May 10, 1993
Revised January 14, 1995
Revised January 26, 1995
This interview originally appeared in 007 MAGAZINE issue #28, October 1995. www.007magazine.co.uk
It's been fourteen years now since the first in a new series of James Bond novels was published. Its title was LICENSE RENEWED, and the author was a man named John Gardner. Over the years, Mr. Gardner has received varying degrees of praise and criticism from the general public and Bond fans alike. It seems that no one can agree on the merits of John Gardner's works, despite the fact that the books have sold extremely well in the United States (but oddly enough, not as well in the U.K.).
It was 1980 when the Board of Directors of Glidrose Publications Ltd. (the copyright holders of the James Bond literary property) decided to bring back 007 to the printed page. The last attempt to do so after Ian Fleming's death resulted in the excellent COLONEL SUN by "Robert Markham," a pseudonym for Kingsley Amis. At the time, it was thought that several different authors would have a shot at writing a Bond novel, each using the Markham moniker. COLONEL SUN was only moderately successful sales-wise (despite the fact that it is a superbly written novel), so the idea was scrapped. Apart from two film novelizations by Christopher Wood (JAMES BOND, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and JAMES BOND AND MOONRAKER) in 1977 and 1979, respectively, and 1973's brilliant JAMES BOND--THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF 007 by John Pearson, the legendary super sleuth had not been seen in print in over a decade.
In finding an author to pen the books, apparently Glidrose tossed a few names around and eventually ended up with a list of six possibilities. First on the list was John Gardner.
To date, there have been thirteen Gardner Bonds published, not including a film novelization (of LICENCE TO KILL) which the author does not consider part of his Bond oeuvre. Negotiations are in the works for more entries in the canon--but only a couple more, most likely. Mr. Gardner has expressed a wish to move on to other things. It is also felt that since Ian Fleming wrote fourteen titles in all, then Mr. Gardner should stick to this number as well. (However, Gardner was persuaded to pen the film novelization for GOLDENEYE, on which he is currently working.)
I will readily admit that I had trouble warming up to Mr. Gardner's James Bond. Like most fans of the late Ian Fleming, reading another author's attempts to breathe life into what was a very personal creation for Mr. Fleming elicited a certain protectiveness on my part. John Gardner is not Ian Fleming, nor does he try to be. Granted, there are certain traditional elements that he must include in his books, such as what is called "Fleming Effect"--the rich attention paid to detail and minutiae. But from the beginning, Gardner has written in his own voice, which is certainly the only way any writer could be expected to write. It took a bit of time for me to understand this and to stop contrasting John Gardner with Ian Fleming and begin taking the new Bond books at face value. And instead of saying, "Ian would never have said that," I found myself saying, "This is a pretty interesting twist!"
I have grown to admire the Gardner books (admittedly some much more than others), and I believe they have value in the James Bond fan's world. I especially think that the Gardner books would make excellent bases for films, and am perplexed why their potential has never been exploited. Most of the Gardner books read like screen treatments (even though he vehemently rejects the notion that he wrote them with this in mind). Nevertheless, they are actually more "filmable" than Ian Fleming's original works (I wish you'd tell Mr. Broccoli that! John exclaims), in that they are action-oriented and seem structured like a film. In many ways, I think they're better than the "original" scripts the filmmakers are coming up with (I didn't hear that! John says).
I had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Mr. Gardner in March of 1993. We conducted a lengthy interview at his spacious home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was quite a trooper during the interview, as he was having difficulty with sciatica and really didn't feel up to sitting and talking all day. (Ian Fleming had sciatica problems, too. A coincidence, or is James Bond just a pain in the...?) But we made it through the talks, and the James Bond 007 Fan Club is grateful to him for putting aside his busy schedule for a few hours in order to talk to me and communicate with "007" readers. His comments appear in italics throughout the following.
John Gardner was born in 1926 in the little village of Seaton Delaval, in the northeast of England. His father was a Church of England priest in charge of a church in the mining community. He lived there until the age of seven, at which time his family moved south. There, his father became Chaplain at a girls' school. Mr. Gardner readily admits that he did not take to school at all, and that growing up in this Anglo Catholic environment was "weird." During his teens, he fancied becoming a magician. He became fairly adept at the craft and performed in front of audiences for years. When the war broke out, he lied about his age to get enlisted. After serving in the Royal Marines, he studied at Cambridge and St. Stephen's House at Oxford.
