Owing to his tendency to wear bland trousers, a bland blazer, and a bland, too-billowy white shirt with no tie, I have often referred to Timothy Dalton’s two turns as James Bond as “the Casual Friday Bond.” Because Roger Moore explored the questionable sartorial indulgences of the 1970s, he is often cited as one of the worst-dressed Bonds, but at least his safari suits and flairs had a certain memorable boldness to them which, if not the equal of Connery’s timeless style, at least stood out from the crowd without looking like a clown (relative to the style around him). Dalton’s Bond — as well as Brosnan’s — commits the sin of being terribly, terribly boring in his dress. I would not have wanted James Bond to indulge the extremes of 80s fashion — no one needs James Bond to don a pastel t-shirt and parachute pants — but I do want him to look like something other than a mid-level bank manager on casual Friday.
In the world of the James Bond novels, bringing the iconically fifties/sixties Bond into the eighties fell to British author John Gardner, and his first Bond novel, License Renewed — the first James Bond book since Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun over a decade before — did its best to maintain the events and timeline of the original Ian Fleming novels while being set in and making sacrifices to the 1980s. Bond is greying at the temples, he drives a more fuel-efficient Saab turbo, he smokes low tar cigarettes. Overall, License Renewed wasn’t a bad novel; it just wasn’t great, and part of the problem with it was probably that Gardner was under so much pressure to maintain all the details that would make License Renewed a direct sequel to the Fleming books.
As Gardner progressed through his career of writing James Bond novels, the need to connect the dots directly back to Fleming would, presumably, become a little less important (like how, in the long-lived Matt Helm books by Donald Hamilton, Helm begins the series as a veteran of WWII but, by the time the books are being written in the 80s and 90s, that detail has sort of been dropped without ever actually being ret-conned, and Helm hasn’t really aged but a few years in the many decades since the first novel). Gardner’s second James Bond novel, For Special Services, still maintains all the ties to Ian Fleming’s original novels (including conjuring up several specters — har har — from Bonds past), but it gets a little more breathing room since it isn’t saddled with re-introducing Bond and acclimatizing him to the 1980s. As a result, it’s a better, faster moving, and more developed book than License Renewed.
For Special Services
Things kick off with a pretty great action sequence in which Bond and some undercover SAS men foil a hijacking. We learn that there have been a large number of such hijackings lately, and Bond soon uncovers that they are the work of his old nemesis SPECTRE — and more disturbingly, Blofeld, even though Bond knows Blofeld is dead. According to the combined intelligence of both MI6 and the CIA, this new Blofeld might be operating in conjunction with — or perhaps even be — an eccentric Texas billionaire named Markus Bismaquer. Bismaquer (and yes, I did spend the whole book imagining it was actually Biz Markie) lives the life of a recluse behind the electric fences and walls of a sprawling estate that can only be reached by monorail, and it looks like he’s been doing business with all sorts of potentially unsavory characters. At the request of the CIA, and because he is the world’s foremost authority on busting up SPECTRE operations, Bond is disguised as an art dealer, shipped off to the United States (along with his specially tricked out Saab) to determine if SPECTRE truly is back, and if so, whether Bismaquer is the new Blofeld — and if not, who is?
To assist in the mission, Bond is paired with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old buddy Felix “My God James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” Leiter. Cedar represents one of the weakest aspects of Gardner’s writing, and one of the most irksome tendencies in all sorts of spy lit: the woman who is constantly described by everyone as tough, competent, and every bit as professional as a man, who then proceeds to spend the entire book giggling, freaking out, screwing up, crying, and pining for the male hero. Considerable words are spent on assuring us Cedar is a tip-top agent, and then every action, every line of dialog author John Gardner saddles her with seems designed specifically to disprove these assertions. She’s not a thoroughly terrible character; she’s just very very disappointing, a typical example of how male writers so often fail to make good on their female characters.
Gardner’s propensity for clunky sex dialog is carried over from License Renewed, and once again we have two women (Cedar, and Bismaquer’s wife, Nena) who within ten seconds of meeting Bond are trading lounge lizard quality double entendres with him as they try to get him in bed. I know some will claim this is all part of James Bond, but it’s really not, at least not in the books. Plus, it’s not the sex and the seduction I mind — it’s how poorly written it is that bugs me. Nena is one in what will turn out to be a long parade of the “villain’s kept woman” who are described as giving Bond “conspiratorial glances” the second he shows up with a thoroughly suspicious cover story that no one should believe.
