After two successful outings in keeping with Fleming's style, Gardner's 6th 007 novel is his most original since Icebreaker
. While the latter failed for me (compromising too much Bondian action and pace for a slowburning spytrade tale), this story sees a dynamic Bond against the odds and driving events as a British spy ring is wound up.
Score: 8/10. It certainly doesn't hang about. The covert naval op is convincingly told; then Bond is plunged into a deniable mission to rescue 'honeytrap' agents who'd spied for the UK and are now being killed. What follows is a Buchan/Sapper/Yates (the latter is referenced) style thriller, our hero on the run through London, Ireland, Paris and Hong Kong amid circling cloak-and-dagger treachery.
It's sort of Gardner's take on From Russia With Love (with a trap set by a Russian spymaster intent on bringing 'death to spies') except here neither Bond nor the reader know each character's loyalties. Those characters are nicely drawn, even if the girls follow Gardner's by now familiar pattern of trying to bed 007 on sight. There's another KGB man called Kolya (not the one from Icebreaker) and Q Branch's deadly emergency pack proves a worthy successor to the briefcase in Fleming's work.
The revelation that 007's on less of a recue mission and more of a seedy clean-up op rather sticks in the craw. Mistakes creep in, like Bond forgetting the ASP has transparent panels over the clip and weighing it to see if it's loaded. But after his brilliant depiction in Nobody Lives For Ever (James Bond)
, it's the increasingly pompous and smug 007 that's the big disappointment. Gardner stuck with this characterisation (by and large) throughout the rest of his books, chiefly because he felt Bond wasn't overtly humorous or learned enough. He cuts back on 007's vices: no martinis or bourbons, and for the first time he doesn't smoke a cigarette. Pro-feminist lines like "now dear" and "come on love" are best skipped past, while his irish and chinese impressions are hopefully Bond's attempts at irony.
You become accustomed though, and at least 007's interest in jazz (interpreted from Fleming's books) is welcome. There's some great storytelling here and some of the twists are genuinely surprising. The lunch at Blades is a nice touch, the locations are convincingly described and the last third in Hong Kong is brilliantly written. While a little contrived for some tastes, I love the wonderfully tense, violent and macabre 'battle royale' showdown. A strong Bond story and one of Gardner's most fun.