After the war I ended up in journalism. I concentrated on the theatrical arts, and even wrote some plays. I sent one play to the BBC. They wrote back and said, 'We don't find anything wrong with your play, but on the other hand, we don't find anything right with it--so we suggest you turn to some other kind of work.' This only hardened my resolve to keep writing.
Gardner became a full-time theatre reviewer, based at Stratford-Upon-Avon, just as Peter Hall was making his name and leading the Royal Shakespeare Company to a new-found fame. He covered most major classical theatre in Britain in the late fifties/early sixties and was the first British journalist to actually go for the full series of first nights at Stratford Ontario in a season. It was during this period of time that Gardner began to write something for publication.
After working on an autobiographical book, Gardner wrote THE LIQUIDATOR, published in 1964. It was a blatant spoof on James Bond (although he denies that it was specifically a jab at 007), and it was a surprise success. The main character was Boysie Oakes, who worked as an assassin for the British Secret Service. The problem was that Boysie Oakes was a coward and secretly hired hit men to do his dirty work for him! In addition, he became ill on airplanes.
My first piece of fiction, unhappily for me, was an overnight success. In a way, this was very bad for me. I carried on working as a journalist for about a year after that success. After the second Boysie Oakes book, one newspaper said that, 'Gardner writes full time now.' Well, I'd been writing full time for years! But that statement in the press prompted me to leave journalism and become self-employed.
Gardner wrote other Boysie Oakes books and two novels about Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Later books, such as THE GARDEN OF WEAPONS and THE NOSTRADAMUS TRAITOR, were more in the realistic style of John Le Carré. During the eighties, while writing the Bonds, he wrote the critically acclaimed SECRET GENERATIONS trilogy.
I work seven days a week, unless I'm out on research or a vacation. I would much rather be living in my real world, which is fiction, because the world we're in at the moment is fantasy!
Of course, of interest to "007" readers is Mr. Gardner's connection with James Bond. It began in 1980:
We were living in Ireland, and the mail arrived one morning. There was a letter from a great friend of mine, a crime writer, very well known--he said he'd been approached by Glidrose, who wanted to see if they could produce at least one more James Bond book. They had a short list of five people, and I was at the head of the list. He wanted me to get back to him immediately if I was interested. I have to be honest--at first I was not interested. My own work was not doing badly, and I thought this was probably not the thing to do. I slept on it. And I thought, well, I've been doing a serious book and then a rather light-hearted book, a kind of kiss-kiss-bang-bang type of book, and alternating between the two styles. So why not explore it? I told my agent at the time about it--I said, "I've had an interesting offer, but I don't think I'm going to take it." When I told him what it was, he said, "Oh yes you are!" At that time, Glidrose were only thinking in terms of one book, which seemed to us a little short-sighted. So he went on and had lunch with the Glidrose people and asked for a three book contract. And I wanted cut-out clauses, because we could all fall flat on our faces. They accepted that idea, and we had a mutual cut-out clause. I then had to pass the test of actually going in and having lunch with the powers-that-be at Booker, and answering...well, I was interrogated, actually. "What would you do with Bond?" they asked. And this is quite extraordinary--we all came to the table with the same idea on the approach: to put Bond on ice, so to speak, and resurrect him in 1980 completely intact with all the knowledge of the previous decade and a half, but at relatively the same age. We could have gone back to the sixties and continued where Mr. Fleming left off. We could have gone back before the Fleming books, which is what Mr. Pearson did. Kingsley Amis had done one, as you know. Anyway, we felt it was the only way to do it, mainly because so much has happened in the world of espionage since the sixties--technologically speaking. Just the microchip itself has changed the espionage world so much. I wanted their permission to evolve my own style, which they refused, and I wanted to use real equipment--real hardware that exists, not the fantasy stuff, and they agreed to that.
