You know that peculiar feeling that occasionally strikes?
Not the one you have about your sister, but the gutgnaw from neglecting something, be it the garden, a loved one or having driven away from wugger practice with one sproglet fewer than on arrival? Could be loss, could be guilt (those might be the same), and it’s the feeling I’m getting from Death is Forever.
Twelve novels in, with Licence to Kill as characteristic of his 007s as any, John Gardner reaches as many Bond novels as Ian Fleming coughed out. That could stake a claim in a character, if not the character. SInce his books are (or feel) wordier than the (initially) terse originals, even including Fleming’s short stories and the cigarette-packet doodles allegedly justifying the Horowitz outflow, by the time of Death is Forever it’s a credible guesstimate that Mr Gardner had written at least as much, if not the most, “James Bond”. Doubtless some measle will assert that this is not the case by a few hundred words or so; jolly good, take a toffee and let your mother know your achievement. You remember your mother; you were once extracted from her. Let’s hope it was just once, otherwise… eww.
If one accepts that girth is majesty (if you do, room 22, 9 p.m.; bring two friends and 100g of baton carrots), then to read Fleming is to be baffled at how much he deviates from the now-dominant. His “Bond”, who frankly should go by the name Peregrine Carruthers or some such, just doesn’t dress himself, speak, make lurve, interest himself in… wiring, drink or think in the ways in which those attributes are more commonly depicted. Oi, Fleming - stop getting Bond wrong. Also, stop giving your women boys’ bottoms; bit odd, y’know.
In contemplating this proposition, it raises the thought that James Bond can be sorely misunderstood, and (even if this twaddle about Gardner’s version having priority is idle teasing, albeit desperate to find a further angle for this piffle) how misunderstandings can become norms. I’d argue, for example, that the iconography of the Aston DB5 totally (for money, wilfully) misreads the intent. In the source novel, Bond takes a DB3 as a cover, pretending to be the sort of spivvish blister he thinks interests someone like Goldfinger. Considering the quality of Bond’s thinking during Goldfinger (flagrantly bigoted) and the abuse meted out by Fleming / Bond to someone like Goldfinger’s physical attributes, habits, values, pretensions, surroundings and associates (and, barely disguised, religion), Bond’s impersonation is not that of a man that we non-Goldfinger people should admire. The Aston Martin is, therefore, the transport of someone ghastly. Doesn’t play that way in the many (…many) times it’s been used since, does it? Likewise, the secondary lesson of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the primary one being Don’t Marry An Underwritten Nutter), that status symbols only symbolise status and don’t ectually instil it, is lost when dressing film Bond with the latest gaudy watch bauble and pretending it invests class, breeding or wisdom.
The basic argument, that might is right, renders Sir Roger Moore the definitive Bond (eminently arguable; I like this game), The Dench a better M than Robert Brown (…perrrr-haps, although she lacks the eyebrows) and The Actor Pierce Brosnan’s whatever-he-was-doing a better portrayal than that of Mr Dalt-Ton (…hypothesis collapses like the Brosnan tick’s lower jaw when he “performs” pain / ejaculation / mastication / all three at once). Insofar as the continuations now tiptoe over the line marked “even Fleming couldn’t string it out further, despite it being an embellished self”, it may be time to abandon any position other than what is brung unto us is John Gardner’s incredible creation, James Bond; his adventures, his universe, his moccasins, his cryptos and his sandwiches. Death is Forever just happens to be a glorious exponent of it, timed perfectly, perhaps accidentally, to reinforce the point.
Perhaps it is happenstance, perhaps it is coincidence (could be enemy action: Mr Gardner seemed grumpier book-by-book) but Novel 12, the point of equal, not sequel, offers little that is new but stands more confidently than I recalled it as an accumulation, an affirmation even, of all that is Gardner and, if due to volume of output he achieves priority, all that is James Bond. Even in the brief flick-by this exercise requires, I can’t avoid the conclusion that for too long I have left this one behind in the changing room, abandoned and crying for its mum.
I’m not entirely sure why.
On reflection, because it lollops along gamely, tongue a-flop, between two of the more notorious Gardners, the entertainment-bereft and frustratingly tedious The Man from Barbarossa and the credibility-destitute and intellectually unfortunate Never Send Flowers, they, for all their plentiful ills, draw the attention / fire of the completist when contemplating Gardner’s later Bonds. This one is barely mentioned amongst the already barely-mentioned. However, condemning it by the (condemnable) company it keeps says little about the book itself, where popular thought stretches only as far as the reflex criticism of “Hang on; this is No Deals, Mr Bond again; bit lazy, old bobble.”
