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James Bond vs. the ’80s

When last we saw James Bond, in 1984’s Role of Honour, we did not part on good terms. It was an awful book in my opinion, with clumsy romance and a tremendously dull plot full of James Bond flipping through manuals about the COBOL programming language before finally ending in an idiotic blimp finale, the culmination of a plot that could have easily been foiled a dozen times before it ever got off the ground. That aspect of the storytelling — a central plot that could easily been defeated with minimal risk in the early chapters of the book but is allowed to continue because “foiling it now is exactly what they’d expect us to do!” — will typify the next couple 007 adventures, although for the most part, they are more enjoyably dumb than tediously dumb.

Also, you can bet that if James Bond thinks to himself, “either she was the greatest actress Bond had ever encountered, or she was telling the truth,” that she is the greatest actress Bond had ever seen (one of an increasing many). Even under the stewardship of creator Ian Fleming, there was a streak of gullibility in Bond when it came to women, but in Gardner’s books it is elevated to almost comical levels. Additionally, as Gardner settled into the role of Bond author for the long haul, he began to lose interest in the aspects of the novels that made James Bond “James Bond.” Partly this was a symptom of the times. What worked in the 1960s, what defined James Bond first in Fleming’s novels and later in the Connery movies, didn’t really translate to the 1980s, at least so far as Gardner could see (there was still plenty of flash and cool in the 1980s, but it must have passed Gardner by).

Which means that we are increasingly left with a sort of bland guy who just happens to be named James Bond — which, in a way, might be bringing the character back around to how Fleming originally imagined him, as an anonymous blunt instrument into whom a reader could pour his or her own identity; a characterless cypher of a man who might not be interesting but to whom interesting things happened. But honestly, by the middle of the 1980s, with decades of suave, awesome James Bond under our belts, did anyone really want an anonymous 007?

Nobody Lives Forever

Michael Gillette's cover for the German edition of Nobody Lives Forever
Michael Gillette’s cover for the German edition of Nobody Lives Forever

Released in 1986, Nobody Lives Forever has a similar feel to the movie For Your Eyes Only, in that both are essentially one chase scene after another. I admit, after the grind that was Role of Honour, the only thing that moved me on to this book was a combination of grim determination and the need to finish all the novels as research for a book I’m writing. It isn’t a triumphant recovery from a terrible previous entry, but it is a recovery, with a brisk pace, a lot of dumb coincidences that set off alarm bells to which Bond never pays attention, and another go-round for the newly reformed SPECTRE, the Daleks of the James Bond universe (when in doubt, trot ‘em out). It’s also the first (and only) Bond book that puts Moneypenny and, unbelievably, Bond’s maid and “Scottish treasure” May in the middle of the plot, if not the actual action. Sadly, if you were hoping that John Gardner would take the opportunity to reveal Moneypenny as a resourceful and brave woman despite not being a field agent, well…you haven’t been paying attention to the way Gardner writes women.

Bond is en route via a leisurely drive to pick up his housekeeper May from a clinic where she’s been recuperating from an illness (I guess he didn’t want to send her to Shrublands) when he learns that blimp enthusiast and head of SPECTRE Tamil Rahani miraculously survived his tumble out of an airship in the last book, though he sustained so many crippling injuries that he basically a crushed man with only weeks to live. But he has decided to spend his final few bedridden days by putting a price on James Bond’s head and waiting for one hitman or another to bring it in — something you have thought was sort of like a standing invitation for the past few decades. Thus Bond finds his progress across Europe hampered by a number of assassination attempts, many of which are almost comically unsuccessful thanks to the assassins trying to do one another in as well.

Along the way, Bond picks up Sukie Tempesta, a lovely Italian princess, and her bodyguard, Nannette ‘Nannie’ Norrich. That at least one of these women is a SPECTRE operative is screamingly obvious to everyone except perhaps James Bond, though to his credit he does at least vacillate between being cautious and being the typically gullible oaf Gardner turned him into. And also as one expects from Gardner, he goes to great lengths to establish at least one of the women — Nannette — as a cool, competent bad-ass, then of course constantly undercuts that claim with the way he actually presents her on the page.

