It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Bond story in want of an audience, must be possessed of a good title.
Since Eon Productions ceased concluding its product by naming “the next one”, in the period after a Bond film that finds one occupied contemplating what went wrong this time, the reflective silence is invariably fractured by Whassitgonnabecalled? Whassitgonnabecalled? Whassitgonnabecalled? Quantum of Solace? Uh? Big words can’t cope want rusk.
This is not exclusive to the titles: “next Bond / theme / villain / girl” are parallel space-filler / clickbait that circle the occasionally dormant series, rarely discouraged as it keeps an insatiable public engaged even when the only official outflow is reissuing DVDs. They have new menus! So does Starbucks: well, clamour Yaybo and dunk me in cream. It must reassure those flinging Bond at us that a “next” is indeed anticipated, the ensuing emission psychologically pre-sold before the first poorly written e-mail is leaked, or product placed, or spreadsheet spreadshat or tedious budget disagreement tediously disagreed. The twin dangers this sure-thingery leads to are complacency and the cramming in of commercials with nil regard to art. The willingness to embrace both dangers is so bravely flaunted.
Still, the titles. Be it nostalgic resonance, be it a bludgeoning by 007 and all those who sail in her through Western culture over many decades, the title of a Bond possesses a cachet, or at least acquires it by association, an allure that Transformers 5: Big Robots Do Hitting Again, cannot. Something to distinguish an entry in a series not generally noted (unfairly) for individual distinctiveness of its parts. Then there’s No Deals, Mr Bond; a title that seems not to care. Might as well call it “The Next One” or “Bond [integer]”, a number that would confirm or deny recognition of the Pearson fictionography, the Wood books, or the A View to a Kill Find-your-Fate series, and either way set a nanocorner of the internet all-a-crimson-fireball.
What is it about this title that so irks? As is often noted, the phrase is not used during the book (I think). Maybe it’s because it’ll make a rotten song? (Starting high) He likes a fresh Cream Cake / (Provocative Smith-esque falsetto) But can’t spot a treacherous fake / (Wobbly castrato) And he must avoid getting conned / (Distressingly Brosnan) So, No Deals, Mr Bond. It seems outwith norms. A Bond title might proclaim its villain; conformity would relabel this “Blackfriar”, or “Dullard”, or “General Pfft-Meh”. Other Bonds twist a conventional phrase, e.g. Live and Let Live, The Facts of Life, at a contrived push Rigor Mortis. Recalling some of his jaded interviews, but doubtless I’ve done so inaccurately, Mr Gardner pulled from his SECRET COMPARTMENT the likes of “Tomorrow Always Comes” although that was a typo from a fax intended to read “Tomorrow Always Domes” because, y’know, domes. Another (and I think it was for this book) is “Blondes Prefer Gentlemen”, amusingly within Bond idiom if a bit arch. It also spoils the “twist” with Heather Dare, just as I’ve done.
A recent trend is to inwardly-refer to “Bond lore”, Satan save us from the corrosion of smug continuity “to please the fans” – GoldenEye, The World is Not Enough, SPECTRE, The Sweet Tang of Rape (Bond film #25, nailed on and you know it) – so this could be “He Said Tracy!” or “Predator”, although that confuses it with the film of the same year, name and amount of violence. Then there are “The Man…” style titles – “The Man with the Sensible Windcheater”, “The Man with The Inability to Spot a Traitor Despite Daily Occurrence” or “The Man who Drives Sex Slaves Around Ireland Because That’s The Plot”, the predatory vibe lingering.
Alternatively, a Bond title might set a declamatory challenge – Shoot to Kill, Die Another Day, Never Dream of Dying, Never Send Flowers, Never Say Never Again, Never Approach Any Of These. “Dare to Die” might work, but there goes that twist again, naughty me. If shopping for Bluntly Neverland, one could call GardnerSix “Never a Dull Moment” but that’s asking for trouble. And a fib. Straddling - picture your Mum - all categories are the three-syllable names like Moonraker , Risico, Icebreaker, Brokenclaw or DoubleShot. “Basilisk”? “ChurnedItOut”?
Obviously there are examples outwith such parameters, but query whether the following could ectually apply to anything in multiple genres – The Property of a Lady, Solo, Carte Blanche, Devil May Care, Nobody Lives For Ever, Skyfall - and thereby “fail” as Bond titles, but probably work for telenovelas. Must be tricky devising something that on the one hand stretches a given, lest one be accused of cowering in one’s own clichés, but on the other, feels familiar – although that comment encapsulates the challenge of producing anything James Bond at all. Perhaps they should just stop.