It… it does have that aspect. The premise – running(-ish) around with A Team One Can’t Trust preventing a redundant Cold War spy cell being bumped off in grim ways – is, in essence, the same, yet a) No Deals, Mr Bond isn’t a terrible thing to reprise (God help us if it had been Icebreaker yet-a-bleedin’-gain) and b) what No Deals, Mr Bond did for the first five Gardners in adopting their lurching undulations of artistic choices and presenting them codified within Plot Variant X, Death is Forever serves the subsequent five Gardners the same. So rawly similar is the core tale that I want to believe it was deliberate, and you’ll have noted I am as capable of boss-eyed fundamentalist blinker-thinking and fat-headed dogma as anyone else with catastrophic zealotry of heart and access to one of these electric typewriting contraptions. Were I to possess such a thing, my YouTube channel would show me beating the abductees in my cellar with a copy of Carte Blanche. You’ll notice I have only denied my access to YouTube, not to possession of “cellar”, “abductees” or “Carte Blanche”.
The recirculation and recycling is, after all, very “Bond”, and there’s a parallel here with the films You Only Live Twice and The Spy who Loved Me: same underlying plot, the latter serving it up in a manner recording the developments / degradations possessed of the output occurring in between the two. Similarly, just as the film series bungs out a Greatest Hits every now and then, here the same. That this book is more gimmicky, more dependent on “Real World Peepel and Events”, more (ostensibly) humourless and even more violent in its articulation of the same story as No Deals, Mr Bond reinforces how much more gimmicky / dependent / humourless and violent the Scorpius to The Man from Barbarossa run had been compared to the first five. If pressed for time / tolerance, one could just read these two Gardners as a microcosm of the lives lived by his Bond (first five: Moore; next five: Dalton… maybe) and glean a sufficient picture of the whole output from these alone to be able to contribute knowledgeably to the generally non-existent discussion of Mr Gardner’s Bond novels.
Whether this was Death is Forever’s intention, this is its lasting impression and, as is the fate of all art, the pretension of the beholder determines final meaning. Cycle 1 is topped off by No Deals, Mr Bond, and the more extreme Cycle 2 has its precis with this remake that invites direct comparison (or, if not designed to invite it, lures comparison by how it presents itself. As defence counsel might argue – going out dressed like that, you were asking for it: what did you expect?). Slippery sloping, but one could posit that Gardner is now best left, here. The coagulated scrag-ends and exhausted, risible nonsense of Gardner Cycle 3 (where the wheels finally come off; few noticed) might be just as capably summarised by COLD, but that is such a mudslog of a book that accepting it as an exemplar of its immediate predecessors clangs alarm bells about what it is that it is ectually exemplifying.
Even if this theory of Greatest Hits Vol. II holds up, it still does not evaluate Death is Forever on its own terms. Impossible: the book, as with all continuations and every Fleming after – what? Dr No? – is presented as James Bond first and a novel second. Consider the reception afforded to The Spy who Loved Me, especially after the “non-more Bond” flim-flammery of Thunderball. Not what “we” want, although “we” might have misunderstood how experimental Fleming habitually was. Matters are confused with the likes of Mr Faulks, whose other books I have enjoyed (insofar as I enjoy anything), having a distinct “brand” of his own, but denying it with the exculpatory “writing as” to deflect accusation (more than accusation: fact) that Devil May Care is an awe-inspiringly dreadful Sebastian Faulks novel. One can see the logic in the appointment of Mr Benson, with prior expectations non-existent and not deflecting from the purpose – “More Bond! Basically It! Seventeen Pounds Please!” - than in the engagement of Messrs. Boyd and Deaver, whose Bonds are the worst things to which they have applied their skills (some stiff competition in the case of the latter). Perhaps (perhaps) the names bring more cash, but query whether the names are brought down. Might as well have stuck with the Robert Markham label. James Bond breaks his writers. Killed his creator: how could anyone else cope? Why bother? Just kick away the delusion of doing anything new and bang out a cruise control hoot like this one.
The Man from Barbarossa may have been an attempt to deny the truth and reverse the order of things; accordingly it is utterly wretched “James Bond” within the popular misconception of the sub-genre, but it might be a competent novel (…might be). Just as the films are impossible to review - or contemplate reviewing - without reference to their own kind, it is pointless to expect that a Bond book is going to be perceived – or sold, thus forcing the perception – as anything other than that. When the latest continuation is unleashed, the opinions sought are those of Bond fans, usually whoever’s running what’s left of the “International Fan Club” that week, not real people. The litmus test must be whether I would have picked this book up were it not Bond, and the answer’s no, but let’s not dwell on the negative but celebrate it embracing its fate and, after a snow-bound, charmless misadventure, everyone’s sixth favourite action hero, John Gardner’s Ken Spoon, finally comes in from the cold.