LONDON — "Ah, Mr. Bond," said the world's book publishers. "So good to have you back."

Britain's most famous secret agent returns to the page in the novel "Devil May Care," released around the world in 21 languages last week amid a blaze of publicity not seen since the last Harry Potter book.

Publishers are hoping the thriller, already topping Internet retailer Amazon's best-seller list in Britain, proves a fitting centenary tribute to James Bond's late creator, Ian Fleming — and a lucrative new chapter for a franchise that has sold 100 million copies since the suave spy first appeared in "Casino Royale" in 1952.

"This is not usually how I spend my days," said the book's author, Sebastian Faulks, facing a barrage of cameras and reporters' questions at a packed news conference. A day earlier, he had launched the book aboard a Royal Navy warship, accompanied by a blonde model in a red catsuit.

"I'm a guy who does the crossword in the morning, writes for eight hours and then goes home and watches football."

Faulks, 55, the author of popular, respected literary novels including "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Gray," was a surprise choice by Ian Fleming's family to revive 007 in print.

Faulks said he was astonished to be asked; Fleming's niece, Lucy Fleming, said she was surprised he accepted. But both sides say they are happy with the result, and hopeful it will please Bond purists.

Lucy Fleming said her uncle, born 100 years ago Wednesday, "was a complex man with great humor, kindness and many different interests."

"He put a lot of his favorite things into his books — skiing, swimming and the underwater world, cars, gadgets, martinis and of course women," she said.

Faulks has kept most of the key ingredients for "Devil May Care." There is a glamorous, colorfully named woman — Scarlett Papava — and a memorably disfigured villain, Julius Gorner, who has an oversized monkey's paw for a hand.

Set in 1967, the book is a Cold War tale of the international drug trade that takes Bond to Iran, the Caspian Sea and Russia — locations and issues that are "still alive to us today," Faulks said. Along the way, 007 experiences sex, vivid violence and implausible escapes from almost certain death.

Faulks said he knows "one or two" real-life spies, and he has already researched the world of 1960s British espionage for a nonfiction book, "The Fatal Englishman." But most of his preparation for "Devil May Care" came through reading the 14 Bond books Fleming completed before his death in 1964.

"I expected them to be fairly pulp fiction, not much from the literary point of view," Faulks said. "I was pleasantly surprised — they were stylish, well written in a crisp, journalistic style."

Faulks said his book was "an affectionate homage to a playful character who has brought enormous pleasure" to millions of readers

Faulks said he tried to stick to the literary Bond, a more fragile figure than the hero of the movies. As the book opens, Bond is a lonely, listless man on enforced medical leave, denied his martinis and forced to "(retire) to bed no later than 10 o'clock with only a paperback book and a powerful barbiturate for company."

Faulks said the Bond of the books "is that much more vulnerable. He doesn't rely on gadgetry or superhero tactics or techniques. He relies on his own resourcefulness."

Armed only with a small pistol, he is "underpowered, under-armed. He's a kind of civilian."

Faulks said he hoped he had captured Fleming's style without tipping over into parody.

"It's very difficult," he said. You want to imitate somebody's style but you don't want to parody them."

He said he did it "by making sure that the story itself is a good story. The book stands or falls by whether people find the story robust, full of twists and turns and exciting."

Bond fans have yet to pass judgment, but many were excited by the launch. Dozens lined up overnight outside Waterstone's bookstore in central London to buy 200 signed and numbered special editions on sale for $200.

"Every British boy wants to be Bond," said Daniel Woolman, 25.

Faulks, meanwhile, said he was looking forward to "resuming my more serious-minded novels. Beginning next Monday."