Presumably the reason for this particular title is to increase sales. Huge words “James Bond” on the paperbacks too subtle for the target audience (whatever that is)? There’s another possibility, that in imposing the most generic title feasible outside of “Bondy McBondface” or “Yet More James Bond; That’ll Be £17.99, Please”, it’s a recognition that this is all the book is, undeserving of a more creative name on its cover, if so determined to be uncreative within. A nadge harsh, and I think I did enjoy this, although that could be because it was “The Next One” after my first meaningful encounter with Bond and I refused to contemplate disappointment, that the bubble would burst so quickly. Any fondness might be because it doesn’t do anything new, as comfy as slipping on a pair of rope-soled sandals and going on a driving holiday, staying at acceptable hotels. Marginally more positively, albeit criticism of a similar kidney, it encapsulates GardnerBond to date and is arguably a hindsight reflection on where Eon’s films also found themselves in the 1980s, 007’s decayed decade.
There’s a school of thought that the first five Gardners are the only ones worth reading and from hereon in, it’s a chore, even for completists. And the author. Without truanting myself from that school, it’s not wholly accurate as there are interesting moments to come (even if better promulgated in a series of Ken Spoon or Captain Boldman books, rather than mutilating “James Bond” and the legacy of He Who Cannot Be Named, but put the vocation in provocation). So far as this novel goes, it stands as Gardner’s Greatest Hits (Vol. 1), with its swift re-make Death is Forever (Forever being one word, apparently) Vol.2. The film series regularly reheats its scraps, last fifteen years that’s all that’s happened, so why not? If you’ve never read a Gardner (making your tolerating this piffle inexplicable, but you might be a cretin; why should I know/care?), then arguably start and end with No Cheese, Mr Bahnd to save time, money and sanity. It exhibits each high and low making “Previously, on Ken Spoon” a sound alternative title.
This isn’t to say it lacks invention: Ireland and Hong Kong as locations are new for written Bond, save for the brief stopover in Ireland in Diamonds are Forever and the latter surprisingly new this far down the line, and the book commences with a flashback which I think is a first (the Pearson book aside). Much still reads, on a surface level, as No Change, Mr Bond. The “one long chase” dynamic that served Nobody Lives For Ever well is used again (hooray!), here mashed into the “Bond is in an untrustworthy team, the other members each having nine differing but equally unmemorable identities – names! and names! and names! and snore” motif from Icebreaker (booray!). Hotels, hotels, hotels (all of the preceding five), coffee and sandwiches (same, probably) and traitors, whatever the collective noun is – a Spoon-ful of Traitors? Marginal twist this time in having someone we’re told is a villain turn out not, but we have had that before with Markus Bismaquer and everything of woman born in Icebreaker. This time, we are told so frequently and in such piledriven terms that character X is a baddie that it’s counterproductive to believing it. In isolation, a shock, but any re-reading the Gardners means one expects, and sees through, the routine. One espies now all-too-clearly the SECRET COMPARTMENT in the top hat beneath which the mangy rabbit fidgets.
A KGB with a new name (Icebreaker, at the very least). Lots of sitting and mud-trudging through clanging expositionary dialogue that undermines parallel pretence that something urgent is going on (Role of Honour, For Special Services), and a revenge-thing for a previous operational fiasco motivating the villain (Nobody Lives For Ever). A SAAB (…is back. Yaybo 2: Electric Boogaloo). A bit of series injokery (Kingsley Amis is mentioned). Spoon uses both a magical belt containing just the right things for the occasion, and a CC500 telephone… thing (at least two previous ones). Greater emphasis on the least interesting aspect of Bond’s background, his military training (most of them). Mass abbreviations blocking the prose (definitely all) and equipment fetishising getting in the way (ditto). Overdescribed action sequences that have a desensitising effect on the reader, inculcating a feeling that an awful lot is occurring and yet nothing’s ectually happened at all (most, if not all). In-fighting in the Security Services (pervasive). Kicking about London and the British Isles for swathes of it (Licence Renewed, Role of Honour and it’ll happen again with Scorpius) with a sudden last act change of location that could be anywhere (Nobody Lives For Ever). Car chases around rural roads (Licence Renewed, Role of Honour). Occasional referencing to Fleming BUT NOT THE FILMS BECAUSE JOHN NEVER SAW THEM (all five predecessors). More SECRET COMPARTMENTS than sense (viral).
