Women Take the Helm of Bond, Marlowe and Other Beloved Book Series

From a Washington Post story by Sophia Nguyen headlined “Women take the helm of Bond, Marlowe and other beloved series for the first time”:

The novelist Kim Sherwood was sitting in the passenger seat of an Alpine A110 S, wending through Edinburgh, Scotland, when the driver asked her what she was taking notes for. Panicked, she spluttered an answer: She was writing a book about cars. “But — you can’t drive,” he said, confused.

At the time, it was still a secret that Sherwood was working on “Double or Nothing,” the first installment in a new James Bond series — and that the head of the Ian Fleming estate had arranged this jaunt with the carmaker, after requesting that one of the characters drive this specific make.

As authors’ estates consider how to extend the shelf life of classic series — and find new revenue streams — they’re commissioning works that refresh longtime fan favorites. Recently, that’s resulted in a wave of female novelists taking the helm of literary franchises that had been written exclusively by men.

For some, it’s a dream job: Sherwood — a Bond fan since childhood, even before she learned that the actor George Baker, her grandfather, had appeared in some of the movies — joked that she’d been training for it her whole life. But it’s also a tricky balancing act: How do you emulate the pleasures of the core intellectual property without resorting to pure pastiche? How do you stay faithful to the spirit of the original while expressing some of your own sensibility?

Scottish crime writer Denise Mina described hesitating when the Raymond Chandler estate approached her about writing a new Philip Marlowe novel. She wondered if the project would be akin to when Fay Weldon was commissioned to write “The Bulgari Connection” (2001) by the jeweler. (Weldon brushed off criticism, saying at the time, “They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.”)

But Mina was drawn by the challenge of reinterpreting the noir detective — a character she loved, though in her view, Chandler’s novels “start brilliant, and they get a bit iffy after ‘The Big Sleep.’ I think he descends into alcoholism and becomes very bitter.”

“How do you make someone relevant, and not just a timepiece? With someone like Chandler, he’s so racist, and so misogynistic — but at the same time, there is a spark of genius there,” Mina said. “So how do you get this generation to transcend that seismic shift in values, to actually see the good?”

Alexander Greene, who directs the Chandler estate, called authorizing new Marlowe books a “pretty straightforward proposition” for the trustees. (The same isn’t true, he added, of his cousins, who run the Graham Greene estate and have “no interest” in such projects.)

In a few years, Chandler’s works will go out of copyright in most of the world. Authorizing new Marlowe books might help bolster the estate’s perceived control over the character, discouraging any potential creative (and financial) competition. And partnering with writers like Mina, who have followings in their own right, presents the opportunity to reach a new audience. The new stories might also spin off additional projects — as with John Banville’s Marlowe novel “The Black-Eyed Blonde” (2014), which became a movie starring Liam Neeson.

“It’s key that we find ways of accessing the characters in different ways,” Greene said. “Otherwise what will end up happening is that the AIs take all the Raymond Chandler scripts — they probably already have — and turn them into new [intellectual property] without us even knowing about it.”

Mina decided to bring her Marlowe into parts of Los Angeles never explored in Chandler’s original seven novels: In “The Second Murderer,” he encounters the city’s gay nightlife and Latino neighborhoods. And in what feels like a sly wink at the reader, the plot of the new novel concerns a wealthy Los Angeles businessman obsessed with controlling his legacy.

Mina also thought up a richer plot line for Anne Riordan, a policeman’s daughter who appears briefly in Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely.”

“Every time she pops up, you’re just thirsting for her to do more,” said Mina, who gave her version of Riordan her own detective agency. “Because actually, if you were a detective at the time, being a woman would have been much more useful than being a man. It was like being invisible. You could have gotten in anywhere. But you have to have agency — and that was the thing that Chandler couldn’t give women.”

For Karin Smirnoff, commissioned to write three books in Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium series, a key question was how to make Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo, grow up.

“I was thinking, how do you make somebody more responsible? How do you make someone grow?” Smirnoff said, of writing “The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons.” Making Lisbeth a mother, or even a pet owner, was unthinkable: “That would be so difficult, to go around chasing bad guys at the same time as taking care of a little child. And animals are the same — too difficult to carry around, to walk in the park.” So she invented a teenage niece for the vigilante hunter: someone in need of her protection, but also sharp and resourceful.

Smirnoff’s books, like Larsson’s, are threaded with shocking sexual violence against women, though she suspects that her relationship to the topic differs from the previous authors of the series (including David Lagercrantz, who was the first commissioned to continue it): “I’m more angry about certain things than men can be,” Smirnoff recently told the Guardian. “Because some things you can’t understand as a man.”

One major change was in the books’ setting, which Smirnoff brought out of the city and into the north of Sweden, where she and Larsson were both born. This opened up the opportunity to explore new themes of social corruption and upheaval — namely, the competition between putatively environmentalist companies to industrialize swaths of wilderness with energy projects, displacing Indigenous people.

Smirnoff asked herself, “What would Stieg Larsson have done? What questions have moved him? How would he have continued it himself?” she said. “I think that today some of his issues would have been climate change, for example, and racism.”

Sherwood didn’t encounter exactly the same constraints writing about Bond, since she was imagining entirely new characters who operated in the spy’s starry orbit. But she did find herself writing far faster than usual. Where it took her seven and 14 years, respectively, to complete her first two novels, she turned in the first “Double O” novel in under two. When we spoke, she had just finished the sequel, and had begun writing the third — an experience she described as “sprinting a marathon.”

Mina had a similar experience with Marlowe: As compared to her other thrillers, “This was much faster to write, because the world’s there, the characters are there, and I felt like it was quite a reckless thing to do, anyway,” she said, smiling.

Smirnoff started writing her first Millennium novel with an extensive synopsis that had been approved by various publishers, only to discard half the draft that resulted, which felt overcomplicated and bloated with subplots. “I went back to my old way of writing — which is only writing, not thinking,” Smirnoff said. “When I started doing that, the process was a lot easier and a lot more fun.”

Sophia Nguyen is the news and features writer for the Books section at The Washington Post. She previously served as assistant editor on the National Politics desk and as an assistant editor for Outlook and PostEverything.

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