The cliché of Bond getting captured by the main villain, who then inexplicably refuses to just kill Bond and end things then and there, is well established by this point and just something you have to deal with. When Fleming did it, he usually came up with some way to make the delayed execution plausible. Under Gardner, however, that almost never happens, and the illogic of the situation is simply too glaring and impossible to ignore. That’s certainly the case here, where Bond’s inevitable capture and inexplicable stay of execution never makes any sense other than “the formula required it.”

At least this time around, Gardner keeps the (slightly repetitive) plot moving quick enough so that few of the book’s weak spots stick around long enough to sink the ship. Role of Honour really seemed to be a case of Gardner not giving a shit about the book, and it dragged on forever. Here, Gardner still doesn’t give much of a shit, but at least he seems mildly engaged in writing decent action bits in between all the dumb coincidences, irrational behavior, and terrible sex jokes. And it really only takes a day or so to read, so at the end of things, an easily satisfied lout like me — especially coming off a thoroughly boring and dreadful entry in the series — Nobody Lives Forever is a decent enough adventure.

No Deals, Mr. Bond

ndmbIf real-world politics made their way into Fleming’s novels, it was purely by accident. John Gardner, on the other hand, seemed to have really wanted to put current events and issues in his writing, though one assumes having to adhere to the publisher-issued Bond formula tethered his aspirations. Let the harsh reality of Cold War politics remain the purview of John LeCarre. Icebreaker hinted at political content but still defaulted to the usual megalomaniacal madman (in that case, one who dreamed of resurrecting the Reich, complete with retro uniforms and a soundtrack of “Greatest Nazi Hits” piped through his secret base). But Gardner, when not neck-deep in James Bond, wrote a series of books that had a lot more in common with LeCarre than Ian Fleming. With No Deals, Mr. Bond, he finally achieved enough clout, or had at least been around long enough, that it seems he was given a little more leeway to “do his own thing.” The result is one of the Bond book series first full-on Cold War espionage thrillers since, well, since From Russia with Love, really. It’s also one of Gardner’s better Bond books, possibly because he seems energized by pretending that he’s not really writing a James Bond novel.

We join Bond in the midst of a mission to extract two agents from East German territory. The agents, Ebbie Heritage and Heather Dare (pretty good spy names, those), were part of a “honey trap” operation — the common practice of using good-looking agents to seduce enemy targets and extract pillow talk secrets, classified information, and all the other stuff moon-eyed fools spill when someone bats their eyelashes at them. Five years after completing the mission, Bond is pulled back into it and learns the history of the two women and “Operation Cream Cake.”  It turns out that Cream Cake’s intention had been to use five honey trap agents — four women and one man — to spirit  two highly ranked Soviet defectors to safety in the West. The operation was a disaster, however, and the agents taking part in it were dispersed and given new identities. The whole sordid failure was then put to rest — until two of the female agents turn up gruesomely murdered.

Bond’s charge is to find the remaining members of Cream Cake and get them to safety. Some of them have already caught on they are in danger, however, which means there will be a lot of scrambling around as Bond attempts to herd the agents in while also trying to determine the identity of the murderer and juggling the (inevitable, for this sort of story — news that one of the surviving operatives may, in fact, be a double agent. And because Bond can never deal with just three or four complications, it looks like his old enemies at the now renamed SMERSH are somehow involved, and they are none to happy with James Bond.

Overall, despite the usual Gardner plot contrivances and decisions that are made expressly to complicate the plot and cause the reader to roll eyes, this is among his best efforts in the Bond arena. Although this story — with its jumble of East German, Soviet, and British spies and politics, was closer in spirit to what Gardner wanted to write, one thing with which he was expressly unhappy was the title forced upon him by the publishers. Gardner had originally called it Tomorrow Always Comes, which isn’t exactly a stellar name but is a damn sight better than the title the publisher initially wanted: Oh No, Mr. Bond! With the exclamation point. Between that and an operation dubbed Cream Cake, it would seem that 007 had wandered into pure Carry On! territory, and that the story would be full of flabbergasted British gentlemen being shocked by saucy ladies exposing their knickers.