There are other tell-tales in the tale-telling. All Gardner life is here. Amongst this heady brew, three characteristics peek through.
First, M is blatantly wanting Bond killed, abandoning him without back-up. The nature of the mission might justify it, and Ireland as a location probably does, but if M’s approach is intended to heighten drama, it cannot: it’s no surprise. For five books, M’s been horrendous to Bond. Not completely out of step with the M of the final Flemings, but there a fragment of humanity and concern still glimmered. It’s now express hostility. Licence Renewed – the 00-Section is obsolete and M snivellingly blames others. For Special Services – M loans 007 out to die on someone else’s watch. Icebreaker – M overtly tries to get Bond murdered via the medium of deprivation of information. Role of Honour – Bond is fired but it’s just “pretend”. Or is it? M isn’t pleased to see him at any point. An all-time low in the power dynamic until… Nobody Lives For Ever – … where M can’t be bothered telling 007 that everyone else on Earth now wants him dead, too. Less an impatient martinet, this M is conniving, duplicitous and casually cruel. Setting their first encounter in this book at Blades is presumably to convince this is the same Bond and M as those in the Hugo Drax affair – directly referenced – but these men are not what they were, prissily exchanging literary references (?) and ignoring the collapse of the authority relationship. The quantum of solace is at zero. M doesn’t have to like Bond, but to consistently put 007 in harm’s way for the Hell of it can’t be a competent exercise of his power. Any tension derived from Bond being cut adrift collapses, because it is Gardnormal. I think that rabbit might be dead, y’know. Give it a poke, Not that sort of poke: what kind of monster are you? Urr.
Secondly, Gardner’s women. Here, two (again) and both erstwhile prostitutes but secret agents too (lurching between appalling sexism and clunky positive discrimination with that combination), and the one Bond ends up with seems “young”. 007 demonstrates stolid, pompous avuncularity throughout, and unlike that Penbrunner disguise, he’s not pretending to be anyone except James Bond. One woman is a traitor. Both are daft. All Gardner requisites are present but strip away the tropes and – is there anything there? I’m not suggesting misogyny: misogyny would be something to remember them by, as one remembers Vivienne Michel or Vesper Lynd or the damnable Tracy, all sniggeringly delivered from an Edwardian Eton mindset as bleak criticisms of The Little Ladies and Their Silly Ways. Albeit for the wrong reasons, the gimmicky, discomfiting Cedar Leiter is the most memorable Gardner woman so far. The remainder are characteristics, but not characters. Of passing interest is that one of the government sex slaves was male, and one wonders what the dynamic would have been if it had been Bond rescuing him; after all, on occasion, that’s all Bond has been. An opportunity to hold up a mirror seems neglected.
Thirdly, the violence. The early Gardners had moments – Blofeld’s snakes are nasty (if cartoon) and Icebreaker inflicts a humiliating death upon logic – and Bonds come labelled with the (lazy) reputation of sadism. However, taking 1985 off seemed to inspire Mr Gardner to enrich ensuing work with horror. Nobody Lives For Ever was grotesque with its meathook, vampire bat and (especially) the guillotine, and this escalates with tongue trauma and other invasive ghastliness. Even these terrors are flimsy compared to the upsetting Scorpius. Was Fleming really this violent? The same question as Was the Bond series? The same question as Does it need to be? Sadistic, yeah yeah, OK, The Garden of Death – but that’s nightmarish suggestive threat rather than outright aggression – and perverse bullying glee derived from baroque descriptions of bodily misfortunes of women and The Foreign, but active, blunt savagery is harder to recall as prevalent in the Fleming books. The carpet beater, the stomping in Diamonds are Forever maybe… but isolated incidents rather than a pervasive nastiness? Happy to be considered wrong on this and I accept that The Spy who Loved Me is one long sleaze, but what occurs here is GRU-some. It calms down (a bit) after 1990, but I recall much horror in Never Send Flowers. Polish that gag off; a freebie. An argument runs that seeds were sown in Fleming and, had he lived, his writing would have become more violent, similar to the excuse Mr Benson ran to justify his panache-vacuum sexplicitness. Because I own a silver butter knife, I will soon buy a Sykes-Fairburn commando faceslitter. Yeah, that works.
