Kim Sherwood: ‘Double or Nothing’ updates James Bond for the 21st century

Hired by 007 creator Ian Fleming’s heirs, the British writer has become the first woman to pen a novel about the secret agent

Writer Kim Sherwood poses at the Villa Real hotel in Madrid, Spain.
Writer Kim Sherwood poses at the Villa Real hotel in Madrid, Spain.Andrea Comas

After the recent controversy over new twists on the James Bond franchise, Double or Nothing, a new novel about the super-spy Ian Fleming created 70 years ago, offers an even more extreme wrinkle than the ones suggested in No Time to Die: his disappearance. Bond becomes a MacGuffin, the classic Hitchcockian device that drives the plot but is basically just a pretext. The debate over whether the next Bond can be black, gay or even a woman continues to rage (although the producers have already discarded the last option). With Double or Nothing, British author Kim Sherwood, 33, has become the first woman to write a novel about the character. In it, she opts for an inclusive approach to updating 007; the novel addresses calls for greater diversity in the Bond franchise while simultaneously preserving the original hero’s characteristics.

In the novel, Bond has been missing for over a year, though his absence permeates everything. Three other 00 agents, who of course also carry a license to kill, are the focus in a familiar scenario, replete with updated recurring secondary characters. Moneypenny has been promoted and is now the head of section 00; there’s a new M and a new Q, now reimagined as a supercomputer (or artificial intelligence that is more efficient than ChatGPT), managed by a couple of computer geniuses in their 20s.

Sherwood has been a Bond fan since she was 10 years old, when she first saw Goldeneye. Fleming’s heirs commissioned her to write a new trilogy of novels and tasked her with introducing new spies and expanding the franchise’s universe. “I thought about Bond as the star of this world and he has a certain gravity [there]. And if he’s on the screen or on the page, that’s who you start paying attention to, that’s who you’re going to look at. That doesn’t leave any spotlight for new characters. So, I thought that in order to get the readers to care about these new characters, I’ll have it so that he’s missing from the beginning… almost get him out of the spotlight so these new characters can step into it.”

In the absence of 007, the main characters are 003, the French-Algerian Joanna Harwood, Bond’s former lover; 004, Josep Dryden, who is black and gay and has a disability (he is deaf in one ear), and 009, Sid Bashir, Harwood’s ex-boyfriend, the son of a Sudanese father and a Pakistani mother, who is racked with guilt because he was on the mission with Bond when 007 vanished.

Ian Fleming in his Jamaican mansion, which he named Goldeneye.
Ian Fleming in his Jamaican mansion, which he named Goldeneye.HULTON ARCHIVE (GETTY IMAGES)

Because of the diverse profiles of its new main characters and its commitment to expanding the Bond universe, the novel reads like a how-to manual for new films (and TV series). When Amazon acquired MGM – and with it, 50% ownership of the rights to adapt the character – there was already speculation about plans to milk the franchise with TV shows and spinoffs, along with the main feature films, similar to what Disney has done with Star Wars. But the Broccoli family, which owns the other 50% and has the final say in everything concerning the character’s on-screen adventures, has already made it clear that it doesn’t condone such projects.

Is the new trilogy of books the first step on the part of Ian Fleming Publications, which holds the literary rights, to convince the Broccoli family of the benefits of expanding Bond’s domain? Sherwood does not have the answer. “But it was a challenge as a writer,” she says. “It seemed like an invitation to me to make the story inclusive and let more people picture themselves as the hero while keeping James Bond as James Bond, not changing his character.”

As Sherwood explains it, the novel’s inclusivity sounds more like realistic spin than a woke agenda. “The first thing I did is look at how MI6 is recruiting agents. There’s a page on their website where they specify the job requirements and they ask things like: Do you know multiple languages? Do you like to travel? Do you have loose ethics? Well, maybe you’d be a good spy, I mean, not exactly those words, but what they’re really stressing is that they want people with all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of experiences, and when you think about it, it all makes sense because if all of your spies were straight white men who went to Eton, there’d be a really limited number of undercover missions they could do.”

In addition to Bond’s absence, the novel’s other MacGuffin is an invention sponsored by a billionaire philanthropist to reverse climate change. This, too, fits the current sociopolitical agenda well. But the author is clear that she is just following in Fleming’s footsteps. “Ian Fleming thought about the primary threats of his day and what concerned people, so the fear of communism, the fear of the bomb. He wrote about the early feminist movement, the civil rights movement, so all of those social concerns were enacted through his plots, and I thought [about] what’s our biggest global concern and it seemed to me that it’s the climate crisis, both existentially and very practically. So, I wanted to bring that into the story, and of course you’ve got to give that a human face because [with] the climate crisis there are certain people who are profiting from it and could choose to change their business models or their policies to stop it and they’re choosing not to… [and there’s] this sort of gap of widening inequality in the world where the majority of people are suffering from something like the climate crisis, and there’s a minority of people who could fix it, but [they] aren’t [doing that] and somehow see themselves as separate from the rest of humanity.” Sherwood knows whereof she speaks. After she saw and loved Pierce Brosnan’s Bond on TV, she discovered Fleming’s books at the age of 12. “I bought From Russia with Love secondhand, and I just completely fell in love with Fleming’s writing, the style of it, the suspense.”

