Orion's 2012 reissue of Gardner's 14 continuation Bond novels (and 2 novelisations) is a great opportunity for fans who've only read Fleming (or maybe just Faulks or Deaver) to delve further into the back catalogue. I've taken the opportunity to re-read all of them and see how they measure up to memory. For those who don't know, after Fleming's death, the 60s saw Kingsley Amis excellent but poorly publicised Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure
; the 70s had pulp author Christopher Wood's surprisingly good novelisations of 2 Roger Moore films and John Pearson's weird and wonderful James Bond: The Authorised Biography
In 1981, Ian Fleming's estate decided Bond needed a big literary return. Gardner was a man with as fascinating a background as Fleming: theatre critic, stage magician and WW2 service as a Royal Marines officer specialising in explosives. He'd started writing swinging 60s Bond parodies but moved towards LeCarre-esque Cold War thrillers. If you think Faulks and Deaver were given big publicity, Gardner seemed to be everywhere: articles in The TLS and photoshoots with guns and cars apparently paid off, as the book spent months atop bestseller lists. Did it deserve it?
Score: 8/10. At risk of damning it with faint praise, it's solid: a 1980's take on Moonraker or Goldfinger with Bond insinuating himself into the plans of a UK based supervillain, Anton Murik. The plot is strong and stands up well (governments held to ransom when terrorists capture Nuclear powerplants), the execution as terrifyingly plausible as Thunderball. The Saab 900 (replacing the Bentley Mark II Continental) wins you over as a serious driver's car, with enough gadgets to make the battles interesting without giving Bond a get-out-of-jail-free. The OTT henchman, Ascot, MI5, plus books on disguise and pickpocketing are very Fleming.
Bond's updating isn't bad: in Gardner's early books he still smokes (bespoke low tar Morelands), while the Dom Perignon '55, Rolex and Sea Island cotton shirt all ring true. Despite claims to the contrary, Bond is portrayed as older (maybe late 40s?) and wiser; less cold but more full of himself; more of a professional spy than a blunt instrument. Gardner confessed later he never really cared for the character but here he takes the trouble to get right the self discipline, breakfast routine, exercise regime, love of particularity and old school manners.
It's not perfect. Gardner's a compelling storyteller but he doesn't have Fleming's raconteur voice, so longer descriptive passages can become bogged down in minutiae rather than salient detail. The plain speak dialogue and dry humour of old are lost for broader characterisation and flippancy that hit the SIS staff especially. The less said about Q'ute the better, while the emphasis on realism puts a disconcerting end to the Double 0 Section and the Walther PPK. A few elements are simply under powered: the drab opening, the insipid love interest, a villain who's a paler version of predecessors, and we spend too much time on Bond's comings and goings in the castle.
However there's lots to like here, with some great set pieces: the horse racing, night time car chase and the fight on the plane all appeared in the films. Action scenes, technology and locations are obvious strengths of Gardner's, while the prose in the later section in France is much better. Overall, a strong mission statement: not a Fleming pastiche but an entertaining page turner and a welcome return for our hero. His next, For Special Services (James Bond 2)
was even better!