We got a fair offer, and then I had to submit an outline and the first six chapters. The outline became the all-serious thing for all the books, especially the early ones. I'm required by contract to produce this outline, and this is really the most difficult, painstaking part of the process. The actual writing of the book takes anywhere from five to eight weeks, and it's relatively easy. The outline is anywhere from two to ten pages. Even with the outline, I'm reluctant to write the ending. I don't like to know how my books are going to end until I'm writing them. I want the freedom to let them take me where they want to go. I don't like being locked in to an ending. I think Glidrose certainly now understands this. After the outline and the first six chapters are accepted, I continue. I like them [the publishers] to have the first chapter, especially, because it sets the tone, and the outline basically sets up the situation and the MacGuffin. I think I've only twice been told to change something major. Reluctantly, I've given away a secret or something so that the publisher will understand the plot better. Once I submitted the final manuscript, I found out I was being edited three ways--Glidrose were editing...Peter [Janson-Smith] and I would sit down at meetings and go through the notes, but we've fine-tuned this process down to a very manageable system, doing it by FAX. We call it "Professor Nitpick's Notes," so we don't get on a personal level. Then it goes through the American publisher [Putnam], and then the British publisher [Jonathan Cape and/or Hodder & Stoughton]! And this is all a strange mixture of bedfellows. I remember on the first book, the editor at Cape wanted me to change the locality of the climactic scene [that takes place at Perpignan]. I had to appeal to Glidrose to defend me. Finally, that was settled, and bingo, we did it. It wasn't until the first book was published that I realized what I'd let myself into. I had through the years heard about James Bond this and James Bond that, but I had not fully realized what a household name he truly had become. And it hit me rather like a brick!
I remember coming across the Bond books in the fifties. Margaret [Mrs. Gardner] had got one at the library for me--I was sick with the flu and confined to bed for about three weeks. I remember reading the first one and thinking, "This is fun." Was I a fan? Yes, I was, but I had to keep in mind that this was fantasy and not intended to portray the real intelligence world. But this was precisely the objective of Mr. Fleming's exercise.
When I began the first book, I read all the Fleming books again quickly. I had to finish a book of my own before I started it, so I began this Jekyll and Hyde existence. I read the books, then I wrote LICENSE RENEWED. I was then exposed to the media upon publication. The first journalist to interview me was a very entertaining young lady from a very good British paper, and she said, "I have a quiz here." She had prepared a list of twenty-two questions on the books, and I think I got about five of them right. I read them for the flavor, not the detail. Besides, Peter and Glidrose would have prevented me from making any big mistakes, any real howlers, so I wasn't that interested in the trivial details. If I need some specific bit of information I can get it from your book! [John was referring to this author's THE JAMES BOND BEDSIDE COMPANION!] I have other sources for weaponry and intelligence community information. Primary sources are books, secondary sources are people who are actually part of or happen to be part of the intelligence community. They're the most dubious connection, because they're not always forthright. But I built up, even before I started doing Bond, a good wealth of resources. Classified subjects are not discussed, of course.
I also made a resolve not to see any of the films. I have not watched a Bond movie since 1979. The first thing I said was I was not going to be influenced by the movies. I did see NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN on an airline, but I don't consider that a true Bond film--it's just THUNDERBALL all over again. I had a bit of an advantage, or disadvantage, depending how you look at it--the normal fans on the street do not remember the original Fleming books, and there's a great abyss between the books and the films. And it's strange, they go on making [series continuity] mistakes in the films. The readers remember the films, primarily. Not the original books. Quite recently, a publication for intelligence professionals carried a piece that "Q" had died, that the man Q was based upon had died. They actually used a headline that said, "Ian Fleming's 'Q' Dead," and as you know, Ian Fleming never called the character "Q." It was Major Boothroyd. I actually wrote to the publication and said that they were perpetuating a myth. This applies constantly to the normal fanmail I receive--people refer to the movies much more than the books and remember events and characters in the films more than the books.
Glidrose placed certain limitations on the author before he began to write the first book:
The main thing that reared its ugly head was that I must remain within the formula. There are small things, like M must not swear. I think I've succeeded in slightly breaking Bond's pattern, because no intelligence operation would ever employ a man whose habits were so died-in-the-wool as Bond's! I wanted to give him more of a life outside his profession, which didn't work to begin with. I put two things in the first book; one of them, he's climbing a wall or something somewhere, and I had some line of a movie come back into his head. It was the Michael Caine movie, "The Man Who Would Be King." Kipling. And it went through the editing process, and no one said anything, but it simply disappeared from the manuscript! Just completely disallowed without a word! And I put something else in, but I've forgotten what it was. Fleming had him be a great jazz fan, and I've tried to allow that to go on. It gives him a bit of a life outisde the adventures.