Title aside, this is a pretty good one. Bond gets to chum around with an Irish buddy, and for once we have a plot that doesn’t seem like it could have been wrapped up easily in a few pages if M hadn’t dismissed some common-sense, surefire plan as “too obvious.” Which means that for once, all the twists and turns through which Gardner runs Bond are actually a good deal of fun. Somehow, a plot that involves England, East Germany, and Russia that plays out quite a bit in Ireland ends up for the finale in Hong Kong. It’s another one of those “I could kill you, but why not play a game instead” sort of deals where the villain devises a ridiculously elaborate way to kill Bond (these almost always boil down to “let’s play The Most Dangerous Game!”), but I don’t really mind it this time out since the Hong Kong stuff is good and the whole book is a good deal of fun. Best of all, this novel doesn’t really tie into any others or require you to have read previous of Gardner’s Bond books, so you can skip right to it and enjoy yourself.

Scorpius

scorpWell, I hope you really enjoyed No Deals, Mr. Bond, because we’re back into crap territory with this one. There was a cult scare in the 1980s, similar to the Satanic Panic of the 1970s (umm, and also the 1980s again — we panicked a lot in the 1980s), which is probably why Gardner decided to turn in a story in which Bond goes up against a mesmerizing cult leader who, as is always the case, is using the religious fervor of his converts for more materialistic gains. Pretty much every spy novel franchise initially inspired by the James Bond books had at least one story where the main character went up against some robe-clad Moonie stand-ins, so I guess Gardner figured why the hell not? The resulting book isn’t particularly good.

For starters, this is another in the increasingly large pile of Gardner plots with a very simple solution that everyone refuses to take for reasons like “it’s what he’d expect us to do.” Bond is in the middle of a fun refresher course when he gets called back to HQ by M. Almost immediately, people start harassing 007. Once he gets word from M, Bond discovers that he’s to investigate a nutty religious cult called the Meek Ones, led by Father Valentine, who plans to use his impressionable, deluded followers — many of them from well-connect families — as assassins and suicide bombers. Valentine is really Vladimir Scorpius, a former Soviet turned freelance arms dealer. despite the duplicitous nature of the villain’s identity, almost every assassination scheme he hatches seems telegraphed well ahead of time and exceedingly easy to foil. So Gardner just has his characters do a bunch of dumb stuff so that action happens. But when the action is that labored, it’s more tedious than exciting.

Bond is also paired with, of all people, a lovely female agent from the IRS, since they too are investigating Valentine and the phony credit card company he’s established as a front. Not the most thrilling of cases, but I suppose it beats all that guano farming info we got in Doctor No. Mostly though, what sinks this book is it’s the insistence against all evidence on the page to the contrary that Scorpius is a dangerously charismatic leader who can inspire unquestioning fanaticism in anyone. Even Bond falls under the hypnotic sway of Scorpius dime store new age philosophy, and Gardner expects us to swallow it. It’s simply too much to buy, and the more Gardner writes scenes of 007 staring deeply into the persuasive eyes of Scorpius, the more comical it becomes.

Throw in a finale at a Hilton Head resort — Hilton Head! — and you have a real clunker of an adventure. There is a long history of Bond having his adventure wherever the author last took a vacation, but when it’s Jamaica or Greece or Finland, it’s one thing. When it’s a resort meant for middle-aged bankers in flip-flops and gaudy golf shirts…come on, Bond! What’s next? 007 taking a soccer mom out for Kahlua Mudslides at a Bahama Breeze restaurant? The finale sees Bond accomplish absolutely nothing. The one thing he does causes the death of a supporting good guy, and in the end, Bond’s presence on the scene contributes absolutely nothing to the big operation to take down Scorpius. In fact, the entire plot of the book, which sends Bond undercover in Scorpius’ sham cult, is completely superfluous tot he wrap-up. If 007 had just sat in his room ordering pay-per-view, exactly the same amount would have been accomplished.

