'Come in, 007" said M. "It's good to see you back."


James Bond has been on a bit of a sabbatical in Sebastian Faulks' superb new rendering of Ian Fleming's iconic British spy.

For fans, though, it's been considerably longer than a few sensual months of R&R in Jamaica. Try 44 years -- since Fleming died of heart failure in 1964, at 56.

Oh, there have been attempts in the interregnum to resuscitate Bond, and fairly good ones at that: Kingsley Amis and John Gardner come to mind. But they didn't quite, um, get it.

James Bond, as his fans understand, was the alter ego of his creator -- fast cars, faster women, impeccable taste, exquisite manners, understated hauteur, cunning, lethality and unquestioning patriotism. Fail to understand Fleming and your protagonist is little more than a Bond manqué, of which the libraries are full.

Faulks gets it. Fans of his exceptional novels ("Songbird" and "Charlotte Gray," most notably) probably were surprised when he accepted the challenge of reintroducing Bond on the 100th anniversary of Fleming's birth. No one, however, was more surprised than Faulks himself, who quipped incredulously, "I do inner lives, not underwater explosions."

Yet it's Faulks' expertise at crafting inner lives that gives his Bond the character and persona we know and love. The story line is equally well-turned, a nicely calibrated distillation of Fleming's oeuvre -- clever, quickly paced and pedal-to-the-metal entertainment.

It's 1967, the Cold War is on low boil and 007 has been called back to London. M, the head of MI6, is concerned about the machinations of Dr. Julius Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate of murky Eastern European origin who has taken a recent, and alarming, interest in opiate derivatives.

Gorner has a remarkably bizarre physical deformity, of course, and the requisite henchman: an Indochinese thug appropriately named Chagrin, whose specialty is removing his victims' tongues with pliers. Like Fleming's Odd Job with his lethal bowler, Chagrin also sports an unusual topper, a Foreign Legion kepi.

Gorner is motivated by a profound hatred of everything British, despite his Oxford education (or perhaps because of it), and into his drug-laced web has fallen Poppy, the younger sister of the beguiling and relentlessly sensuous Scarlett Papava (Russian father, English mother). Scarlett persuades Bond to help her rescue Poppy from Gorner's clutches, a task that dovetails nicely with MI6's desire to neutralize our villain.

The expected glamorous locales abound: London, Rome, the Middle East. Bond's evening at the Paradise Club in Tehran is right out of Scheherazade, and the buttoned-down civility of the Club Sporting de Tennis in a tony section of Paris is a masterpiece of haute monde chicanery.

The other requisites are all here, too. Car chases -- are you kidding? The best probably is Bond's whiplash encounter with a pair of big BMW motorcycles in London's tight lanes while on the way to the airport.

And the sex? Let's just say that unlike the vulgar luridness that is fashionable today, Faulks is expert at stroking our imagination -- the most erotic terrain.