I mentioned that I requested to evolve my own style--Glidrose said no, that I must stick with the formula. Therefore, I consciously started out with the idea of using a completely different style than my own voice. It's not my voice. It is a formula. There's a computer program called CORPORATE VOICE. CORPORATE VOICE is a stylistic and grammatical analytical program. It's used to analyze and compare writing styles. When you're using it as style analysis, you've got a very good hit at 90%. Mine was 97% when compared to Fleming. In other words, unbeknownst to me, I have been slavishly copying Mr. Fleming's style. I wrote to the CORPORATE VOICE people and told them I wasn't consciously trying to copy Fleming's style, that I was trying to use a different voice. It strikes me now, of course, that you can't. Consciously, there is no way I can identify with Bond. In my own works, I identify completely with my characters. I live in their bodies. But it doesn't happen with the Bonds. The character is not mine. The character belongs to Mr. Fleming. He is Mr. Fleming's. Everyone around him is Mr. Fleming's. This must come as a great shock to the people who have said my style is nothing like Mr. Fleming's, because apparently it is--scientifically, anyway! This amazes me, because we use a different technique altogether. When I'm doing the Bonds, I'm very objective about the material. I'm never in there, either in bed with Bond or shooting it out with him, or being tortured, or whatever. I can't get inside his head. Sometimes I get angry when the book isn't going right, and I don't do that with my other works. James Bond is not my man. There is a sense of detachment. It is rather like watching a scene being played out. A good analogy is that it's more like directing a play than writing a book. The cast is all there and you're simply putting the lines into the characters' mouths and putting them through the motions. But in my own books, I'm on the stage with those characters!
As history has shown, the gamble that both Glidrose and John Gardner took has paid off. The three book contract became six, then six became nine, and nine became twelve. There will be two more. I personally believe that will be all. I could be proven wrong. The publishing world is in a sad state; it's practically impossible now to predict how well something will do. The Bonds did very well at first, but they've been slipping. I think a lot of that is due to Putnam not supporting them as well as they could. This was especially true with THE MAN FROM BARBAROSSA, which they did not like at all. Personally, it's my favorite of the bunch. I tried something very different with that one--I didn't stick to the formula. Putnam complained a great deal, and as a result, it wasn't supported. I was extremely disappointed about that. Nevertheless, many of the Bonds have appeared on the New York Times' best seller lists, some for several weeks at a time. Paperback sales are especially good. When I made the suggestion of trying to do a book of Bond short stories (there are two such anthologies by Fleming), Gardner was intrigued. I haven't been offered it. I suppose it could be number fifteen. That being the case, if that ever happens, that could be interesting. In that one, I'd pick the times. I'd take him back to the sixties for one. The future for another. That would be fun. That's a good idea, actually! I hope they wouldn't require an outline for the short stories!
In reading the Gardner Bonds, I strongly recommend that readers completely forget the Fleming books and think of the new series as what it is--an altogether different set of Bond stories in a different time. An analogy could be the original "Star Trek" television series vs. "Star Trek--The Next Generation." The new show has a completely different "feel," the sensibilities behind it have been updated, and the characters are very different. But it's still "Star Trek." Some folks like it, others don't. It's all subjective, and if one forgets his/her personal prejudices, the new series can be enjoyed on its own merits. The same is true for John Gardner's Bond.
LICENSE RENEWED (1981)
LICENSE RENEWED concerns James Bond's investigation of Anton Murik, the Laird of Murcaldy. Murik was a top nuclear scientist who had developed plans for a "perfectly safe" nuclear reactor. But his colleagues at the International Atomic Energy Research Commission would not approve his plan; Murik resigned and began making plans to hire terrorists to infiltrate six major nuclear plants around the world in order to cause meltdowns unless he was allowed to build his own reactor.
