The writing had been on the wall, and that wall was now a line of rubble across Berlin. The fall of communism left many spy thriller writers floundering, but Gardner had coped well. With the last gasp of SMERSH in KGB clothing seen off in No Deals, Mr. Bond (James Bond)
, 007 had been kept busy fighting SPECTREesque terrorists in Win, Lose or Die (James Bond)
, independent supervillain Scorpius (James Bond)
, and Chinese agent Brokenclaw (James Bond)
. In 1991 as the world's eyes left the USSR to focus on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, could Bond now find love for Russia?
Score: 6/10. After a year of desk work (spent recuperating from injuries incurred in Brokenclaw), 007 is faced with a new and obscure para-military organisation, 'The Scales of Justice'. Apparently dedicated to locating ex-Nazis living incognito, then abducting them so they can be tried for war crimes, the world's intelligence agencies are having none of it. While Icebreaker (James Bond 3)
had seen Bond on a joint CIA, KGB, MI6 & Mossad (Israeli) operation; this time the newly onside KGB want 007 under their orders!
I confess that I wasn't looking forward to this one, remembering it as my least favourite of Gardner's Bonds. However, after Brokenclaw it's quite refreshing. 007's back in a cold London, brooding over his paperwork and flirting with Moneypenny for the first time in 3 books. M's office has had its first major refurb, the glass topped desk neatly anticipating the Judi Dench/ Barbara Mawdsley one. Back with the ASP, the Boldman alias and Q Branch's latest micro arsenal of gadgets (hidden in a denim jacket instead of the belt or briefcase- it was the 90s!), Bond is plunged into a tryst with an appropriately French femme fatale then nearly killed in a dark alley.
Gone is the flippancy in dialogue and prose of late, replaced with a more serious tone, while intercutting the relevant and tense USA kidknapping scenes feeds (rather than detracts from) the plot and pace. The prologue set during Hitler's invasion of Russia in WW2 (Operation Barbarossa) is all the more moving because it's starkly told. Maybe it's personal taste but I don't think Gardner does 'funny' particularly well: the troupe of SIS agents called Nigsy Meadows, Fanny Farmer, Pansy Whoever, etc, may have been closer to the truth than any licence to kill but I know which I prefer.
That said, the middle chapters are exceedingly dry. There's a lot of ruminating on the state of the new Russian politics which becomes repetitive. The pace slows down as the story gets to Russia, the character count rises off the scale and the long briefing sequences (typical in 90s Gardner) begin. This can make any thriller stodgy and, while there's enough meat amongst the potatos plotwise, it's the sauce that's lacking. When we get to the villain's lair it's pleasingly surreal and there are some very sexy moments, but the threat remains diffuse. Even Bond (whose knowledge of operating TV cameras is a lot fortunate) admits he's bored at the start of chapter 16. The constant intercutting of subsidiary characters (also having long conversations) weaves a broader plot than usual but kills the pace.
Then in the last quarter the tension accelerates, the bullets start flying and our man gets going as a well drawn (if unremarkable) villain emerges with a really disconcerting scheme. As ever with Gardner, there's lots of fun guessing the characters' loyalties and (despite the multi-stranded plot) most of the feints and improbable moves hold up. Just! While it's not vintage stuff, it was Gardner's favourite of his 90s Bonds. I wouldn't suggest the uninitiated start here, but it may reward those fans of his 80s contribution, especially Icebreaker and Scorpius: whilst it superficially resembles the former, the mix of elemental plotting, long chats and bursts of action is more reminiscent of the latter. Not bad.