Much of For Special Services is a pastiche of plots and events from previous Bond novels. Bismaquer’s sealed-off, Disneyworld-esque private estate seems a lot like the silly cowboy fantasy land constructed by the gangsters in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond’s cover as an art dealer comes off pretty similar to his cover as a genealogist in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The eventual SPECTRE plot is a lot like Goldfinger‘s raid on Fort Knox (the movie more than the book). And Bismaquer himself is basically the same villain as Dr. Murik from the previous novel: a strange billionaire who is back-slapping and gregarious one moment, then utterly batshit insane and furious the next. And like Murik, once he uncovers Bond’s true identity, he makes sure to expose every part of his plan to 007 and take him along whenever he can.
As to whether or not Bismaquer is the new Blofeld — the identity of the new Blofeld is a screamingly obvious mystery that is never the less drawn out through the entire length of the book, mostly via lazy cheats in writing. For example, early in, there is a meeting of the new SPECTRE in a Louisiana bayou mansion. Blofeld is presiding over the meeting, in full view of everyone present and without manipulating appearance or voice — this exposure should, logically, extend to the reader, but while Gardner describes almost everyone else who plays a role in the meeting, he intentionally leaves out describing Blofeld, because he needs that to be a mystery — even though the solution to the mystery is visible from practically the beginning of the novel. Why be coy? Why cheat the reader in the service of such a lame “revelation?”
If people thought the plot of License Renewed was far-fetched, then For Special Services‘ absurd mix of ice cream, mind control gas, mesmerism, and patently impossible invasions of top-secret military installations will have even more eyes rolling. It seems more like the plot of a Bond movie spoof than of an actual James Bond novel. Heck, it almost seems as if the plot to one of Gardner’s own Boysie Oakes books has seeped into the world of James Bond. However — all those criticisms thus entered into the record, I thought For Special Services was a pretty fun read. It’s obvious that Bond is not Gardner’s character, and that maybe Gardner is a poor fit for Bond, but when the author gets away from the character and concentrates on the action, For Special Services has an opportunity to shine. The opening hijacking scene is thrilling, as is a tense car race between Bond and Bismaquer’s typically disfigured evil henchman. Attempted assassination by ants and a number of chases and shoot-outs also afford Gardner a chance to take a break from writing Bond the character and concentrate instead on adventure.
And it’s because these moments are so good — as well as Gardner’s proven track record as an ace writer of thrillers — that I suspect the embarrassing awkwardness of the character moments, of the banter between Bond and the women, the derivative nature of the villain — is because Gardner was forced into a formula and a character personality with which he could not identify. Fleming was no great wordsmith, but his novels were infused with a charisma and spirit generated by the fact that this snobbish old British man truly believed in, reveled in, and wanted to celebrate James Bond. Gardner took the job of writing another man’s character and as that other man, and it is obvious that it doesn’t work very well for him, and thus nor does it work very well for us. Perhaps sensing this, For Special Services relies much more on Bond in action than the previous book, and it’s a substantial improvement, at least in terms of thrills.
Several of Fleming’s Bond novels featured plots in which James seemed for large portions of the book to just be along for the ride. At least a third of From Russia With Love is about the villains, and at least as much still features Kerim Bey doing all the work while Bond hangs out behind him and admires the man’s warm, dry handshake. I guess Icebreaker was John Gardner’s version of one of those “Bond on a holiday” books, because it features Bond doing almost nothing, which is probably for the best, because when Bond does do something, it is inevitably an example of some of the worst espionage work the man has ever done. Pretty much every single person dupes Bond in this story — sometimes on multiple occasions since this is a book that goes well past settling or mere double crosses. And pretty much every decision Bond makes, every conclusion he draws, is the wrong one. Whereas For Special Services feels like a Bond spoof because of the absurdity of the villain plot, this one feels like a Bond spoof because Bond is so obviously terrible at his job.
When Fleming passed off a vacation as a Bond novel, he usually succeeded based on indulgent descriptions of exotic locations, customs, drinks, clothing — the usual — and an obvious enthusiasm for such things that made Bond sitting around learning about branch water seem exciting. I don’t know about others, but Icebreaker lucks into the same sort of free pass thanks to my own fascination and obsession with Finland (and all of Scandinavia, as well as Iceland and Greenland), vacationing above the Arctic Circle, and the complicated nature of espionage in countries that are aligned with “the West” but share borders and culture with the then Soviet Union. As such, the setting alone was enough to carry me through a story that is basically a rehash of the Michael Caine as Harry Palmer movie Billion Dollar Brain, only with less awareness of its own absurdity.