The first John Gardner Bond book is still far and away the best selling of the bunch. In many ways this is understandable--it was the first one, and many people were curious. It still sells well in paperback. However, I don't think it's Gardner's best Bond novel, not by a long shot. It's obvious that the author was finding his way with the first one--testing the waters, so to speak. Even though Mr. Gardner denies this, I feel that LICENSE RENEWED is the one novel in his series which is most like a film script--there are even events in the book which are reminiscent of particular scenes in early Bond films. For example, Bond assumes a cover to infiltrate Anton Murik's castle (where the doors lock guests into their rooms and one must use a magnetic strip to open them) (On Her Majesty's Secret Service); Bond spies on the castle at night, and then is chased in his car (Goldfinger); Murik is planning nuclear blackmail (Thunderball); the henchman, Caber, is ejected from an airplane (Goldfinger); a street festival provides cover for Bond to escape (Thunderball); Murik claims to be an heir to a fortune, like Blofeld (OHMSS); and Murik has an evil mistress (Thunderball). Despite these similarities, LICENSE RENEWED manages to seem fresh and new--I distinctly remember having a ball reading it for the first time, as if I'd found a long, lost friend. I asked John about the book's "film script" feel:
I write in visual terms, but that doesn't mean the same way in terms of a film treatment. I write in visual terms for myself and for the reader. One of the things I said at the initial meeting [with Glidrose] was that I wasn't going to write film treatments. In point of fact, we all knew that Mr. Broccoli was not interested in us doing the books and there was little likelihood of films being made based on my books. And one thing I was told to never ever do was, if a journalist asked, say which of the actors playing Bond I preferred. And I understand why. Anyway, no, I do not set out to write a film treatment. I write in visual terms, and perhaps, because the movies are so much more prominent in people's minds, they "see" the book in cinematic terms. You know, some authors never mention smell. I think it's a great help in writing visual stuff. You get a whiff of something and it takes you back to a certain place or time. Bond uses all of his senses. I even try to use his sense of fear, and the movies don't always do that [at least they didn't in the Roger Moore pictures...].
One of Mr. Gardner's strongest stylistic elements is very akin to Fleming's, and that is his ability to "sweep" the reader along at an extraordinary pace so that the reader doesn't have time to really question things. I call this the Fleming Sweep. Like his predecessor, Gardner's books are page-turners, and they move very quickly. It doesn't take very long to read a Gardner Bond, which is another reason why they seem more like films than books. John Gardner is no amateur, and his books generate a fair amount of suspense.
At the time, I felt that the plot of LICENSE RENEWED seemed influenced by the film THE CHINA SYNDROME. In fact, this movie title is even mentioned during the course of the book. But Gardner denies that he was influenced in any great way by the film. He admits that it was probably a source, but only as a secondary inspiration. LICENSE RENEWED does have a splendid villain in Anton Murik, the mad Scottish scientist who wants to cause nuclear meltdowns all over the world (it'd be a great role for Sean Connery if it were ever filmed!). I felt that the Ann Reilly (Q'ute) character was a nice touch. The author was forbidden to use "Q," because he was a creation of the filmmakers, not of Fleming's. (Gardner could use Major Boothroyd if he wished to do so, but he claims that he tries not to. The Armourer remains in the background, referred to but not actually ever "seen." Instead, Q'ute became the liaison to Q Branch. And Ann Reilly is a real person. She is really in the surveillance business. I've been on television with her a couple of times. We did a big special for Irish television. Her name is O'Neill. She really knows her job. However, Ann Reilly's appearances have become less frequent in the books. Yes, I don't know why, really. I think since she and Bond resolved the possibility of an affair early on, she became more of a background character.
LICENSE RENEWED is an enjoyable read and serves as a good introduction to the world of John Gardner's James Bond. But with the publication of the second book in the series, John Gardner proved that he was capable of producing a James Bond story that is nothing less than a dynamo!
FOR SPECIAL SERVICES (1982)
The basis of FOR SPECIAL SERVICES is that James Bond becomes aware of a new SPECTRE organization controlled by an offspring of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Clues point to a wealthy Texan named Markus Bismaquer, an entrepreneur working out of a huge ranch. Bond teams up with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his friend Felix, and together they uncover SPECTRE's plot to drug the personnel of NORAD headquarters in Colorado with specially prepared ice cream. Once the personnel are at the mercy of SPECTRE, a disguised team of military personnel will infiltrate the headquarters and steal the computer tapes controlling the Space Wolves, the new laser-equipped satellites which can monopolize the arms race.