Speaking of pay-per-view, there’s a scene where Bond watched The Untouchables on his flight to the United States and ruminates on how this Sean Connery chap is a pretty good actor. Good gravy, Charlie Brown.

Win, Lose, or Die

wldVying with Role of Honour and Never Send Flowers (we’ll get to that one…sadly) for the worst of Gardner’s Bond novels, this was a dreadful way to close the 1980s run of novels. Coincidence, naive stupidity on Bond’s part, and blind luck have always played a role in the series, but this one takes the cake, as an upstart terrorist organization is able to somehow get an entire group of women recruited by the British military, trained, stationed in the same place, and all assigned to the same ultra top-secret mission. I am always amused when terrorists are able to get exactly the job they need — peanut salesman, janitor, night watchman, usher — in exactly the place they need to be to pull off a scheme. No terrorist plot in movies or books ever gets foiled by HR going, “I’m sorry, but we don’t currently have any positions available.” But to successfully send an entire detachment of women through WREN training and get them all exactly where you need them — surely even John Gardner knew that was a load.

This is a book built entirely on the premise that everyone involved will make increasingly stupid decisions in defiance of all evidence before them and refuse, at any point, to think or behave in a way even slightly resembling a rational human being. It’s so bad that, even though I steadfastly object to the trend of emoji and emoticons, I’m tempted to let my review of this book be nothing more than a little cartoon middle finger, which it turns out would serve both as my comment on the book and the book’s opinion toward its readers.

The premise is not a bad one: James Bond gets assigned to a case that involves the Navy and so, among other things, has to pick up his former career as a Naval officer, receiving as a result a long-overdue promotion from Commander to Captain Bond. Watching Bond go through a series of refresher courses and Naval training isn’t thrill-a-minute, but it is interesting, and a new angle on a character who, by 1989, had very few new angles left to offer either writers or readers. Bond finds himself back in the mess hall because the hilariously named Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism — seriously, it sounds like something from The Venture Brothers — plans to attack a top-secret naval mission. Hidden in the midst of conventional looking war games, it turns out that Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and George Bush will be holding a secret high-level summit aboard one of the ships. BAST plans to blow them all up.

The plot is so dumb that even the characters in the book can’t help but point out how stupid it is. Bond himself, subjected to some villain cackling and plan-spilling about how the three deaths will throw the world into utter anarchy, explains that both England and the United States have, you know, plans of succession for such things. And the bulk of the Soviet government — well frankly, they’ve been trying themselves to kill Mikhail Gorbachev so it’s unlikely they’ll collapse into chaos. So there’s that. There’s the fact that somehow the entire security detail assigned to the summit ship — the entire detail — secretly works for the bad guys. And then there’s the fact that everyone knows exactly what the plan is and could foil it at any time yet they chose to all play along to the inevitable last-second save, because why the hell not? Seriously, the US, MI6, and Soviets all seem to know exactly what happens when. The main bad guy’s phone is tapped from an early point, and they listen in on every single plan, know his whereabouts at every single moment. And then they decide to just let it all play out, because nipping the attempted assassination of three world leaders in the bud is “just what they’d expect.” It’s like this book is drunk is daring me to punch it in the face.

Amid the smothering awfulness, there are a few bright spots. Bond’s time at the naval base is, as I wrote, a nice change of pace. And there’s some stuff at an Italian villa that requires Bond to act supremely stupid — but Gardner has him do that all the time, and at least this time there is some nice scenery. But by and large, this is perhaps the most half-assed of Gardner’s Bond outings to date. Hell, 007 hardly does anything besides walk down corridors and get beat up and kicked in the balls (yep).

Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism…come on!