David Duncan’s ostensible homage to Ian Fleming is actually a University prospectus dressed up as a novella. To be sure, there’s definite inspiration from Fleming, who created James Bond: our hero, James Kerr is a battle-hardened Registrar with an affinity for cigars and whisky who must match wits with a scheming Provost in order to avert a student demonstration. In true James Bond style, this solution involves meetings in luxurious hotels with oil sheiks and consorting with the upper echelons of British Government (but conveniently leaving enough time to bed an attractive woman.) What prevents this from being just Fleming inspired fan-fiction is that it could easily pass for the University’s promotional material. Rosy assessments are given on York’s standing: “rising up the league tables”; the several paragraphs dedicated to York’s strength in teaching and research could be copied verbatim from the University’s homepage.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – in fact, what’s most enjoyable about More than Conquerors is how much David Duncan is clearly drawing from his own experience. Thus we know that when our protagonist nearly drives into a Vauxhall on University Road, it’s because David Duncan has had a near miss himself. When we’re told that the coffee machines outside Kerr’s office serve the worst rich roast known to man, we know that David Duncan’s secretly hoping that someone will sort out the University’s god-awful hot drinks provision. If a character breaks into Heslington Hall in the dead of night, we begin to suspect that David Duncan has spent long hours day-dreaming at his desk about how to burglarise his own office. These glimpses into the inner workings of our Registrar’s brain aren’t only endearing, but even sometimes funny. “They’re probably still in the Discotheque,” says Kerr of Derwent students – from which we can infer that the author thinks that Derwenters are pissheads.
Of course, the fusion of University commonplaces and secret agent drama isn’t always satisfying. James Kerr doesn’t use gadgets, Aston Martins or guns in More than Conquerors – but rather, severance packages, strategic partnerships and office politics. It’s more than a little jarring to suddenly go from the headquarters of GCHQ’s London Offices to a boardroom in Heslington Hall. Indeed, it’s rather hard to imagine James Bond issuing an ultimatum of resignation with pension versus being fired to any of his arch-nemeses. It might then strike many that this is mere wish fulfilment on the part of the author: a rooted fantasy of what would liven up the 9 to 5. There’s no doubt that this is true – but what’s wrong with that? Who hasn’t read a thriller or spy novel and wished that they could skip the early shift and undertake missions, save the day, and get the girl? There’s a reason Scouting for Girls’ ‘I wish I was James Bond’ has a million views on YouTube. And if our Registrar wants to write himself as fictionalised defender of Higher Education, (and raise money for YuFund in the process), no-one should begrudge him that.
Even if More than Conquerors ends up being less James Bond and more James Bland, I’ve got to say it: I want a sequel. I want a sequel where Tommy Fong is the victim of an international kidnapping conspiracy, and only a certain Registrar/Secret Agent can go undercover in Willow to discover what happened. I’d even pay more than £1.44 to read it. The only thing left to do is to personally plead to David Duncan – please, please make it happen.