The most brilliant piece of writing that John Gardner has executed in his entire Bond series lies within the second novel, FOR SPECIAL SERVICES. There is a moment of devastating irony that is worthy of anything Ian Fleming ever wrote, and perhaps even does him one better. James Bond sleeps with the daughter of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and doesn't realize what he's doing! When 007 becomes wise to what he's done, the shock and horror is profound. Gardner claims that a lot of people just "didn't get" the ironic implications of this story--granted, only die-hard Bond fans would. After all, perhaps only the true fans understand the history involved here--that Blofeld killed Bond's wife, and here is the villain's daughter, in bed with our hero, who is blind to her true identity! Of course, he gets even in a big way at the end of the book, but the damage is done. How could he live with himself after that? A psychiatrist would have a field day...
This plot twist alone makes FOR SPECIAL SERVICES easily one of Gardner's best Bond books. I put it in the top three, possibly second. The book is so successful because of this link with Bond's past. Whenever the author deals with events and characters from the Fleming books, I personally find the story more compelling. Gardner states that the idea for the book stemmed from his desire to actually use Blofeld somehow. (Re: The THUNDERBALL court case--Gardner wasn't restricted in his use of the Blofeld character or the SPECTRE organization because Ian Fleming retained the rights to the THUNDERBALL novel when the film rights were won by Kevin McClory in 1963.)
The book also marks the only appearance of Felix Leiter in a Gardner Bond (excluding the novelization of LICENCE TO KILL). Leiter's role is brief--instead, the author has introduced Felix's daughter, Cedar. This actually worked thematically, since the villain in the story was also a daughter of a past character. But Gardner is not very keen on using many of Fleming's characters: I liked his [Felix Leiter] character. I used him briefly, then sent on his daughter. It's strange how he totally becomes whole again with each new adventure..[in the films]. The central characters--Bond, M, Moneypenny, Bill Tanner--remain ageless and remain the same. The subsidiary characters in Fleming's books I'm rather withdrawn from. I love Leiter in the Fleming books. But I used his offspring, and I suppose I could bring him back, but I doubt it.
Apparently, Gardner gets a lot of letters with suggestions of plot ideas and pleas to bring back certain characters. I get at least fifty letters a year saying, why don't I do the BIG trick and use Kissy Suzuki's son [Kissy Suzuki has Bond's child out of wedlock in the novel YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE]. I'm not allowed to do it! Glidrose has sold it to Broccoli! When Glidrose signed the contract for JAMES BOND JR. there was a clause in the contract that included the rights to "any offspring of James Bond." I can use any of the characters I want, but I cannot use a bastard child. Originally there was another problem. My contract states that if anyone approaches me with an outline or idea for a Bond book, I'm not to read it and send it straight away to Glidrose. This is to cover us legally. We do know one person who has from the very outset, even before I started, kept sending the same idea from different addresses and different names (but stupidly using the same typewriter!), and it concerns Kissy Suzuki's child. So who knows, this guy could be waiting for the moment that we DO use Kissy Suzuki's son and then he'll want a piece of the action, claiming it was his idea. I have news for him--it's a LOT of people's idea! [I even suggested this to John a few years ago!--R.B.]. So I wasn't allowed to use it even before the JAMES BOND JR. thing. One guy even sent me travel guides to Japan! It's too bad about this, because using Kissy's son would be a compelling plot aspect indeed!
The third Gardner Bond concerns 007's attempts to destroy a terrorist organization called the National Socialist Action Army (NSAA), whose objective is to rid the world of communism. The NSAA is revealed to be an extreme fascist group controlled by ex-Nazi Count Konrad von Glöda. In Finland, Bond teams up with KGB agent Kolya Mosolov, CIA agent Brad Tirpitz, and an agent from the Mossad of Israel, the beautiful Rivke Ingber. After a series of mistaken-identity situations, Bond and a girlfriend working for Finnish Intelligence, Paula Vacker, thwart von Glöda's plans to recreate the Third Reich.
ICEBREAKER happened because I took a driving course in the Arctic Circle. It was sponsored by Saab. Everyone said, "You fool, you fool!"
