WARNING SPOILERIFIC LEVEL: Medium
A number of authors have continued the legacy of the James Bond book series following the death of Ian Fleming in 1964. The most prolific of these was Englishman John Gardner - an ex-Navy man and Royal Marine - who wrote fourteen original 007 adventures from 1981-1996, plus two film novelisations. With the completion of Kapeesh's Bond Daft film reviews (for the time being anyway) I decided to go back to these books as we discover even more of the 007 universe.
I have now read around half of Gardner's Bonds, just about now coming to the end of the 1980s era. I have decided to do something of a retrospective on the first seven here - plus the GoldenEye novelisation. The main reason is I haven't been able to keep a consistent rhythm going since I read my first in 2015, but I aim to, from now on, write individual reviews for each of the 1990s stories as I finish them. Plus because - as anyone familiar with our podcast can testify - at Kapeesh, we do what we want.
The one exception to my 2015 splurge was way back in probably the late-1990s as a kid when somebody bought me a copy of Gardner's GoldenEye novelisation. I enjoyed this immensely, having already seen the 1995 film itself starring Pierce Brosnan, but I subsequently lost the book and my memories are hazy. Like all Bond film novelisations, Gardner greatly expanded the detail behind the settings and plot, which is something I always love. Particularly good is hearing the backstory to the characters, for example when Gardner spoke about the relationship between 006 and 007, and how they became chums.
John Gardner Bond series Pt. 1 Licence Renewed (1981)
For Special Services (1982)
Role of Honour (1984)
Nobody Lives Forever (1986)
No Deals, Mr Bond (1987)
John Gardner's background in the Royal Navy and Marines made him the ideal man to take over the Bond novels in 1979, even though by that point Bond had long been a blockbuster film series , with the last full Fleming story The Man with the Golden Gun published back in 1965 (the short stories Octopussy & The Living Daylights came a year later). The only official 007 novel in-between was the one-off Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis in 1968, which I would highly recommend. Gardner was approached by the Fleming estate to officially re-start the series and he continues the timeline from the previous adventures, often referencing past missions and characters. In particular, he loves to mention "Bond's beloved late wife, Tracy" in so many of his stories, retaining the spirit of the original series. Bond is meant to be older and living in the '80s present day, but with the stories meant to be picking up straight after the last Fleming novel. Therefore the timeline is shifted to bypass the 1970s but I found that as a reader, if your brain can learn to ignore this, then the stories are easy enough to enjoy.
I found Gardner's debut Licence Renewed to be one of the most memorable so far. The settings were very good and very Bondian, with Bond initially meeting the main villain Anton Murik at Ascot racecourse; interestingly written before Roger Moore's visit there to observe Max Zorin in the movie A View to a Kill. I particularly enjoyed the fact Murik had a Scottish castle as his home and Bond visited as his 'special guest'. This was of course years before the MI6 Highland castle base seen in The World is Not Enough, but the setting was used far more seriously than in the 1967 comedy version of Casino Royale. It was a great locale to come up with for a villain's lair and a good portion of the book takes place here. The one real let-down is having a goofy, stereotypical Scottish hardman henchman called 'Caber'. It was a great example of how Gardner's serious style is often leaning into camp territory and it would be a safe bet to say that his writing was heavily influenced by the cinematic Bond.
The villain in Licence Renewed, Murik, was a well-written character. When I read fiction, a weird idiosyncrasy I have is to picture a real-life actor, celebrity or even a friend as a character, depending on the description given. Murik to me felt like an older Richard Harris and what I would have given to see him in a Bond film. Bond himself is more humorous than in Fleming's novels and I tend to picture Pierce Brosnan in Gardner's books for his overall blend of the elements. Licence Renewed is a fun read, so I am prepared to overlook some of the camp and even cringey elements which become more and more regular as his stories go on. Some of the names Gardner gave to his female characters are actually painful to take in at times. If only there had been the same level of thought which went into them as with the book titles, as some of these were great and could have worked well as movie names too; Icebreaker and Death is Forever being standouts. Another strange decision was giving Bond a Saab 900 Turbo to drive for much of the series. That's right, a Saab. This is the same suave agent who cruised around in a beautiful Aston Martin DB5 and a Lotus Esprit. The gadgets within it are cool though.
So these themes start to develop from For Special Services onwards. It is one of my least favourite Gardners so far, with a weak plot involving a villain who made his fortune with an ice cream business! Gardner revived the SPECTRE organisation for the first of many times, which feels all too easy to do. Equally lazy was having Felix Leiter's young daughter as a CIA agent following in the footsteps of her old man. Uninspired for sure but when sexual tension becomes evident between her and 007 it feels awkward as hell, given his longstanding friendship with Felix. Thankfully that is as far as it goes.
Icebreaker is a grittier thriller and it feels more like we are back in the real spy world. Bond is assigned to form an alliance with an agent each from CIA, Mossad and the KGB to root out the leader of a neo-Nazi army said to be responsible for a new wave of Fascism threatening the world. The main theme is it is never clear who Bond can trust, with double-cross after double-cross. Icebreaker is largely set in arctic Finland and Gardner really brings the setting to life. You actually feel cold reading it, probably helped as I read it during the winter.
