In re-reading Gardner's Bond novels for 2012 I've tried to be impartial, but it would be disingenuous if I didn't mention the pretty dire reputation this book has. Still, after Win, Lose or Die (James Bond)
proved much better than memory suggested, I was happy to keep an open mind.
Score: 3/10. It starts reasonably enough and, compared to other format-busting entries, in traditional style. Still formally attached to the Royal Navy, Bond's on leave in Canada where he has a chance encounter with wealthy, disfigured, foreign gangster and enemy agent, Brokenclaw Lee Fu-Chu. Our favourite agent is then dispatched to San Francisco's Chinatown underworld where (unsurprisingly) their paths cross again.
It's a typically Fleming set up and the little touches are promising: the half bottle of Tattinger and the (Vesper) dry martini (reappearing after several near teetotal novels), the Hong Kong mocassins, the Sea Island cotton shirts and the ASP make a welcome return. Even the much derided instance of 007 ordering his hotel's "English Afternoon Tea" meal (he hates the drink according to Fleming) out of boredom, and then slagging it off in all its faux Victorian branding, is reminiscent of similar gourmet grumbles in Thunderball and 007 in New York.
The problem is it's all so hollow. The plot (something to do with missing scientists) quickly descends into an FBI/CIA procedural with Bond almost totally passive. It feels so parochial and small- it could be an episode of any US crime show. In fact it's far more of an ensemble piece, commendably fleshing out supporting characters but relegating 007 to the part of observer. Until the New York chapters (nearly halfway through) there's absolutely no urgency in the story telling. It's just a series of conversations; a thriller without thrills.
The opening's mundane; there's no sense of why Bond's fascinated by Brokenclaw; no action of note until three quarters in and the 40 page briefing is terribly dull. I admit I've never cared for Gardner's depiction of M but this is the pits: witholding information for no discernible reason (yet again), he's smug and contemptuous of every other character, and manipulative for the sake of it. If I were 007, I'd have told the old boy to stuff it.
It has its moments (eg Wanda's story, the tense NY chapters) and the description of North America is compelling (Gardner lived there at the time). Otherwise it's heavy going. After introducing Wanda as a strong, beguiling character shaped by a terrible predicament, Chi-Chi's a disappointment: just another of Gardner's randy totty with a silly name- and one belonging to a famous panda. Bond's dialogue seems Victorian throughout.
I could do without every individual Chinese character being termed "a Chinese" (Fleming may have done it in the 50s but this was 1990!), let alone Bond's crude, unnecessary and inaccurate (unless our man's reduced to lying) loss of virginity contest. Fleming's rule was keep the story moving: this plods from empty gimic (the "Chinese boxes") to dreary scheme (Jericho); from embarassing torture (Brokenclaw's bucket) to the contrived showdown (why is 007 so keen to seem honourable in front of this crook?) All in all, it's not as bad as I remember but that's not saying much. A just about passable book, it's a weak Bond novel and really for completists only.