Apart from the worrisome episode of getting his vehicle stuck on the Russian side of the Russian/Finnish border, John Gardner had a ball researching his third Bond novel. Saab had offered to take him on a driving course in Finland, and the author's imagination took over during the visit. The locations in Finland and Russia were excellent, and the action scenes were superbly written. However, the Bond character lost a great deal of the personalization that Gardner had given him in the previous book. Furthermore, the plot hinged much too much on mistaken identities--allies not really being allies and villains not really being villains. A second reading clarified many of the role-reversal shenanigans in this book, but the device may have been a bit overused in this particular case.
A first for Bond here was that ICEBREAKER truly dealt with political issues. Ian Fleming never really tackled politics in his books. That's true, he never did, because when he was writing you were dealing with very troublesome waters. The political slant does interest me more in my own books. I think it can possibly become a time-waster, though, in the Bonds. I've used it a couple of times. I'll tell you an interesting story about Russia. I was arrested in Russia in 1964. In Moscow. They take your passport on the airplane, you know, so when you arrive on Russian soil, you don't have your passport. I was a journalist at the time, covering the Royal Shakespeare Company's tour of Russia. A woman in a leather coat stopped me in the airport and marched me into an office. She demanded to know what I was doing there. I told her. "I don't think so," she said, and ordered me to tell her again. This went on for three hours--it was very unpleasant! Eventually someone came in with my passport and told the woman that I was indeed a journalist. The next day I went to the British Embassy and inquired what I should do about it. I was told to call a number and play "merry hell," and that I would write about this experience in every newspaper in the west. So, on the way back, I had no problem at the airport--I wasn't searched or stopped in any manner. And I was illegally carrying out personal letters from the members of the RSC to be mailed in the west!
One ingenious scene in the book, though, involved the "water torture." Bond is stripped naked and repeatedly lowered into a hole cut in the ice. The water is, of course, a bit cold. One of the better tortures, yes. I usually make up my tortures, unless I need help; and then I consult a doctor. The ice water torture was all right--Bond would have lived. He might have lost an appendage, but he's superhuman, right?
There are some exciting sequences in the book, such as the snow plow battle on the highway and the Fencer attack on the Ice Palace; but because of the lack of a dynamic, threatening villain (Konrad von Glöda only appears toward the end of the book and doesn't really seem all that deadly), the missing presence of a personable leading lady (Paula Vacker only appears at the beginning and end of the book), and a rather confusing plot, ICEBREAKER doesn't hold up against the better Gardner Bonds.
ROLE OF HONOR (1984)
In ROLE OF HONOR, Dr. Jay Autem Holy, a noted computer expert, and "Rolling Joe" Zwingli, a fanatical U.S. general, have disappeared in a plane crash over ten years before. Sources have revealed that Holy is alive and well and working undercover at a computer software company in Oxfordshire. Holy's ex-wife, Persephone (Percy) Proud, gives Bond a crash course in computer programming before he infiltrates the company as a potential employee. Bond soon discovers that Holy is in cahoots with Tamil Rahani, the new leader of SPECTRE. Holy and Rahani are concocting a computerized plan to knock out the U.S.'s and the Soviet Union's nuclear capabilities.
The fourth Gardner Bond had its origins in the world of computer games. Mr. Gardner can program a little in BASIC, and he has been a fan of computer games since their explosion onto the market in the early eighties. Today, the author writes exclusively on a Macintosh, and uses an IBM clone strictly as a flight simulator.
Despite the timely subject, John Gardner is not happy with ROLE OF HONOR. I don't believe in writer's block, really, but I came very near to it with ROLE OF HONOR. I simply got stuck. I couldn't make it progress. I wasn't feeling well at the time, and for some reason, it was the hardest book of all of them to write. My dear friend Peter Israel, who was head of Putnam at the time, was on the phone. He asked, "How's it going?" I said, "Well, I'm stuck, Peter." And he used a wonderful technique--he became like a Mafia boss and just said, "FINISH IT!!" and put the phone down. And I did! Anyway, I don't like ROLE OF HONOR too much, because I think writer's block is a signal to the writer that you've gone very wrong with the book somehow. You've got to go back and see where it went wrong. You've got to shift gears and do something about it. We also had to change a part of the book because it was believed that there would be a conflict with the film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. We had heard that they were using some kind of computer game in the plot, and so was I. So we changed it to a board game, and it didn't work as well. Then it turned out that the computer game in the film didn't amount to anything!
