Where do you go after Bridget Jones? Creator Helen Fielding's response has been to go somewhere completely different. Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, Fielding's fourth novel, is a spy-thriller whose sassy heroine, the eponymous Joules, doesn't fret about weight gain, laddering her tights or Chardonnay and fags in the manner of her predecessor. Oh no--Olivia, once plain old Rachel Pixley from Worksop, is a self-made, go-getting journalist for the Sunday Times and Elan magazine with, or so her colleagues at the ST maintain, "an overactive imagination" and an impeccable gift for languages. Both of these come in handy when Olivia is despatched to Miami to cover a face-cream launch, meets the enigmatic Pierre Ferramo, an international playboy, and finds herself on the scene of an al-Qaeda bomb attack. (Question: where, exactly, do Elsie and Edward rustle up that tray of tea from?)
Cue meetings with suitably disreputable people (wannabe film stars, Arab carpet vendors, spies, terrorists) in an array of exotic locales (LA, Honduras, Egypt) as Olivia goes on the trail of the terrorists and, utterly implausibly, is recruited to MI6 (they can't get the staff nowadays). A ridiculous plot is not exactly a hanging offence in a spy-thriller, which is probably just as well here. Sadly, for Fielding, however, we do inhabit a post-Austin-Powers universe and Olivia, a walking digest of Susan Jeffers platitudes, is hard to take: seriously or otherwise. None of it is very funny, nor thrilling. Olivia is more Nancy Drew than Modesty Blaise or, crucially, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum.
Still, you can have great fun playing Bond-bingo with the clichés. Family wiped out in freak accident. Tick. Greasy henchmen. Tick. Gadgets. Tick. Charismatic al-Qaeda villain, who to Olivia's amusement, admittedly, really does use the sentences: "It is a great delicacy in our land" and "Evidently, you are connoisseur of great beauty. As am I." (Alas, "I expect you to die, Ms Joules" and "He's inside the belly of that steel beast", do not materialise.) Maybe there's a clue in the title; perhaps the whole shebang is intended to be taken with a huge bag of Saxo. As Scott Rich, the CIA hunk, says to Olivia as the tale closes: "Oh don't be silly, lovey. It's just a figment of your overactive imagination." If only. --Travis Elborough