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Saturday, 26 February 2011

THE COMPLETE LITERARY 007 - Licence Renewed by John Gardner

I remember buying this book when the paperback first came out - I was sixteen and a huge Fleming fan, having only discovered the books a few years previously. The paperback edition looked really cool - a blue cover with bullet holes that, if I remembered correctly, revealed parts of the picture underneath and I think that picture was Bond standing by a  SAAB 900 - I can't find this edition in a Google image search.

I recall it was a sunny day and I started reading the book while waiting for a bus home and I think I finished it that evening. I loved it, thought it was a worthy Bond book. These days, though I'm a little more critical.

Firstly Gardner's Bond is not Fleming's Bond, but then I don't think he was intended to be. The Bond of this novel is the cinema Bond as played by Roger Moore - the then current Bond actor. But I suspect that Gardner received strict instructions from Glidrose (the copyright holders) on how the book should be written, and the result is something that seems like a mish mash of the various films, rather than a stab at recreating Fleming. The publishers and copyright holders must have assumed that the readership would be so familiar with the movies, that they wouldn't want Fleming's gritty Bond, and so they opted to give them a carbon copy of the character they were seeing on the big screen.

For one thing Bond operates in a contemporary setting - the flashy but shallow 1980's - and what's more he thinks and acts like a man of that period. There are some nods to Fleming but Bond is no longer a man who relies on his courage and wits to escape danger, but a playboy who relies on his gadgets (double entendre, intended).

The original blurb went - Bond is back and he' better than ever. Bond is drinking noticeably less spirits these days; he's perhaps more diligent about exercise and has a special low tar tobacco blended for his cigarettes at Morelands of Grosvenor Street. But the 1980s have reached the department as well. Political restraints are squeezing in on the Service. The elite Double-O status, for example, conveying its authority to kill, is being abolished. But M takes little notice of these restrictions when it comes to Bond.

John Gardner has brilliantly portrayed the most famous spy in the world as he pits his nerve and cunning against a dangerously deranged opponent - one prepared to sacrifice most of the Western world to prove only he can make it safe from accidental nuclear holocaust. As the seconds tick away on the valued Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the world comes nearer this ironic annihilation and Bond comes nearer to a frightful death.

The biggest problem with the book is that it doesn't even try to take itself seriously and as a result the story seems flat and unbelievable. No matter how outlandish Fleming's books were, the reader felt a truth for the time spent between the covers, and you don't get that here. It as if this is Bond is his, "Fat Elvis" period.

That's not to say it's a bad book - if you think of it as a film tie-in then it reads very well and it is paced wonderfully, even if Bond often seems to jump from one location to the next without logical reason, which is again something that the films often do.

 "James Bond shifted down into third gear, drifted the Saab 900 Turbo into a tight left hand turn, clinging to the grass verge, then put on a fraction more power to bring the car out of the bend."

I think Licence Renewed was a very professionally written book and it's a good enough Bond fix, but anyone expecting Fleming will be disappointed . I do however think Gardner improved and at least two of his Bond books are classics.


Tom McNulty said...

I'd love to know which two of Gardner's Bond's you think are classics. I don't disagree at all, but I'm wondering if we chose the same books.

Brian Drake said...

I was just getting into the Bond books when I found this one (I was a few years late to the party--didn't read it until the late '80s) so I was able to read the then-available Gardner Bonds in quick succession. If I had to name a "classic" I think I would go for the second one, "For Special Services". I think that one clicked better than "License" (sorry, I used the American spelling) and I remember it being a real nail-biter. Perhaps "No Deals, Mr. Bond" is one of the better books, but with one of the worst titles, of the series as well.

One thing I noticed in the early Gardner stories was that with every book, until "Role of Honor" (sorry, American spelling again), he changed Bond's gun. I think he used a Browning, HK VP70, and an HK P7 until Gardner settled on the nine-millimeter ASP. I found the constant change annoying. The ASP is a great gun but I think Gardner should have stayed with the P7--another great gun. Anyway now I'm babbling...

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Tom and Brian - stick with it and you'll find out - though perhaps I should have said minor classics

Tom McNulty said...

My picks would be Role of Honor and For Special Services as well and I agree with Brian about the guns. Of course I'm old fashioned and a traditionalist and I prefer the Walther PPK. And don't you think Bond would get his hands on that old Beretta now and again if he could? Never liked Death is Forever. I thought that was Gardner's weakest. Minor classic is correct as Fleming's books are true masterpieces of suspense fiction. Great talking with you guys!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

What did you guys make of Colonel Sun, reviewed here -

Brian Drake said...

I read all of Gardner's books but noticed a serious drop-off in quality, I think, once Scorpius came out. Gardner went to the "Bond falls in love and then the girl gets killed" well too many times for me, starting with that book.

Anyway, per your questions, Gary, regarding Colonel Sun. Your review makes me want to read the book again. Unfortunately my copy, which I bought in the late '80s, is long gone and I was only able to read it once. I will go find a copy and give it another whirl. I do remember in the introduction Amis said he wanted a Bond that didn't use many gadgets, as the films had begun their influence, and he wanted to stick to basics.

Tom McNulty said...

I must confess that I have never read Colonel Sun. I'll see if I can track down a copy on Alibris.