Critics who'd mauled Fleming in the 60s spent the 80s complaining that Gardner wasn't him: they praised his 'straight' spy fiction, but merely acknowledged the bestselling success of his Bond novels. In the 90s this had waned, with less publicity accompanying the release of each book and reviewers often not bothering. Gardner himself endured serious illness, while 1991's left field The Man from Barbarossa (James Bond)
had been unpopular both with public and publishers. How brilliant then that such a strong contender for his best Bond should follow.
Score: 9/10. Bond and partner of the week, CIA agent, Elizabeth 'Easy' StJohn (don't ask) fly off to investigate/ rescue the surviving members of Cabal: once the western intelligence commmunity's most successful network, its members are dying. It's a very Gardner set up, almost a rerun of No Deals, Mr. Bond (James Bond)
but even faster. Even the 'death' themed chapters (contrived but fun) and Diamonds Are Forever quote/title aims to please fans. Conscious decision or not (to return to a winning formula) it works. Like No Deals and Scorpius (James Bond)
it resembles an old fashioned spy caper or Hitchcock cold war thriller. Nearly every scene ends in a twist or showdown. It imbues 007 with all the spyworld tradecraft Gardner loved, while using the agents and agencies (as Fleming did) as players in an international game of cloak & dagger/ cowboys & indians.
The intrigue, action and bloody violence are nearly constant, while the 'end of the cold war' theme ironically resurrects it. There's a joy in the Fleming touches: martinis; Hoagy Carmichael; Ost-West Express; chapter 12's nod to You Only Live Twice; lusty sex; the stomach churning spiders incident and the excitement of Bond back on a 'good, tough assignment' as he used to say in the 50s. The airports and stations, luxury hotels, pavement cafes and dark alleys of Berlin, Paris and Venice are so integral to 007's tantalising world of high life and danger it's a wonder he was away so long.
Dialogue-wise Bond is rather elaborate here, almost pedantically longwinded in the interrogation scenes. However he's much more like his old self: passionate, driven and dryly funny; philosophical about the pleasures and grim realities of his work; hellbent on stopping his enemies. The characterisation is pretty good all round with a continent's worth of suspicious and sinister foreigners! Their dialogue is pretty interchangeable but they're all vividly described, with handy codenames for playing Gardner's game of guess who. For once the major villains loom large and there's a nice SMERSH-like paranoia following Bond around, reminiscent of Fleming's early work.
Easy StJohn isn't one of the author's better heroines, the hard faced 90s powerwoman facade lasting roughly two minutes before she attempts to ravish Bond. The less than subtle riff on sexual politics has dated worse than Fleming's (Honey Ryder didn't keep bursting into tears as 007 muttered defensively about sexual harassment claims!) but at least we get Bond's first recorded use of a condom. His gadget filled denim jacket is mercifully binned, replaced by a gadget free but equally distressing blazer. Instead he gets a new Cardin briefcase filled with lifesavers, harking back to earlier Fleming and Gardner versions. Surely the Boldman alias and Predator codename must be an open secret by now!
Nearly every Gardner fan has 'a book that should be made into a film': this is mine. A class act that recaptures the spirit of the originals, and an exciting tale in its own right told at cracking pace. If you read only one of Gardner's 1990s Bond novels, make it this one.