The violence brings one to Eon Productions; particularly, to Licence to Kill. Could-be-anyone women, one suffering both an alliterative name and the character of a discarded mitten, and the other (obviously) an agent. An authority figure turns traitor. M tries to have Bond shot. At least one exploding head. Abandonment, with subsequent lukewarm return to the fold. Crimson fireball a-go-go. Indistinct multiple minions. A “real world” concern. Shuffling about flat locations. Gadgets hidden around the waist. A Special Gun to enthral Special People. Q Branch prominent. Misbegotten continuity. A secret service that doesn’t think highly of Bond. Show-offy literary references (…hang on, this is Skyfall. And SPECTRE). Dull cars. An atmosphere of blousons and sports slacks. An unlikeable hotel-dwelling hero given to paternalistic expostulating. Sitting down and “taking” coffee. Licence to Kill might be perceived as an out-of-step misfire, but it meets Gardner bang on; this myth that “they” never adapted his books – “they” did, in spirit, and had him write the novelisation to ram the point home. Some say it’s close to Fleming: poppycock - it’s much closer to Gardner. It’s not a good film. The incongruous brutality of Licence to Kill is a recognition (“celebration”?… nah) of the tone of the literary Bond during the late 1980s. It slots in seamlessly within Mr Gardner’s Horror Period, 1986-1989. Had the film never existed (a boy can dream) but its book happened as a product of Mr Gardner’s independent devising, it wouldn’t be one word off-message of his stuff of the time. Licence to Kill was not as financially successful a Bond as practically all the others. Real people weren’t interested. Draw your own conclusions. Use blood.
Yet, despite the violence, the most distressing passage of No Deals, Mr Bond comes early: James Bond reads the Daily Mail. For those beyond the projectile reach of its acrid spew, the banality of evil made flesh (…print), imagine a publication that takes the goading worldviews of Goldfinger, comments lobbed in by a terminally bored dilettante trying to maintain his own interest, a louche Victor Ludorum (doppio) whose life was too easy and fearful of being seen to try (the ghastly toil of the Bs and Cs) and possessed of a childish, competitive desire to rile, belching opinions as fictional as “Bond Fights a Big Squid” – yet proceeds to treat them as real. Not only that such nonsense represented a golden age of Proper Thinking but that for reasons never abundantly clear, it still should apply. For those considering they can derive the same heady rush from these 007th Chapter pieces, welcome to the trap that it is impossible to criticise the Daily Mail without coming across like the Daily Mail. Science Fact.
Admittedly, we are told that 007 subjects himself to it for intelligence purposes and he also takes “all the major provincial [newspapers]” (James Bond reading the Wolverhampton and Dudley Express & Star or the Bournemouth Echo sings joyful one’s heart), but “intelligence” and “Daily Mail” are not convincingly cojoined, unless one craves lifestyle pieces insidiously suppressing women into believing they are wretched, health faddism, why liberal thinking causes cancer, why cancer causes cancer, why Germans cause cancer, stultifyingly poorly-informed scepticism of the latest craze (Rosemary Clooney), confusion over whether alcohol is good for you, “the gays” (day 16,653 of insight: “Homosexuals can’t whistle” and Stephen Fry’s husband described as his “husband”), immigrants (they get everywhere, even into the Wordwheel), envy of youthfulness articulated through embittered, pinch-mouthed disapproval, Why Germany Cannot Be Trusted, and Women – Know Your Place! Diet, you frumps. You get the same from Thunderball, but there it’s a joke. Additionally, that the Daily Mail is Rothermere effluent makes the choice unlikely, a moment of comic deftness from Mr Gardner (if unsure, look up “Ann Fleming” – rumour has it, many men did precisely that). I’m just unsure whether this detail is further subterfuge on Gardner’s part against James Bond and all he stands for (have to say, going off 007 a bit, meself) – what a reactionary bore Bond is - or whether it’s pointed comment that such a ludicrous fictional (I feel a need to underline it) person as Fleming’s Bond would read this sinister, hate-fuelled pamphlet. A kinder description of its effect would be “unspoiled by progress” but I’m not feeling kind; I’ve just perused the Daily Mail and now hate everything that has happened after 1957. I also need to reschedule my annual bath.
