The Short Version: Bond is back – only it’s now the 1980s and things have changed. Not everything, of course: there’s still an M and a Q and Bond is still Bond and a crazy person has an idea for how to wreak havoc around the world, this time involving nuclear power stations. And only Bond has a chance at stopping him…
The Review: Those old Fleming Bond novels are strangely compelling. Not all of them were terrifically well-written (although some were) and several were quite strange, but Fleming’s creation exists in a way that nobody has ever really been able to capture since. The likes of Sebastian Faulks and Kingsley Amis have tried – to recapture the Fleming Bond, that is – and even when they’re successful, they’re still not quite the real thing.
Perhaps that’s because the real thing is, as with the films, meant to evolve with the times. A 60s Bond, no matter how good the tale, is pretty much nothing more than a lark these days – a dream of a time gone by, nothing to hang onto – but we also have to wonder how does a man like Bond fit into a more modern world? Jeffrey Deaver couldn’t really crack that question and Raymond Benson’s Bond novels puttered out in the early Aughts. Only the movies have survived… but what about the missing era, literarily? What about the 80s?
Which brings us to John Gardner, who actually wrote more Bond novels than Fleming himself. I’d never had the opportunity to crack Gardner’s work, out of print as many of the novels were, until the recent full re-issuing began… and even then, I hesitated. Can Bond ever be as good as my memory of him?
The answer, with this book anyway, is (not surprisingly) both yes and no. It opens in cracking fashion, Bond on a drive out and back from a country house he’s purchased – and he’s in a mood. As he careens toward London, it’s almost as though he’s also moving forward in time to the (then) present – there is a historical acknowledgement happening, humming underneath the story like the pavement under his car, and then the story arrives and we move on. Yes, there are nods to certain “new” realities – a low-tar cigarette to try and be a little healthier, a Saab instead of any of the classic cars, computers and late-Cold-War technology – but we’re not asked to get to know Bond again. We’re simply there with him, the man we’ve always known.
And Gardner’s success, honestly, is his ability to just let the story flow as you might hope it would. There’s nothing terribly surprising about any of the action – the plot is as preposterous as one might hope, hinging on the “China Syndrome” (which is not a real thing, couldn’t actually happen, but doesn’t make the idea any less exciting), and the villain a great nutjob in the canon. He’s got a beefy henchman, of course, and there are two seductive ladies involved with him – both of whom, of course, make eyes for our man James.
But the predictabilities worked in Gardner’s favor, here. As Bond visits Royal Ascot, as he drives up into Scotland, even as he fights to save humanity somewhere over the Mediterranean… it all felt right, somehow. It was the appropriate mix of the absurd and the plausible – for who wants their Bond completely grounded in reality? I think it’s the one thing that hobbles the Daniel Craig films and Gardner lets the story here float juuuuust high enough off the ground that you know it’s ridiculous but you’re invested because, well, it’s fun to see James Bond do his thing when he’s doing it well.
This doesn’t, of course, excuse some of the weaker moments in the book. Bond’s plans are a little more hairbrained than I recall them being, a little more seat-of-the-pants as regards to actually thinking about eventualities, and the ending had a strange sort of coda regarding his relationship with Lavender.
And the whole book has a strange… well, I don’t quite know how to describe it. I enjoyed myself enough while reading it, but I didn’t find that it grabbed me. It felt, as every Bond book not written by Fleming has, like someone else trying and not quite succeeding at whatever it is they’re trying to do. Which leads to the larger question of: why do we keep coming back to these stories? Why read Bond pastiche, Holmes pastiche, any of it at all? Sometimes the magic works, of course – this is why I’m curious to read Anthony Horowitz’s Bond novel, seeing how much I enjoyed his crack at Holmes – but more often than not, it’s never going to quite be the same. Maybe that’s okay: sometimes you want to just visit with an old friend and go through the motions and take that particular sort of nostalgic joy from the experience.
But sometimes, it’s okay to want more. Maybe James is better left for the movies. Stranger things have happened, after all.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Enjoyable enough, although it makes some strange choices and Gardner’s prose is pedestrian most of the time. Still, the beginning brings Bond into the 80s with exactly the right non-acknowledgement and there are scenes here that have the spark of classic Bond. Nobody can ever be Fleming, but maybe it’s best not to try. Maybe you have to take your own crack at a character like Bond – and while Gardner doesn’t quite go the distance, he does take some steps. I’m not sure if I’ll pick up another of his… but, then again, I’m sure the day will come when all I want is a simple Bond adventure. And judging by this one, I’m sure the next will more than oblige.