This new fictional enterprise is set to run and run. Unfortunately. Already there is a sequel in the pipeline, and a website. Hodder have made a shrewd commercial decision that a series about child spies, however poorly written, will be a guaranteed success if it offers plentiful dangerous action and officially approved destructive activity, but stays just – and only just – within acceptable limits of violence, vandalism, bloody assault, and sex.
CHERUB is a British Government organisation, part of the security services, made up entirely of children. Its rationale is that children can penetrate criminal or terrorist circles where any adult agent would fall under suspicion, and thus collect intelligence with impunity. The cover tells us ‘CHERUB is not James Bond. There are no master criminals or high-tech gadgets. CHERUB kids live in the real world.’ This book is therefore quite unlike Anthony Horowitz’s exciting but also witty and funny James Bond spoof, Stormbreaker. There is no parody in CHERUB: The Recruit, and not much wit or humour, unless four boy agents peeing in unison from a hotel balcony to amuse their girl associates counts as wit.
All the children are orphans or family rejects, and if they pass their basic training they are active operators from 10 to 17, living between missions in a secret boarding school for spies. The recruit in this first book is 12-year-old James Adams, and this is the story of his conscription, basic training and first mission. Living conditions off duty are sumptuous, but work is brutally tough. Worst of all is the three-month basic training, when James and seven (soon five) others are confined in a comfortless compound under a sadistic instructor called Large. When James falls out with his partner Kerry (an 11-year-old girl) their punishment is to be turned outdoors into the freezing compound on Christmas night in their underwear.
The sanctioned bullying and vandalism are the novel’s most unpleasant feature. Usually these incur some belated official disapproval of a low-key kind, rather like a tabloid’s small print apology for some discredited headline lie, but the grounds for reproof are pragmatic, not moral. It isn’t that they’re wrong, but they imperil CHERUB’S security.
Is this indeed the ‘real world’? One hopes not, but knowing what we now do about child soldiers across the world, and also about western lack of scruple, has lowered the credulity barrier in recent times. CHERUB of course is still a fantasy, but it seductively glamorises and legitimates some odious behaviour that is all too real.