Bond is sent on assignment to Finland to join a mission already in progress, which in accordance it seems with all John Gardner missions, seems to be a hopelessly convoluted time-waster instigated at a point when a simple “go in and kill them, 007” would have already been overdue. Teamed with cranky agents from Mossad, the CIA, and the KGB — none of whom trust one another, of course — Bond and his cohorts must observe and report on the comings and goings of a group of neo-Nazi terrorists, even though the observing and reporting seems to be on things every government already knows are occurring (thus the mission in the first place), so there’s no point to any of it that I can puzzle out. Naturally, it’s all feints and traps and double crosses so that yet again we can get a maniacal villain (Aarne Tudeer) who keeps Bond alive on the flimsiest of reasoning. Tudeer’s Fourth Reich is the usual Fourth Reich business. They all idolize Hitler, dress like WWII era Germans, listen to WWII era German music, and give Mein Kampfy speeches. Just once, I’d like to see a neo-Nazi organization in a movie that adopts the bent philosophy of the Nazis but stops short of cosplay.
The book keeps assuring us that despite their silly WWII fetish, Tudeer’s National Socialist Action Army is one of the most dangerous threats the world has ever faced, and they are mere inches away from sparking a global Nazi revolution that will destroy us all and usher in a horrifying new era of people who don’t speak German never the less insisting on saying things like “Ja Vol, Mein Fuhrer.” But just as For Special Services undercut claims of Cedar Leiter’s competence by making her a fool in action, so too is the threat of Tudeer’s terrorist organization utterly unrealized in deed despite frequent narrative insistence. Billion Dollar Brain had a similar plot, about a bunch of Texas rednecks building a new Nazi army in the wilds of remote northern Europe. In that movie, the racist army was regarded as patently ridiculous but still dangerous, since a moron with a tank still has a tank. Icebreaker‘s writing doesn’t even manage that, however, and no matter how hard it tries to sell us the plot, the whole thing is just too silly, even by James Bond standards.
Additionally, the crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses are more wearying than they are surprising. No one is what they appear to be, and then they are not what they appear to be after they stopped appearing to be the last thing they were appearing to be. Improbably coincidences straight out of a Nick Carter adventure abound, and through it all, Bond exercises the worst judgment of any spy in the history of spies. I think at least 25% of this book is made up of the sentence, “Bond determined she was either the greatest, best trained actress in the world, or she was telling the truth,” only to have Bond be totally wrong. So I guess there are a lot of best trained actresses in the world operating out of Rovaniemi, Finland. I can fool my four-year-old nephew with the “I can take my thumb off” and “you had a quarter in your ear” trick despite being the clumsiest “magician” of all time, but even that kid would be suspicious of some of the nonsense James Bond falls for in Icebreaker.
In the book’s favor, though, are the once again breathtaking action sequences. A showdown between Bond in his Saab and an army of deadly snowplows on the lonely roads of northern Finland is pretty tense. The bobsled chases and shootouts in the snowy deserts of Lapland are fun. And like I said, I find the locations and descriptions of these remote places fascinating (Gardner himself admitted he came up with much of the plot while on an all expenses paid snow racing holiday in Rovaniemi courtesy of Saab). We still get all the clunky come-ons and cutesy dialog I’ve quickly learned to fear from Gardner’s James Bond novels, but at least it’s surrounded by sweeping Arctic wastelands, some good action, and lovingly detailed descriptions of Bond suiting up in his snow pants.
Role of Honor
Well, whatever good will was built up with the brisk action of For Special Services and the intriguing locations of Icebreaker was undone with Role of Honor, a dreadful entry in the series where nothing makes any sense, every character is poorly written, Bond’s mission is moronic, and fully forty pages of the story are devoted to descriptions of Bond learning how to program in BASIC and PASCAL. The villain “every single person in the world, including myself, says I should not believe you, Mr. Bond, but I think I’m going to trust you” gullibility is ramped up to levels even the liberal amount of suspension of disbelief I have when reading spy novels can’t tolerate. The villain is yet again a rehash of Murik and Bismaquer, a brilliant but insane billionaire who is friendly and fun one second then insanely filled with rage the next. But mostly — Bond learns COBOL.
The occasion of Bond inheriting a small fortune from a distant relative is fortuitously used by M to weave a plot in which Bond has been accused of impropriety, causing the veteran agent to resign from Her Majesty’s secret service in disgust and take up the live of a wild and crazy playboy and disgruntled ex-agent who might be swayed to the cause of some other intelligence organization. This is all so Bond can eventually worm his way into the inner sanctum of reclusive computer genius Dr. Jay Autem Holy, who builds realistic computer simulations used by the world’s military — and, it seems, flamboyant art thieves and a shadowy terrorist organization that is pretty obviously SPECTRE under new management yet again. As was the case with Murik in License Renewed, Dr. Holy is on the verge of launching a massive terrorist action that will threaten the entire world, yet when Bond shows up with a half-assed cover story about how MI6 hurt his feelings, Holy accepts it and brings Bond into the fold — but this happens only after forty pages of Bond holed up in a Monte Carlo hotel room learning about computers.
