After the solid Licence Renewed
and the cracking For Special Services
proved bestsellers, an emboldened Gardner took a risk: he ditched the 'secret agent chases super villain across exotic locations' formula for a twisty spy whodunnit set largely in one location (Finland). Does it work? Honestly no, but it's a brave misfire and a surprisingly fun read.
Score: 6/10. After a 'pre-credits' chapter with terrorists on a dry run in Libya, we find 007 looking up an old flame while away on winter training. Called back to London in barely one piece, he discovers his latest mission has already begun. It's pretty clear M's only telling him half the story: namely, that Bond provide the British contingent for a joint MI6, CIA, Mossad & KGB(!) operation against an army of neo-Nazi terrorists on the Finland/Russia border. No one can trust anyone and the mission starts to go badly wrong- elements that recur throughout Gardner's subsequent novels.
It was Gardner's favourite of his early Bonds and it certainly has its fans. A neat idea that could have come off in the hands of Deighton, LeCarre or Gardner himself if he were writing a non-Bond thriller. And that's the problem. Slow burn duplicitous spy stories need a gradual playout and a murky anti-hero to keep you guessing, teasing out the tragedy. Bond books (even more layered novels like From Russia With Love, say) thrive on mercilessly linear plotting and breakneck speed. 007 is a secret agent, a "blunt instrument", an outright hero: here he's redundant, a victim of everyone else's machinations.
To be fair, the various national agents are memorably characterised and there's plenty of fun guessing who's on whose side- a trademark in Gardner's 007 books. Bond himself is still the tougher, smoking and drinking, early 'Gardner version' (more like Fleming's man than we get later) and his best independent effort leads to the great snow plough set piece and the Saab's finest hour. He's still on the quest for the perfect sidearm (opting here for the neat H&K P7), the Arctic setting is compelling and the torture scene is painfully vivid.
Otherwise he gets nothing to do! 007 watches loyalties shift, confederates plot, enemies dine (honestly) and gets rescued when he falls for scheme after scheme. The "Speedline" chapter is an opportunity missed to get 007 skiing again. For a hardcore drinking game, try having a swig every time Bond checks into a hotel or taps a phone: I lost count. The biggest problem is the last 3rd: the villain and his well worn (even by 1983) scheme barely feature and the ending's a drawn out charade of double and triple agents. For once, Bond's presence really makes no difference.
While the flawed/circular plot and sporadic action mean that this is not a great Bond novel, it's an oddly compelling diversion thanks to the whodunnit at its heart and above average prose. Gardner's enjoying himself, so we do: producing a book that meets Fleming's criterion of passing the time in a plane, train or hotel bar. The next book played it more traditionally with much better results: Role of Honour (James Bond)