Yet, does this Bond opine? Fleming’s stuff is replete, more sideswipe comment than plot on occasion, teasing his chums via the medium of a preposterous avatar’s deliberately archaic views. What, though, do we learn of the mind of Ken Spoon? Feels like a holding back, a reticence to let fly with flamboyant rubbish about The Stench of Koreans. Could it be that a reference such as making Bond a “reader” of the Daily Mail is shorthand that Bond still embraces racism, consumerism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and a fruitless hankering back to a time that never existed save via the delusion that “it’s better than now”, without an author obliged to articulate these directly, due to innate human decency. Are we invited to draw our own conclusions through little details such as this, so Mr Gardner doesn’t have to write them, and can proceed to tell us about the CC500 scrambler for the nth time? I don’t know what his politics were, nor is it my place to, but I’ll credit him with better than that epitomised by fleck-spat rant. Possibly reading too much into it, and arguably the subtlety would be lost on those blissfully unaware of the publication. However, a writer shying away from baity thought might satisfy, save, his conscience, but does it keep Bond interesting? Is this just an adventure story if it doesn’t have the aura of puckish, needling wind-up about it? What fills the void is peevish pomposity, although that’s not a million miles from the Daily Mail, either. Still, the impression is of a reluctance to have Bond mouth off in a hilariously archaic manner and, in so doing, something that appeals about the man as a ludicrous enterprise, is diluted. Simply referring to reading matter of the same nature is just Bond-by-proxy, a vicarious displeasure, and there’s possibly a metaphor in that for the whole continuation enterprise. The Fleming Bond was a man of his word, however reprehensible that was. Something’s changed.
No guts, no glory.
No Ideals, Mr Bond.
No wordcloud, Mr Stewart. Perhaps there’s more revolution here than there first appears…
The 007th Chapter – No Deals, Mr Bond: Accident
We’re not in a hotel, although we are milling about outside one; in this Gardner-by-numbers affair, one has to eke out novelty where one can. A lovely hotel, The Shelbourne: been there, done that, paid the bill (just) but we didn’t use the Genealogy Butler. Oddly, the website doesn’t give her name. Seems counter-intuitive, as does charging 39 Euros for brekky. The Shelbourne has a menu dedicated to oysters; aphrodisiacs, should you think slimy grey puke erotic. Fortunately Mrs Jim does, otherwise (redacted, for taste and legality; bestiality too). If keeping score, it’s the fourth hotel mentioned so far in the book, following The Mayfair – TripAdvisor says “I travel extensively and I've never had such a horrible hotel experience” – the International Airport Hotel in Dublin, where Bond checks in as Boldman and eats sandwiches, a chilling vision of the future, and, featuring more prominently as the story unravels – and unravel it does - the Ashford Castle, “luxurious and expensive, and the last place on earth (lower case e – hmm?) a hit team would think of looking.” Not hyperbole: credible, if said hit team is paying its own way. Ashford Castle has the nerve to charge 85 Euros for a 2012 South African Pinot Noir. The price of bleach has gone up dramatically.
Menu doesn’t look too bad – I’ll try the Marinated Wild Pigeon in Cocoa Liqueur & Bassicaceae (a chicken nugget smeared with Nutella, garnished with cress; yumtiddle) – so my compliments to the chef, but the sommelier’s an extortionist and needs “sorting”; never a hit team around when you need one, is there? That’s because it is in lukewarm pursuit of Bond and Heather Dare, whose behaviour in drawing attention to herself is Not Suspicious. Bond’s prior familiarity with these fine establishments doesn’t come from any innate style – that disappeared the moment he sat in a SAAB – but in cutting out 2 nights-for-1 coupons from the Daily Mail, as he does with the words he then painstakingly glues onto the anonymous letters he posts to those of whom he disapproves – single mothers, working women, homosexuals, those with a touch of the tarbrush, anyone born after 1970 and slatterns, generally.