Contrary to the author's own feelings, however, ROLE OF HONOR is a wonderful entry in his canon of 007 adventures. I found the situations and the supporting characters--the villains Jay Autem Holy and Tamil Rahani, the heroine Percy Proud, and the notion of an updated SPECTRE under new leadership--all uniquely involving. The author was especially successful in humanizing Bond once again, even more than he did in FOR SPECIAL SERVICES. Fleming's old theme that a secret agent is always a secret agent, even when off-duty, hits home again in this book. Bond receives an inheritance at the beginning of the story, and M capitalizes on this information to place 007 in a precarious situation with regard to the enemy.
Jay Autem Holy is a fabulous villain--after working in computer games, I can safely say that I know this man personally! He was very real. Tamil Rahani could have been a bit more fleshed out. Gardner never explains how he gained control of SPECTRE. You have to accept the fact that the author is God, and if the author says he got control of SPECTRE, then he got control of SPECTRE. You're quite right, though, I should have explained how he did it, but I have no idea how he did--he just did!!
In the first three books, James Bond was driving a Saab 900 Turbo. Beginning with ROLE OF HONOR, 007 began driving a Bentley Mulsanne Turbo. One of my contacts at Saab--who had given me a Saab--had changed jobs and went to Bentley. He called me one day and said he wanted to see me. He brought a Mulsanne Turbo and said he wanted me to see it, and that he thought Bond should be using it. I went up to Bentley and did a driving course, which was a fairly rigid procedure. I learned more about driving in one day doing that...They lent me a Mulsanne Turbo for a year. The change made sense. Even though the Mulsanne Turbo is not the 4-1/2 litre Bentley or the Mark II Continental that Bond drives in the Fleming books, at least brand name is the same.
NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1986)
At the outset of NOBODY LIVES FOREVER, 007 is on leave, traveling in his Bentley across Europe en route to a medical facility in Vienna to visit his ailing and convalescing housekeeper, May. Bond soon discovers that SPECTRE is sponsoring an open competition for, literally, his head. When he encounters wealthy Sukie Tempesta, a girl he saves from a possible roadside robbery/rape, Bond decides to bring her along on the trip as a safety precaution. Sukie's friend and professional "bodyguard," Nannie Norrich, soon joins the entourage. Bond eventually learns that May and Miss Moneypenny (who was visiting Bond's housekeeper) have been kidnapped by SPECTRE to lure the agent into the organization's clutches. It then becomes apparent that someone is eliminating any competition that comes near Bond and his party--and 007 deduces that it is SPECTRE itself that wants to win "the game."
It was a personal plot for Bond. I remember thinking, why don't we do a chase across Europe? We'll probably do it again, and we did. So I thought--why is there a chase--someone puts a contract out on Bond. Who and why? And it all fell into place. I believe it was the shortest outline I ever did.
It all fell into place because everything works. This is far and away John Gardner's best James Bond novel, and it is precisely because it is such a personal plot for the leading character. It's a plot reminiscent of FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE, and it moves along excitingly! If it were a film, it would surely have much of the same tension that something like Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST had. The chase idea was splendid indeed, and the reader is chased along with Bond throughout the book.
Once again, the continuing theme of the secret agent being a prisoner of his profession is obvious. Bond's professional life has put people close to him in danger--particularly his doting housekeeper, May. This time, the plot is not a mission imparted to 007 by his service. It is an all-out run-for-his-life pursuit; his goal is to not only escape the killers on his tail, but to rescue May and Moneypenny from their clutches.
One nitpick might be that there is no central villain--Tamil Rahani is bedridden, an invalid as a result of what happened to him at the end of the previous book--so it is his organization that serves as the intangible antagonist. But Bond is accompanied by a couple of well-written female characters (Sukie Tempesta and Nannie Norrich), and the author takes the threesome through many surprising turns. It is perhaps significant that NOBODY LIVES FOREVER marks the end of SPECTRE. I suppose it could always be resurrected, but it seems as if the nail was driven into the coffin with this one.