Book Review: 'Win, Lose or Die' by John Gardner
Win, Lose or Die represents the halfway point in John Gardner's James Bond continuation novels, published in 1989. The title doesn't half remind me of that given to the long, long, long-awaited final outing of Daniel Craig's James Bond on the big screen and for now, this retro review can at least keep up Kapeesh's following of the 007 franchise until that release day finally comes. Gardner was an ex-Royal Marine commando who picked up the mantle of writing the Bond stories from Ian Fleming during the 1980s and I very much recommend his books to fans. (see my earlier Gardner retrospective feature on this site)
Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan all gave us brief glimpses of the character's roots in the Royal Navy. In virtually all of the big screen adventures, it referenced his official title as Commander Bond but apart from this, '007 out at sea' is an avenue that has never truly been explored. It's a part of Bond's backstory which has always fascinated me. Therefore I was pleased to see Win, Lose or Die brings him back to the Royal Navy temporarily on a special assignment, after MI6 receives intelligence that a mole could be about to sabotage a top-secret meeting of world leaders onboard aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. The previous couple of Gardner novels were improvements which had brought the character back down to earth somewhat. So with Bond back in the Navy for this one, I'm onboard so far.
The first half of Win, Lose or Die largely follows Bond's re-training for his new assignment and the attempts made on his life by the secret organisation BAST. At least Gardner has finally ditched SPECTRE and concentrated on a smaller, more realistic terrorist cell. Unusually for a Gardner novel - or any 007 story for that matter - we hear the main villain's plan largely unfold early on, about how they attempt to sabotage Invincible as the state leaders of Britain, Russia and the USA are onboard engaging in private negotiations. This was the style of From Russia with Love (book and film), where early doors we learned of SPECTRE's plot and the trap waiting ahead for Bond, before Bond new about it.
Like FRWL, the results are impressive. Gardner creates a great sense of danger and anticipation. He uses the same formula within a single scene, where a navy engineer-turned-enemy attaches a device to one of Invincible's turbines. The author explains in advance how it will cause engine failure and then the tension is slowly built until the crew - caught off guard - suddenly notice it light up their control panel. Similar to the scene in Thunderball where Angelo sabotages the RAF jet. I loved this part of the book. Also very Thunderball was earlier on when a different character - an RAF man - is in a London taxi. A BAST agent, posing as a civilian, pulls a gun on him and after being knocked out with a hypodermic, they have another man assume his identity. This is pure spy world and right out of the early Bonds.
The main villain, Bassam Baradj, is serviceable. In one of his first scenes, he assumes the identity of an American naval officer and has a briefing with Bond, who isn't aware. This was an interesting move, not unlike Ari Kristratos at the start of For Your Eyes Only but I also got a sense of Auric Goldfinger, when he briefly disguises as a general in Fort Knox. The female characters are pretty good. Our main Bond girl Beatrice da Ricci is fine but I didn't really buy into the love story. Certainly not this 'Bond has found his true love again' which I think the author was trying to convey. It didn't help how she was presumed dead for a large chunk of the story and then rocks up again near the end. It felt a bit more Kissy Suzuki than Vesper Lynd.
Win, Lose or Die gets top marks for setting and locales. The author's use of real subjects is also admirable. Arguably something which could have been done more in the films, but presumably there were budgetary or legal reasons behind this. Using HMS Invincible is nice and Gardner just about gets away with using the real Thatcher, George H.W Bush and Gorbachev in a brief scene; at first. Unfortunately, he makes a massive error when he takes this too far and actually has Bond interacting with the three of them. In danger of throwing the 007 character to the wolves once and for all, he quickly reels the story back in but later goes full-on Hollywood action movie when the three are kidnapped. Bond finds his way to a secret room on the ship, where the state leaders are being held captive on beds and it was at this point I realised Gardner was off to another dimension. This is a common trait of his books; to start things off real and gritty with plot, only to go off on unnecessary tangents.
Another very predictable Gardner move is when all else fails, just have plot twist after plot twist to move the story along. This has become all too formulaic since his first novel Licence Renewed and is the same sort of lazy writing we see in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. At times you can see the character betrayals coming a mile off.
One final point I want to make is more of a positive. I feel something has to be said about the way Gardner slows down the action Matrix-style during fight scenes in all of his books. Ian Fleming did this to an extent but with Gardner it is times ten! An example from Win, Lose or Die:
"The kick lifted the tray at almost the correct point, bringing the steaming mug of coffee up in a scalding spray, straight over Speaker's face. The interrogator's reaction was one of the most natural things Bond had ever seen. First, he dropped both tray and gun; second his hands flew up to his face; third, and concurrent with the first two, Speaker screamed - loudly and painfully."
I don't know what is, but there's something about it I like!
Win, Lose or Die was probably John Gardner's best story until he decided on the 'kidnap the Prime Minister' plot. Such a disappointment, as he was on top form until this point. In an ideal world, I would have read all the books in full order and much closer together to really judge them properly. My view of this one is also a little tainted simply because it happens to be the eight novel, and eight stories in, the 'guess the traitor' formula is becoming very tiresome. Despite this, it is gripping, entertaining and brings a claustrophobic ship interior setting to life very effectively.
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.
More of author Gordon Webster's work can be found on Amazon, where he has several published railway history books available; most recently Renewing Britain's Railways: Scotland.