Quick driving tour through the opening chapters gives us a preface announcing that Mr Gardner was a Royal Marine, so no surprise to have Chapter one’s naval rescue. Hello Sailor. Seems authoritative, and there’s a lot of detail. A lot. A Director’s Commentary pausing the action to tell us something mindnumbing about the special effects budget. By Chapter two it’s five years later and spring, when girls are “shedding their heavy winter clothes”: what, all of them? Cheeky. Housekeeper, towelling robe, a breakfast of preen and in due course taking ages to mix salad dressing whilst exchanging jibes about poetry: Ken Spoon living the gay bachelor lifestyle, then. “These days perverted murder was a fact of life, brought closer by the speed of modern communications.” Uh? Still, it’s the sort of paranoid Luddite rubbish one gleans from the Daily Mail. I suppose it’s a way of persuading the kids off Twitter, if the persons who still use Twitter are not persuasion enough. Standard spooky Gardner foresight: internet stalking. Standard contrived Gardner stone-in-the-shoe continuity: Blades and Brevett and Drax, and the weird jibe about Bond’s marriage. “Bond ignored his Chief’s lack of taste…” – why? – “…and began to attack his fish with the skill of a surgeon.” When Surgeons Attack! Typical NHS. Says the Daily Mail.
“He…appreciated that it was difficult to get a dressing made to your own liking.” That’s M. M. Contemplating salad dressing. Take a moment to think about that, in gob-agape wonder. The dizziness of the shock will help you whirl past Bond’s meticulously boring recipe for same. It’s a bizarre incident, presumably intended to echo the specificity with which James Bond (whoever he was) dealt with his grub. However, coupled with bickering about Betjeman, it’s atonal, a word within which one finds “anal”; that too. “Going anal, Mr Spoon?” A more engaging title than “No Deals, Mr Bond”, that. Let’s not leap to conclusions though (his hip’d shatter); we are also (repeatedly) told the girls he rescued were “young” although in due course he will sleep with both of them. He’s a sexual corkscrew of deviancy, this Ken Spoon. Daily Mail readers, eh?
Talking of reading things that trigger tears of blood, there were bits in chapter two that reel off the abbreviations of a gaggle of secret services that leave one exhausted and baffled. Even low-level assault like “It could be KGB, it might be HVA – even GRU” – TL; DR. IDK, IMHO, WTF? There’s also chatter about “age of consent” and “pulling them” and “blown” which render this sick filth so unsuitable for one’s children I will republish it here whilst denying all charges of snivelling hypocrisy. It is in the public interest that I tell you these things. Also in today’s edition: this 17 year old girl’s a bit plump, isn’t she? Look at all those pictures of her on the beach. Look at them. Now go out and immolate a paedo.
We’ve been introduced to the Service Registrar, a Ms MacShine-Jones (? Possibly one of Gardner’s pals? Keeps up a Fleming tradition, one reaching epically awful proportions with High Time to Kill a.k.a. When Bond Fans Attack). We’ve had an innuendo-crippled visit to Moneypenny and Q Branch, neither a Fleming tradition so must be a Gardner invention because JOHN NEVER WATCHED THE FILMS. A visit to the Uncanny Coincidence Branch, then. When driving through London Bond is “conscious of death only a stone’s throw from the pavements”, which is… dunno. I have been stoned in London, but that was a different thing. Did nearly die, though. It was jolly good.
Langan’s Brasserie gets namechecked (I think this happens in Scorpius too) and there’s statutory modern art. We have an indoors shootout, which Scorpius will also deliver – no open-air hi-jinks, no Scaramanga in the swamp nor underwater fights for Ken Spoon; your photocopier might get shot, though. Can see why there’s never been a direct adaptation of this stuff: it would require a huge amount of interior sets. Bond’s unerring capacity to note fashion labels rears its unnecessary head, possessed of the brand fixation of a rap artiste, albeit one obsessed with rope-soled shoes, Givenchy and Janet Reger: Snoop Horse and Hound, or Kanye West Sussex, but in any event Straight Outta Compton Acres Gardens and Tea Shop, Poole (Senior Citizen Discount available; no toga parties, dogs welcome).
There’s hours of subatomic tradecraft in changing aeroplanes which could be summed up with “They boarded a different flight” and we arrive in Dublin. I understand Mr Gardner lived in Ireland at the time so presume it’s well-intended and not stunningly crass that we’re presented with a character called “Big Mick”. Why not Leigh Precorn? Possibly a homage to Fleming’s perceived attitudes, albeit even he never got round to calling a Jamaican “Rastas Rubberlips”, any of his GERMANS “Adolf von Wurstbosch” or Felix Leiter “Gaylord Ramsbottom”. If it is deliberately meant as provocative, I’ve misjudged the man and instead of being hesitant about unleashing spicy attitudes, he’s evidently entirely prepared to go on the offensive. The very offensive.
