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Book Review: 'Brokenclaw' by John Gardner

The James Bond continuation novels progressed into the 1990s under John Gardner; the ex-Navy and Royal Marine operative who was first approached by the late Ian Fleming's publishing house in 1981 to revive the series. Brokenclaw was the first story of the new decade - released in 1990 - and picks up from 1989's Win, Lose or Die, which I reviewed earlier on this site. My impression of that book was largely positive; a slick thriller though eccentric, as I have now come to expect from the author. It preceded Gardner's novelisation of Licence to Kill, which I have not yet reviewed (it is a standalone with no connection to the others).

With Bond temporarily reinstated to the Royal Navy with the rank of Captain in Win, Lose or Die, his title is interestingly retained into this, his next mission. While on leave in Canada, a suspicious stranger tailing Bond is suddenly murdered before his very eyes. This leads to him being recalled by 'M', who explains five scientists working on a top-secret submarine detection system have gone missing. Bond is assigned to investigate half-native American/half-Chinese villain Lee 'Brokenclaw' Fu-Chu; a top suspect with links to organised crime. Described as a towering, handsome man with a grotesquely deformed hand, Lee plays the classic Bond villain card of claiming to be a good-natured philanthropist and legitimate businessman, whilst deep down hiding a secret masterplan.

The title character is one of the main strengths of the novel and Gardner works hard with his villain characterisation, something that was really lacking in the last book. Brokenclaw Lee's background and appearance was an inspired choice which would have worked very well in a feature film. The idea of a hugely-powerful East-Asian megalomaniac was never fully realised on the Bond cinema screen, certainly not one who pulled all the strings. Brokenclaw is very much a puppet-master; so powerful in the drug underworld that victims are scared to testify and the 'CIA can't touch him'. Gardner builds up the character suitably well to make the reader loathe him.

Being a younger villain with physical scars, there are shades of No Time to Die villain Safin in Lee, though he is described as sophisticated to the extent that Bond admires him at first. Encountering the character by pure chance whilst on leave in Canada, there is also that always-enjoyable aspect of seeing 007 in his downtime. It's always fun when he watches the main baddie from a distance in public, whether it's at an auction, playing cards or even in this case, giving a speech at an art gallery. Brokenclaw the man is well-written in that all this posturing hides his true intentions and he is also a hypocrite, who alternately proclaims his Chinese or Native American roots as and when it suits him. He's the best villain yet from the Gardner era.

FUN FACT: John Gardner wrote novelisations of both 'Licence to Kill' and 'GoldenEye'. Also, during the barren six-year gap between the two films, Gardner published no less than five original Bond stories.

As for Bond himself, Gardner sticks fairly true to Fleming's roots and you can praise it for moving with the times. Having a housekeeper in the 1990s would seem slightly weird so that seems to be gone, cigarettes have been totally ditched and he even drinks a lot less. I feel this goes too far though, to the extent Bond has become too much of an everyman and I wasn't quite getting that old-school 007 flavour. There was no casino scene, no partaking in swish bars and restaurants, or even a quiet meeting with a contact using recognition codes. Bond is such a common man to the extent that he even orders a pizza at one point, then talks about playing Trivial Pursuit!

The dialogue also falls very flat for me in Bond's interactions with female characters. The earlier Gardner's could raise a smile with the odd witty one-liner; more cinema Bond as opposed to the largely humourless man that Ian Fleming created. Bond is just a bit too 'talkey' at times here and his interactions with CIA agent Chi-Chi Sue are particularly awkward. She's his main sidekick in the mission and though not one of the worst Bond girls from this series, she isn't particularly well-developed as a character.

The famous Gardner Cringe-o-Meter kicks in again many times in Brokenclaw, though it's not quite as campy as the mind-control ice cream seen in For Special Services or Bond saving Thatcher, Bush and Gorbachev in the last novel. Bond's US Navy ally Ed Rushia is an attempt at a new Felix Leiter type but his happy-go-lucky nature is massively jarring at times. The guy frequently barks out exclamations like 'golly!', 'jiminy!' and even "Doo Hickey!" - and his 'wide grin' is often mentioned - as though Gardner believes this is the way a standard American man behaves. It is so ridiculous and the character has no place in 007 literature, yet Rushia still becomes likeable towards the end in helping Bond with his mission.

Brokenclaw becomes more enjoyable towards the finale as the stakes increase and I loved the villain's lair, which was essentially a 'hidden house'; a massive plush mansion hidden away behind false walls that looks from the outside like a faceless concrete structure. It is 100% soundproofed of course and totally undetected by the authorities. It is slightly daft and camp, yet I enjoyed it.

It is good that Gardner for once moves away from his 'double agent/traitor' formula and just gives the story a tense final act. I particularly enjoyed Bond using a false identity as a courier working for Brokenclaw to gain his trust, where the reader waits in anticipation for when his cover gets blown. Following that, the villain uses a torture routine so shocking that I can't even mention it in writing and it is the slow building of danger that is one of Gardner's biggest strengths in all his books. The final battle sees Bond battle Brokenclaw in a dark, forest hideout amongst his Blackfoot tribe, surrounded by spiritual dances, human sacrifice and the like. Not unlike Live and Let Die, it's an idea that could have worked. I have no problem with Bond having the capability of shooting a bow and arrow if the need arose, but the whole scene feels more like something from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Overall, Brokenclaw is a very enjoyable read despite its clunky moments; a statement which basically sums up John Gardner's entire tenure thus far. The plot holds up quite well, with the villain's end goal revealed to be an attempt at manipulating the stock exchange to bring economic chaos. This was several years before GoldenEye hit the cinema screen so it was a neat idea. The only problem is the plot is not really mentioned in much detail and is totally forgotten about for the final four chapters.

There is something to be said for Eon Productions using ideas from non-Fleming Bond books on the big screen, something we have never really got before. Brokenclaw has several inspirational moments as well as a strong villain that could certainly be depicted one day.

ALSO ON KAPEESH: Win, Lose or Die review plus a 1980s Gardner retrospective (see links)

For more Bond, please follow the links at the top of the page to Kapeesh's 'Bond Daft' podcasts; available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud and others. See our most recent episodes for Kapeesh's all-time Bond Rankings. Also full reviews of every Eon-produced 007 film plus Never Say Never Again.

Gordon Webster is a published author based near Glasgow. More of his work can be found on Amazon, where he has five railway history books available; most recently Renewing Britain's Railways: Cumbria to Tyneside. Gordon has also appeared in the BBC Scotland TV series Inside Central Station.

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