His teacher is Percy Proud, a CIA operative who was formerly married to Holy before Holy faked his own death. Anyway, it’s Gardner’s Bond and a woman, so cue juvenile dick jokes and double entendres. Despite having basically no character, we’re meant to believe that over the course of his training, Bond falls head over heels in love with Percy. In perhaps the worst example of writing yet in Gardner’s run as a Bond author, 007 will frequently picture Percy or think of her, and it’s written in a way that practically demands cheeseball romance movie soaring string music. All things considered, I preferred the dumb sex jokes.
Once he infiltrates Holy’s secluded mansion, Bond meets yet another woman who casts conspiratorial glances at him and immediately wants to bed him and make dumb sex jokes. And then Bond is kidnapped by not-yet-announced-as-SPECTRE 3.0 so that at least some fucking thing besides Bond hanging out in a bedroom typing “10 print “James Bond is cool”/20 goto 10” happens in this novel. Despite the fact that James Bond killed Blofeld, and then killed the other Blofeld, and ruined all sorts of other SPECTRE plots, and despite that no one is sure whether they believe that Bond actually resigned from the secret service and harbors a grudge against them, SPECTRE still recruits 007 to be their new man. Then after some training in the desert, they dump him back at Holy’s compound for the big mission, a scheme so half-baked and stupid that it only gets off the ground because M decides it should — because spoiling the scheme at the first opportunity isn’t nearly as cool as waiting until the last second then revealing that there was no last second, and that the countdown to the villain’s master plan had all been found out and disarmed before it even started.
John Gardner himself has come out and said basically that this book stinks, and far be it from me to disagree with him. For Special Services and Icebreaker were dumb and had silly plots and some bad writing, but at least they also had some positive attributes that made them readable. Not so, Role of Honor, a book that exceeds every length of slack I try to cut it. Gardner lies at least part of the blame on coincidence — that the plot he came up with about computers and war-simulator video games was very close to a more or less throw-away scene in the off-canon Bond film Never Say Never Again, and so he had to do a lot of last-minute replotting. But that excuse only gets him so far, and there is enough rotten in this book that “it was too much like a scene from Never Say Never Again” can’t account for all of it.
Nothing that happens in this book has any point. The convoluted fake disgracing of James Bond makes little difference. We spend multiple chapters watching him learn to program computers, a skill he never has to use. The in to SPECTRE’s plot is Holy’s advanced computer model of their nefarious plan — a plan so simple, so common, so exactly like any other SPECTRE plan, that it doesn’t need any sort of advanced computer simulation in the first place. Then the plot is exposed and disarmed before it’s ever set in motion, and the only reason we have a climax to the book with a fist fight in a blimp is because M figured why the hell not? And also, why not leave James Bond in the dark that the entire world isn’t actually about to be destroyed, because…I don’t know. Screw James Bond?
The only moment this book has going for it is one off-hand paragraph where Bond is exciting to be driving into Monaco, only to discover that the Monaco of the 1980s blows. Traffic, chain stores, package tourists, tackiness — it has been scoured almost entirely of the romance and glamor he remembered. That one segment is about the best Gardner has ever written when it comes to Bond the character, a man forged in the 50s but now transplanted into the 80s and forced to deal with the erosion of the world he knew. It’s a bit of cynicism in Bond, but also a bit of nostalgia and even melancholy, the first honest feeling moment where the reader gets a sense that Bond is a man out of time and that at least part of him knows that. It’s certainly a more effective means of conveying the passage of time than previous attempts at a similar nostalgia, which have mostly just been Gardner having Bond mechanically think of the names of past women and villains in his life like a bulleted list — possibly because Fleming and by extension Bond was always better with setting and things than with human beings, so emotion can be elicited from Bond readers through things like that easier than just listing Bond’s past friend and enemies. It’s too bad that one effective and thoughtful moment is couched in such an awful book.
Oh, Role of Honor, you make me so mad. You are dreadful. This is the sort of dreadful that, were I not an obsessive completist regarding such things, could convince me to just stop reading the series and move on to something else. But I acknowledge that even Ian Fleming had his terrible books. Role of Honor is slightly worse than The Spy Who Loved Me, but still not as terrible as “The Hildebrand Rarity” — but at least that story was only a few pages.