The hesitation around the issue of “the North” that several characters express is a precarious edge and Mr Gardner wanders along it most deftly. Whilst the point veers (too?) political for Bond, it would be odd not to note the Troubles in some way – Bond kills for the British Government, after all – but it’s sound judgment that the plot does not rely upon this beyond palpable unease, that Bond is on dangerous territory so close to home. A reference to a past operation in Crossmaglen, “buried in the secret archives of Bond’s Service”, is sufficiently suggestive and best left at that.
Judgment of a less sound kind in rendering Heather Dare a skittish plot device whose behaviour is basically cliffhanger-convenient but not a sustainable character, and whose lack of sense is alarming, only rendering a “tiny” doubt in Bond’s mind when she gets “slightly drunk on less than half a bottle of Chablis”. All the rest of what the plot makes her do – especially the list of stupid aliases – completely normal, then? Suspicion is only in whether she can hold her booze? Still, Bond’s going by the brilliantly complex “Jacko B” which no-one would work out, obv. All that exposure to the Daily Mail has given him the intelligence of a draught excluder; by the end of chapter five, he becomes one. Chapter six is largely exposition delivered by someone ultimately a turncoat so on second read, one wonders whether any of it is true. It is also brimful of abbreviations, which make it feel longer, and names and names and names and names and names and STOP IT. Another visit to the Department of Uncanny Coincidence when the man about whom Bond has been thinking, and of whom the Irish Special Branch has lost all trace, appears on the steps of Dublin’s grandest hotel, looking around for somewhere cheaper for breakfast.
“Smolin knew Heather clothed and unclothed, and Bond reckoned that Smolin would know him on sight as well.” For the same reason? Hmm. That Smolin bears the name of a famous Russian echoes the Eon series’ fondness for names like Pushkin and Gogol – and, latterly, Madeleine Swann, God help us - but as JOHN NEVER WATCHED THE FILMS it’s evidently wholly original. We have been warned that this is not necessarily the Big Bad and when the real villain emerges, it’s a comedown. Ian Fleming took SMERSH, some men in suits, and breathed it alive through the medium of mad lezzers and Oirish werewolves. It now reverts to being a man in a suit, with over-described hair.
There’s some in-and-out in pulling away into traffic which, again, goes on so long it’s hard to say what happened other than… they pulled away into traffic. What is described is probably all true. Am I reading Bond for truth, though? Or for vampire bats, giant squids and demented industrialists? Guess. Loads of padding: driving round in the hope of finding a destination, the writer and the written as one, an information overload that comes at us remorselessly to hide the fact that nothing much has happened. Just to rub it in, Bond and Heather spend most of the chapter throwing about yet more names and – once again, at least the third time in as many chapters – Bond subjects himself, and us, to a reverie on the failings in the Cream Cake operation. We got it first time out – it was a messy old cake, with a soggy bottom (but he is quite old, it happens). However, we’re now roughly a third of the way through the fairly brief book and all this information is stand-alone within its covers so although things might liven up towards the end, so much of what’s currently happening is either repetitious or redundant or both (a category that is of itself repetitious and redundant). Pastiche, diet introspective le Carre sits ill alongside SECRET COMPARTMENTS, tongue removal and Q’ute. Insofar as there’s a character point here, Bond seems to disapprove of the grubby background to Cream Cake but, like that Daily Mail, is pruriently fascinated by its ins and outs. As t’were.
There are a number of references to “Swift”, the Cream Cake control, through the chapter, all this blown network Tinker Tailor Soldier Tongue, and I recall he does turn up later on but has few, if any, characteristics. That may indeed be desirable in The Real World of Spies, but the more this happens, the more James Bond, as an exercise in arch flamboyant nonsense, fades from view.
“It (the Irish countryside) was a land that was tranquil, if untidy – untidy like Cream Cake.” (A lurched simile, that). “Quickly, Bond went through it again in his mind”. A ) Not quickly. Not quickly at all. B ) The “again” is a dead giveaway. “ ‘I’ve told you!’ She almost shouted at him. ‘How many more times, James?’ “. As many as it takes John to fill 240 pages to meet a contractual obligation, “old love” (a curious expression for Bond to use, but use it he does). There’s an odd bit towards the end of the chapter where 007 has a premonition of the ensuing car crash, by which I mean the concluding incident and not the chapter itself. “Bond was in no mood for lorries”. I know how you feel, old love. Ectually, I don’t. “The scene of the crash was coming up with amazing speed.” Yes, we’ve been approaching it for at least three densely-worded paragraphs already. “When it came, there was almost a sense of anti-climax”. The book provides its own review: I might as well stop. We leave the “action” by encountering Maxim Smolin, a man of whom Bond later wonders “whether he was a cock, a weasel, or neither”. Assume the cheap gag occurs…[here].
