We've been expecting you, Master Bond...;

Some literary characters are too good to be left to their creators - that's why 007 is back at school and Peter Pan is flying once more.

Less than a decade after the publication of Don Quixote, an unauthorised sequel hit the bookshops of Madrid. Cervantes was so annoyed that he quickly produced one of his own. Part II of Don Quixote, published a year later, begins with a passionate invective against the author of the rogue sequel. And at the end of Part II, Don Quixote dies. There would, Cervantes made damn sure, be no more sequels after that.

He couldn't, however, squash the impulse to capitalise on another writer's characters, or what we've learnt to call their brand. Four hundred years on, the impulse is stronger than ever. At one leading London bookshop, three out of the top four children's bestsellers are spin-offs of classics. Number one is Charlie Higson's Young Bond adventure Blood Fever' number three is Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers' and number four is Higson's Silver Fin. They're all spin-offs in which a crafty death would have had no dominion. They are prequels.

The truly determined writer can always find a way to rekindle the flame of a classic. The potential commercial rewards, as the bestseller charts indicate, are clear. The artistic rewards are less evident. How do you follow in the footsteps of a master?

For Higson, the pursuit of 007 was an accidental mission. The co-creator of The Fast Show was, he tells me, one of a number of writers approached by the Fleming estate to launch a series of books for children about the young James Bond. "It was a complete shock when they contacted me," he confesses, "and an even bigger shock when I heard I'd got the job."

Higson's "resurrection" of Bond takes him to Eton in the 1930s and a vividly imagined world that, in Silver Fin, takes in a Scotland full of forbidding granite castles, underground lairs and carnivorous eels, and, in Blood Fever, a menacing Sardinia in the time of Mussolini.

Silver Fin has sold more than 150,000 copies and was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards. Refreshingly modest, Higson says, "Ian Fleming had this great structure of how the book works. It has been analysed by a number of people, including Umberto Eco. I knew there had to be a powerful villain and there had to be a girl, so I had this fantastic skeleton I could then flesh out. A lot of the work was done for me." The mimicry, however, stopped short of the Fleming prose style: "I've tried to write in a way that was reminiscent of his books," he explains. "It meant there was still enough for me to get my teeth into as well."

It's an approach echoed by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, authors of Peter and the Star-catchers, the bestselling new prequel to Peter Pan. JM Barrie bequeathed the rights of his work to Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the author of the officially sanctioned sequel was announced in January. Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean, will be published in October. A proper sequel by a proper author, was the feeling, and one that raises money for charity. There are echoes of Cervantes in the response to the American impostors. Who the hell were they to cash in where greater mortals had feared to tread?

They were a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist (Barry) and a leading American crime writer (Pearson). "Something we could write that our children would read" has sold more than half a million copies and been snapped up by Disney.

Like Higson's Young Bond books, their foray in the footsteps of a master has won them commercial success, and a fair bit of critical success, too. Peter and the Star-catchers has been hailed as "a rip-roaring, pirate-filled adventure", but it has also been praised for its wry humour. It is a skilful and witty take on the original.

The whole genre is, however, one that continues to generate widespread disapproval. Sally Beauman, author of blockbusters such as Destiny and Dark Angel, expresses a popular view. "I don't have anything against sequels and prequels in principle," she says."It's just that I've very rarely read one that's any good. So often, they are just somebody climbing on to a financial bandwagon. To reproduce another writer's narrative voice is putting on a straitjacket."

It's a pitfall she was keen to avoid in her bestselling foray into the world of the classic spin-off. Rebecca's Tale is described on the jacket as a "companion" novel to Daphne du Maurier's classic. The impetus behind it was, says Beauman, not commercial but an enduring fascination with a book she sees as "full of unanswered questions". To avoid "a piece of ventriloquism of the wrong kind", she decided to tell the tale in "voices completely outside du Maurier's original novel". Like Jean Rhys's Bronte-inspired Wide Sargasso Sea, a book that Beauman "adores", it's a novel that works on its own terms.

If the footsteps of the masters seem paved with gold, they're also littered with casualties. Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett, a sequel to Gone with the Wind, was widely derided. Susan Hill's Rebecca sequel, Mrs de Winter, attracted mixed reviews. And who now remembers Nicola Thome's Return to Wuthering Heights?

Emma Tennant, perhaps the queen of the classic spinoff in this country, has tasted the highs and lows as a ghostwriter to the late literary stars. Her sequels to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Wuthering Heights have attracted love and loathing in equal measure. "There's a great deal of snobbery about anything that seems to be 'ripping off something else," she says. "I think it all comes down to how something's done."

Higson talks of the limitations of "polishing someone else's gold". And Sally Beauman was right to turn down a lucrative offer from an American publisher for a sequel to War and Peace. "It took me about minus five seconds to say no," she says.

Christina Patterson

The Independent, 18.4.06