Kim Sherwood
Sherwood poses at the Villa Real hotel in Madrid, Spain.Andrea Comas

The author’s early fascination with Bond allowed her to easily transition from her first novel, Testament (which was inspired by her grandparents’ lives) to a secret super-agent thriller. “There’s already a few references to Bond in Testament, because all my life I’ve been saying to anyone who would listen that one day I want to write James Bond. I’ve just been asking the universe and it came back. My agent knew that it’s always been a dream of mine and she heard that the Flemings were looking for a new writer… She said that they’d be keen to hear from you. So, I wrote them a letter with my ideas and what I would do if I [had] the opportunity, and I wanted to find some way to demonstrate how much of a fan I am, because of course this is their family legacy, so it’s really important to them that their writers are very passionate. So, I found I had this school report that I had written when I was, like, 13 or 14, a bit of homework from my English teacher to write about an author you admire, and I made this booklet about Ian Fleming and I photocopied it and I sent it to the Flemings and said that this would be literally my dream come true.”

Sherwood felt it was important to “honor Fleming’s vision, which is not going away but is being updated.” The author believes that the real question now is why Bond, who was created 70 years ago in a world that was vastly different from today, “is the way he is in this century.” She has an answer, of course: “I started to think about his background and the amount of loss in his life. In the novels he loses his parents at a young age, then Vesper, the first woman he falls in love with dies, then his wife dies after like a day of marriage. I mean, it’s like loss, after loss, after loss. And that to me kind of explained why he has these sort of very short-lived relationships, if you can even really call them relationships…” In Sherwood’s book, we only see Bond through the eyes, and memories, of those who know him. “Looking at him through the eyes of others really helps that because they all have a different opinion of him. It’s almost like he’s a puzzle and each character allows you to sort of slot in another piece of the puzzle.”

Not only is Bond an enigma, he’s also a legend. In the book, the myth surrounding Bond grows in his absence amid fights, chases and sharp dialogue. In a memorable scene from the novel, one of the villains says that the United Kingdom’s power is based on various myths: empire, Churchill, Scotland Yard and Sherlock Holmes and, of course, James Bond. “Myths are forged by heroic deeds and heroic people. Or maybe they’ve just always been fantasies,” he muses. Of 007, he concludes “that [the] man is a fantasy. The cars, the women, the gadgets, the stamina, the courage, the man who stands his ground and doesn’t waver.”

Sherwood draws on the metafictional notion of the hero turned myth, and the myth put to the test, in From Russia with Love, her first literary encounter with Bond. In that novel, there’s a plot to destroy the hero’s image and that of the United Kingdom along with it. “Ian Fleming already knew that he had created a myth and he was saying let’s test the strength of this, and James Bond is a symbol of Britain and he’s an evolving one, he’s changed with the times and where we are today as a country, we’re changing and the world is changing, at a very rapid pace. So, it was interesting for me to think: what does James Bond represent and how strong is that symbol today? And, of course, Ian Fleming’s answer is that it’s very strong, he always survives in the end.”

In addition to honoring Fleming’s legacy, Sherwood’s novel pays tribute to the first woman to write about 007, Johanna Harwood. Nearly six decades before Phoebe Waller-Bridge was involved in writing the script of the most recent Bond film, No Time to Die, Harwood was the co-screenwriter for the first two, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963). Sherwood sought permission from Harwood to give her name to 003 in Double or Nothing. “I wanted to pay homage to that generation of women because if they hadn’t been pioneers in the creative industries at that time, then my generation of women wouldn’t get to do what we’re doing now.”

But Harwood is not the only new spy with a borrowed name. Agent 009 shares a surname with Dr. Julian Bashir, one of the main characters in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the 1990s spinoff of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary series. Sherwood has turned a spy saga with a single main character into a multivocal story, using television series such as Star Trek and The West Wing as her models. She mentioned the influence of shows that have “these great ensemble casts, shows where any character could be the main character.” Sherwood intends to treat her characters in the same way in the trilogy of books that she has been commissioned to write.

Despite television’s influence on Sherwood’s novel, 009 is the only character for whom the author has a specific actor in mind: Alexander Siddig. “If I could go back in time and have Alexander Siddig in the 1990s, that would be great,” she says. That decade was when Siddig played Dr. Bashir. For the novel’s eventual film adaptation, she doesn’t associate the other characters with actors. Nor does Sherwood weigh in on who should replace Daniel Craig as Bond on the big screen. “For me personally, I’m still kind of breathing his character, so I find it hard to imagine who could be next, but then that’s always the way, isn’t it? Like, after Pierce Brosnan, no one was expecting Daniel Craig…I’ll leave that to Barbara Broccoli. I find it hard to imagine anyone being there. I guess that’s why casting agents are geniuses for doing what they do.”

Sherwood envisions Alexander Siddig, here seen as Doran Martell in 'Game of Thrones', playing the role of Agent 009.
Sherwood envisions Alexander Siddig, here seen as Doran Martell in 'Game of Thrones', playing the role of Agent 009.

Sherwood also remains agnostic on the latest controversy surrounding James Bond and Fleming’s heirs, who hired Sherwood. Our interview with her took place before the Sunday Telegraph reported that Fleming’s heirs will reprint Bond books, changing the original text to remove racial references that, as the publisher put it, “current readers might find offensive.” When we contacted her via e-mail, Sherwood simply referred to the statement the publisher issued to explain its decision.

However, Sherwood did mention in our interview that she has been given “an amazing amount of freedom.” She noted that the only condition she was given for the book was that it had to feature new super-agents set in a contemporary story. Sherwood is now starting to work on the third book; the second book has already been written and is now being revised and edited. “It’s a really interesting process,” she explains. “It is read by the whole Fleming family as well as multiple editors in different countries. It’s like one of those scenes in Bond films where everyone sits around a long table reading and debating.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS