for context, which gives the lucky reader a brief glimpse at the creative process involved in writing a Young Bond book.
review by Jack Lugo