On reflection, I was wrong. This is not Some More James Bond. I’m not sure what it is; an admixture of “proper spy tale” (whatever one of those is), savage body horror, Q branch nonsense and brutal timewasting. You’ll note I haven’t paid much attention to the 007th Chapter itself because… it’s so odd in “James Bond” terms, going over things we’ve already been told and trying to build a complex labyrinth on a slight tale – basically, a chase – a structure that can’t convincingly sustain the punt at complexity. Modern enthusiasm for “story arcs” over several tales (which worked so, so well in SPECTRE) might have allowed this idea of Bond mopping up the Cream Cake over a number of books more opportunity to breathe in the background, but crammed into the parameters of a total stand-alone, it’s fussy and jarring.
I’m open to the observation that I am eating my Cream Cake and yet having it, by initially criticising the book for not being distinctive enough but now concluding that an attempt at stretching the boundaries and expectations is ectually the reason to worry about it. After all, Fleming experimented, continually, and this is another experiment, trying to put Bond in a more “realistic” espionage environment, dealing with aftermath (“Aftermath” isn’t a bad title, come to think of it), mopping up a bad operation rather than actively pursuing success, something more “grown up”, in so doing missing the alluring fantasy adolescence of Fleming by a country mile. It might be that “James Bond” isn’t a sufficiently weighty concept to be able to cope with what is loaded onto it here – alternatively that it’s so preconceived that it can only sustain so much malleability, and the tipping point might finally have been reached - and that the intention is noble, to give Bond some heft, but the underlying infrastructure of one’s expectation of James Bond escapism isn’t strong enough to bear the ponderous navel-gazing, worthiness and weight.
What it could show is how delicate a thing “James Bond” is, to get it “right”, a giddy skip along the fringe of good taste and fantasy. A butterfly is being crushed on a wheel, a wheel that is described over the course of several pages, possessed of a phalanx of abbreviations and doubtless a brace of SECRET COMPARTMENTS. If you must witness a hybrid of James Bond, all prim breakfast and May and Moneypenny and that daffy cack, merged with blown networks, relentless dialogue, sitting about glumly and murky spy-underbellies, the tropes of a different sub-genre of “spy fiction”, one that’s equally silly in mistaking pomposity for quality, then by all means indulge but I fear it satisfies neither craving. If intended, a misfire; if, and I’m not abandoning this notion yet, satire on the part of the author, a glorious exposure of the respective weaknesses of both branches of “spy books”; each too ludicrous in their own way to survive in the other’s world. This is a bridge too far, the genres smacking into each other like Bond’s SAAB into the ambulance and resisting the wrenching together the author might be trying, be it either earnestly or as a pointed skit.
A meta-demonstration of how uncompromising the Bond model is, how difficult it is to tinker with, to retailor, to soldier on in this manner, how difficult to negotiate with the norms and still come across as 007. Its title’s possibly the most extreme example yet of John slyly squirreling in a criticism of his task. Not that he chose it, of course, and one understands he disfavoured it. Embrace it, Mr G. It speaks volumes. It’s title’s not bad.
Its title’s spot on.
Insofar as this 007th Chapter enterprise was an attempt to drill down into what makes a “Bond”, one might have now reached Patient Zero, the Anti-Bond, the “What It’s Not”. The breadth of spy fiction – there’s a lot of it out there, the majority of it utterly terrible – can cover both styles, but they are best kept at wary distance from each other. Can see now why it has to say “Mr Bond” in the title – you’d have your doubts you were reading Bond, otherwise. Shovelled into a pit like a greyhound past its prime, James Bond – both man and concept – is AWOL. MIA. DOA. ADHD. DBEYR.
Make it stop.
James Bond might return in the 007th Chapter of Scorpius, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. FWIW, Jacques Stewart will BBIAB. DILLIGAS? TTFN.