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“Double or Die,” “The Skunk Code”

by Payal Kapadia

“Double or Die,” Charlie Higson, Puffin Books; 2007; 390 pp.

Author Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” series is about the world’s most famous spy, James Bond, as a schoolboy at Eton, before he grows up to be martini-sipping Agent 007, who is a master at seducing devastatingly beautiful women and uses Russians for target practice. If you’ve read the first of this series, “Silverfin” (see column dated June 30, 2005), rest assured that this one is as clever.

Somewhere in a North London cemetery, professor Fairburn, teacher-in-charge of Eton’s Crossword Society, is kidnapped at gunpoint. He sends a cryptic resignation letter crammed with clues to Bond’s best friend at school, Pritpal Nandra, who is the Crossword Society’s head student. Perhaps this is a test for his students, assumes Nandra, who quickly gets cracking. But as the code is unscrambled, what seems like a challenging puzzle turns into a plea for help from a teacher whose life is at risk — as is the future of the world. James Bond has 48 hours to learn all there is about crossword-solving, escape attempts on his life by two villainous brothers called Ludwig and Wolfgang, and save the planet. And it’s all in a day’s work for the greatest crime-fighting schoolboy who ever lived. Or two days’ work, actually.

Like the villains of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond books, Higson’s foes are uncomplicated bad guys. But be warned: The Bond-vs.-baddie encounters in “Double or Die” get pretty violent. Cars blow up; people get sliced up by pistols with a stiletto-blade attachment; and an evil Russian gets sucked into a metal fan. Amid all this excitement, though, young Bond finds the time to meet a rather promising young lady with verve enough to put him in his place. But author Higson doesn’t let her remain promising for long. After a few hours with Bond, she inexplicably mutates from a strong-willed mob chick into a clingy blob of putty. Ugh!

That’s the only irksome bit in the book, but for the most part, you get swept up by the sheer speed-thrill of this action-packed, tautly told narrative. If you’re a puzzle buff already, you’ll thoroughly enjoy scratching your head over Fairburn’s mysterious letter — and, trust me, there are no throwaway clues here. If crosswords aren’t your thing, this real scamper of an adventure could just get you hooked. I’d save up next Sunday’s paper if I were you.

Note: For teenagers 13-16 years. Also recommended, “Blood Fever,” the second in the “Young Bond” series.

“The Skunk Code,” D.R. Smith, Chicken House; 2006; 287 pp.

The beginning is the best thing about “The Skunk Code.” Samuel Piper is being dangled upside-down on the end of a rope beneath an airborne helicopter, while the villainous Mad Skunk Skuda (pronounced Skooder), stands at the open door laughing — yes, you guessed it, maniacally. Sam’s partner-in-crime, Melanie, is strapped to the seat. Mad Skunk Skuda wants to know where “the disc” is, and Mel’s not telling. But it’s hard to keep your mouth shut when your best friend is about to crash on his head into the trees far below. But Sam doesn’t crash; the book does. The gravity-defying opening chapter meanders into a feebly humorous and barely believable account of two kids working as spies for the European Secret Service, or MI21. What does MI21 do? It fights smuggling, the slave trade, drug-trafficking and computer hacking. And author D.R. Smith would have us believe that Sam and Mel — jugglers, magicians and mimics extraordinaire — are the brightest sparks at MI21, bringing down Skuda and the rest of the Mad Skunks with a little bit of this and that. Come on, even kids know better. This has all the classic ingredients of a spy novel: a cat-and-mouse chase revolving around a disc that everyone wants, listening devices, spy-cams, abductions and skirmishes. Trouble is that the author seems undecided between writing hard-core spy fiction and a spoof on it. On the one hand, you have a double-agent in MI21 who could blow the cover of every agent in the service; a multimillion-pound consignment of confiscated goods that are about to be hijacked; and a time bomb that’s set to go off. On the other hand, you have two children who can lay an entire criminal empire flat just by hitting Mad Skunks on the head with saucepans, throwing Coke cans with deadly accuracy and switching the disc-in-demand for another one. At this rate, we could all be spies. And seeing how senseless it all is, thank heavens we’re not.