Having read Gardner's 80s Bonds many times and his 90s books a few, this was the one I couldn't remember beyond the showdown- and you'll guess that pretty soon from all the heavy hints. With the 90's output having proved such a mixed bag, how would it shape up?
Score: 5/10. Around the world four influential figures (army, secret service, MP, writer) are assassinated. With nobody connecting the killings, James Bond has no reason to think that the death of an MI5 officer on leave in Switzerland is linked. Partnered with Swiss secret agent Fredericka "Flicka" Von Grusse, 007 unearths the victim's dark past and a link to a reclusive former actor in the form of a unique rose.
The opening is nicely written, if conventional; the initial premise identical to Dr.No, with Bond handed an apparently straightforward murder investigation of one of his own that turns out to be something more. However the author wanted this to be more than a stumble into a megalomaniac's world, aiming for a full blown detective story with an overt attempt to build up the `girl's' part. Although not unlike other Gardner heroines (as much sidekick as girlfriend; funny; tough; lewd), Flicka's characterisation is strong and she's amongst Bond's most convincing love matches. In fact their dialogue is interchangeable and she gets enough page time to deserve equal billing!
However, while it has the shape of a Bond novel, it's torn between several formats: too many lulls to be a thriller, too obvious to be a whodunit. You suspect it was meant to be a Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lector, criminal genius vs. good guy battle of wits, but the mystery element (semi-hiding the villain) and pedestrian pace (highlighting a raft of coincidence) prevent this. There are a few set pieces but they're pretty unremarkable: an interactive museum, car bomb, Bond escaping from his own flat. A shame we miss his date with Charlotte Helpful, but the Swiss chapters (very Fleming) are well written with some mouth-watering food and a great character in Lempke. There's some very sexy stuff that for once has consequences for 007, and provokes one of Gardner's best ever scenes with M. Otherwise, Bond's relationship with Flicka is developed at the expense of the action, we get the least menacing encounter with a villain ever, and while the castle on the Rhine demonstrates some imagination there's nothing astounding. The ending feels like a tacked on piece of corporate publicity and the villain's scheme has bleakly ironic reverberations.
Worse, 007 is a depressing picture. Gardner's Bond in the 80s had approximated a wiser, less vice ridden agent, maybe in his late forties but with the same spirit of old. Here he feels well into his fifties: a workaday spy running up big expenses but dodging bills at home, with no passions for cards or golf or cars or anything. There's no excuse for the tea drinking, endless correcting ("Actually...") or petty snobbery ("lower class" indeed!), while the blazer and ridiculous attractiveness to every woman that he meets conjures up the worst excesses of the later Roger Moore movies.
You can't help but wonder if Gardner's move across the pond had a negative impact on the prose. The "pants/ elevator/ sidewalk" Americanisms are fine (Fleming favoured a more specific transatlantic vocabulary rich in brand awareness) but Bond's slang is terribly hollow: "cops", "shooter" (for gunman) and "crazy" (for madman) don't ring true while the term "d*ckbrain" should simply not be in his vocabulary. Even the editing is shoddy: stock phrases recur frequently ("immediate boss", "icy veins") and there's a mindless use of the conditional tense.
Your enjoyment here will depend on how charming/intrusive you find Bond/ Flicka's relationship. They're so engrossed in each other they don't notice there's only enough plot here for a short story- the sort of mission Bond used to get between novels. A reasonable book but ultimately unmemorable.