Onto Role of Honour and, yawn, SPECTRE is back. I am completely onboard at the beginning. MI6 stage the fake resignation of James Bond from Her Majesty's Secret Service, meaning criminal organisations may be attracted to use him as a useful gun-for-hire, allowing 007 to become an insider. This is a great idea, except we are meant to believe that it is done so SPECTRE will try to get Bond - their biggest nemesis - onto their payroll. SPECTRE actually take Bond under their wing and incredibly he starts to gain their trust. But let's remember Ian Fleming also followed this silly formula, with Francisco Scaramanga and Auric Goldfinger also quite happy to entrust Bond as their employee.
Nobody Lives Forever reverts to the grounded espionage world seen in Icebreaker and these are the settings where Gardner excels. Bond is being 'head hunted' after SPECTRE hires freelance assassins to literally bring them his head on a platter. This gives the book a constant wave of tension, as you feel Bond is in great danger at every turn. And as if James hasn't got enough problems, there's a traitor at MI6 willing to give them a helping hand!
Thankfully, the silliness of the earliest books is less prevalent by this stage and No Deals, Mr Bond has a strong, believable plot. One of Bond's main contacts is an ordinary police inspector with the Republic of Ireland's special branch, who actually works well in the story. It is refreshing when we see Bond interacting with more regular people on home soil and really, after so many high-octane films, he doesn't always have to be a globetrotting man of action. Scorpius begins nicely with him coming off an SAS training course and doing more detective work, following leads around southern England after various terrorist attacks. The main villain - Vladimir Scorpius - has an air of mystery that is slowly built up and as the leader of an unusual cult, it fits in well to the Bond universe, much like to voodoo style of Live and Let Die. I liked the description of his island lair, surrounded by water moccasins (snakes). Exotic animals are an essential ingredient of the 007 world, created by Fleming.
This brings us on to Win, Lose or Die which I hope to report back on shortly. It is looking promising, with Bond rejoining the Royal Navy for a special assignment. Gardner's real-life experience of the navy and intelligence world really shines through at times, with plenty technical explanations and this is where he is at his best. Fleming sometimes over-indulges in detail to the point I find his writing tedious and this is what drew me to Gardner. He has a more streamlined style; being less likely to provide you with descriptions of the texture of the wallpaper, or the life story of the woodlouse on the floor of the casino. Having said that, I have only read the 1990s editions of Fleming's books which are in a very small font that isn't very reader-friendly and this doesn't help.
Though John Gardner keeps many of the tropes we enjoy about Bond from the Fleming novels, he has also freshened things up for the better. Most of the MI6 characters are mentioned regularly, though 'M' is the only one he spends much time with. 007 now uses more up-to-date firearms instead of the Walther PPK, mainly a Browning or ASP 9mm, which was a good decision for the time. The gadgetry is not out of control like in many of the films and from what I've seen so far, Gardner has kept it in the realms of reality. Bond utilises concealed weapons like an extremely small but sharply-bladed knife, almost undetectable and hidden away in the fabric of his suitcase. Similarly, Bond activates a hidden hydraulic compartment in his car dashboard, which drops a Luger pistol into in his lap in some ridiculous time, like a tenth of a second. These ingenious ideas would work well in the movies.
I feel there is a wealth of great content within the Bond continuation novels that Neal Purvis, Robert Wade et al could adapt into the films themselves. It is widely believed this was done for the torture scene in Spectre - almost exactly like the one in Kingsley Amis' Colonel Son - and I'd love to see more of it.
I have one final minor issue with the Gardner Bond's so far and I say this purely from the perspective of a long-time Bond fan. It is hard to explain and those seeking more of an everyday man in the starring role may disagree. There are quite often situations where Bond seems to get cut off or even corrected by other characters when he is talking mid-sentence. Typically when he is taken by surprise and he always seems to utter "Wha-?". An example would be if he suddenly realises an ally has betrayed him (this happens a lot). Picture in GoldenEye meeting Alec Trevelyan in the statue park, just like that. Now, to me for 007 to be constantly caught in a state of confusion, struggling to finish his sentences and shouting "Wha-?" all the time, gives an impression of a bumbling, hapless secret agent. James Bond is meant to be practically the most confident and self-assured guy around, no matter what the situation. Yes, he is not invincible and certainly not infallible. But he should NEVER seem hapless. I find it a very strange trope indeed.
At the end of the day, none of the continuation novels will ever quite have the same originality and stylish edge that Ian Fleming's did. But from the first half I've read so far, John Gardner's books are great thrillers which, more often than not, have that magic Bond formula. Be prepared to put up with plenty Americanisms along the way (Bond wearing 'slacks', 'pants' etc) and daft names for women. But if you're like me and want fresh new secret missions to hear about that we never saw on film, Gardner's novels are a great place to begin. I actually feel they are getting better as they go on.
To sum it up, reading these books is like loyalty to your favourite football team. They bring you great joy and equally they really, really frustrate you at times. But no matter what, you know you will always return.
For more on Mr James Bond, 007, 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.