The 1980s Bond novels had seen the steady thawing of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Fleming plot gambit of 007 playing cat and mouse with a major supervillain. With the brick dust flying in Berlin, and the writer himself off to live in the USA, a palpable turning point was reached in the books both in narrative and context that would launch Gardner's Bond in a completely new direction for the 90s.
Score: 8/10. Bond returns to the Royal Navy for a joint UK, USA and USSR war game marking the USSR's "perestroika" (economic restructuring) and "glasnost" (cultural and political openness) policies. A new terrorist group BAST (Brotherhood of Anarchy & Secret Terror) has threatened to wreak havoc. Whom can 007 trust? Beautiful WREN officer Clover Pennington? Italian sex bomb Beatrice? Or enigmatic Russian Naval Attache Nicki? With more to BAST and the wargame than he knows, can Bond dodge sabotage and assassination as the clock counts down?
It's a radical departure and admittedly takes a little getting used to, but it's a resounding success. The techno-thriller style (more like Frederick Forsyth than the oft cited Tom Clancy) really suits Gardner's knack with action and technical detail. The first few chapters alone are packed with exciting and immersive set pieces- you feel you could probably fly a sea harrier! Unlike other breaks from the format Bond remains at the forefront of the action, while intercutting the villains' machinations sets up the next threat without slowing things down. With SPECTRE dead and gone, the author anticipates the risk of BAST becoming a pale imitation: even Bond notes "it sounds like a poor man's SPECTRE." Although we don't get the meticulous background we got from Fleming (or Benson's Union Trilogy), there's a delightfully cynical reason for BAST's hollow heart.
The focus on prose rather than dialogue suits the writer and there are some lovely nods to the past. We return to Quarterdeck, M's country pile at Windsor that first appeared (also at Christmas) in Fleming's OHMSS and then (playing a greater role and described in more detail) in Amis' Colonel Sun. The latter adventure is never explicitly referred to in Gardner's novels, but Quarterdeck's description here tallies exactly with Amis' embellishments (Bathstone, silver birches, Spanish mahogany, Squirrel pub) proving that Gardner at least took the trouble to read it!
On the downside, Bond's pretty sour throughout: pining for his naval days for the first time, and spouting chunks of Dante and Gilbert & Sullivan. Enough to make anyone miserable really. There's a lack of glamour as the Bentley and ASP are left at home, replaced by a BMW and a new Browning. Bond's promotion to Captain is a mistake; Commander just sounds better on him (Benson switched him back). Only a little wine before our hero switches to fizzy water, and the naval locations were never going to be luxurious.
Still the structure is very effective: detailed training; bitter sweet interlude; high seas whodunnit. We get Gardner's most convincing love match for 007 yet: attractive and well characterised, she lets the stuffing out of Bond like Honey Ryder before her. The big boys toys and the French meal with a slender WREN officer are very Fleming- I wonder if he'd have been most amused by this of all Gardner's Bonds? Underrated and the biggest welcome surprise of my 2012 reread. [PS: a widely published omnibus contained Win, Lose or Die & Nobody Lives Forever
, stories linked only by the reunion of some of their characters in Gardner's final book COLD