In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. Critically, it was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis “writing down.” So on and so forth.
Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding Martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name—Robert Markham—never came to fruition. While the Bond franchise flourished on screen, it was dormant throughout the whole of the 1970s in print other than the occasional adaptation based on one of the movies. By 1980, however, with the movies still bringing in massive box office returns, Putnam Publishing—which had acquired the rights to the character from Glidrose Publications—figured it was time to hire someone new to put pen to paper (or probably finger to keys) and start authoring new James Bond novels.
The job fell to John Gardner—no, not that John Gardner; the other John Gardner. The one who didn’t write Grendel. Having grown up with an Anglican priest for a father, and during the war having proved himself not much of a military man (Gardner described himself as “the worst commando in the world”), young John Gardner was prepping for a life in the priesthood when he realized one day that he didn’t believe anything he was studying or preaching. His loss of faith ended any religious aspirations, and Gardner became a drama critic and depressed alcoholic.
By 1964 however, his drinking was under control, and he published his first novel, Spin the Bottle. That same year, he also wrote The Liquidator, his first adventure novel. It tells the story of Boysie Oakes, an icy, calculating, tough-as-nails bruiser who is recruited into the British Secret Service—where Oakes is terrified they will discover he is, in fact, a queasy, weak-kneed coward. The book was written as a response—a negative one, mind you—to the popularity of James Bond. Gardner was not alone in his desire to skewer Bond. A host of authors, including John le Carré, started writing books that were consciously “anti” Bond. le Carré went grim and bleak. Gardner went with humor. He built a fair career for himself as a novelist who didn’t mind dabbling in the world of espionage thrillers.
When it came time to chose an author to continue Ian Fleming’s legacy, the publisher found it difficult to fill the job. Most authors of note did not want to step into the shadow of Ian Fleming and James Bond, feeling that it was either too much cultural baggage to lift or that they were above such material. Eventually, the job was offered to Gardner, who after careful consideration, perhaps figured that this was a way to rectify some of the things he had always thought to be wrong with Bond.
Assuming the mantle of “author of the James Bond novels” was a loaded situation. Fans of Fleming would dissect the pages to see how “Fleming” they were, tolerating no deviation from how they thought Fleming might have written the book. Fans of Gardner would inevitably want to see the author’s style in the story, a new take and new direction for Bond, rather than a man trying to mimic Fleming. And a lot of other people, those who knew James Bond as Sean Connery or Roger Moore, would demand that the new books be like the movies, while others would inevitably complain they were too much like the movies. All of this you could predict would happen before Gardner had even typed his first word.
Expectation and misconception (in retrospect, many of the criticisms that say Gardner’s books aren’t enough like Fleming’s betray a lack of memory regarding Fleming; they are, in fact, remembering traits from the film and projecting them onto Fleming’s books) were only a portion of what Gardner had to deal with. The publisher was understandably protective of Bond and had a number of demands and restrictions. Gardner had to submit outlines for approval. There was a long list of things Bond, M, and the rest of the recurring characters must and must not do (M never curses, for example). And there was, overall, a specific formula and tone to which Gardner had to stick. It was a lot for a creative person to agree to. But agree he did, and in 1981 License Renewed, the first original Bond novel since Colonel Sun, hit the shelves.
License Renewed sets the stage for the entirety of Gardner’s run. They are contemporary stories, rather than being set in the ’50s and ’60s as were Fleming’s (contemporary themselves, for the time they were written). Some minor lip service is paid to Bond being older (he is greying at the temples), but the flow of time has been tweaked, so he’s not that much older (more Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, less Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again). Basically, it is as if the dozen or so years since Colonel Sun happened, but they only took a few years. In that time, a lot has changed for Bond, intelligence services, and the world in general. The 00 section has been disbanded, and Bond finds himself something only a step or two more active than a desk jockey. He’s also switched to low-tar, filtered cigarettes and has traded in his beloved Bentley for a more fuel-efficient Saab 900 Turbo.
The frustrating idleness in which we first reacquaint ourselves with Bond affords Gardner to do one of the things he really wanted to do with the character: show more of his life outside missions and MI6. While it may not sound fun to read several pages of Bond puttering around the house, it’s actually something I found interesting. Granted, it doesn’t last—even I don’t want a Bond book entirely about Bond doing household chores and wondering what’s on television. That’s more of a Harry Palmer thing.
When MI5 (In England, MI6 like the CIA takes care of international affairs, while MI5 is like the FBI and handles domestic incidents) starts to get suspicious about a temperamental, brilliant, disgraced nuclear scientist living in the remote wilds of Scotland, they ask MI6 if they might borrow a man for a bit of work. Partially agreeing, M privately reactivates the 00 section under the name Special Services and assigns it a single agent: James Bond.
After getting a new gun and bedding the assistant armorer (the books never had a Q; they had Major Boothroyd. License Renewed splits the difference, giving us a female assistant to Boothroyd who is irritatingly—extremely irritatingly—referred to as Q’ute), Bond is off on a typically convoluted mission to ingratiate himself with the reclusive, likely mad, billionaire genius Dr. Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy, though his lordship is highly suspect (I guess Gardner read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). To figure out what it is Murik is planning, and why he seems to be consorting with known terrorist mastermind Franco, Bond sells himself as a mercenary looking for work. Despite being on the verge of a major terrorist plot that will shake the world, Murik doesn’t seem especially suspicious when a stranger shows up out of the blue at a horse race looking for work that would make him privy to all of the doctor’s secret machinations. Helping Bond out along the way is the forgettable Lavender Peacock as Murik’s niece, the first in a long line of terrible female characters written by John Gardner. And I mean terrible. Almost incomprehensibly terrible. If female representation is important to you (it is to me), you’ll find yourself thinking even Ian Fleming was better at writing women.
I went into this book pretty excited and prone to liking it. I knew that it and all of the Gardner Bond books received lukewarm receptions, but that didn’t matter to me. Unfortunately, “lukewarm” is a pretty apt description of License Renewed. I understand the restrictions under which Gardner had to labor, and I understand what he was trying to do, but License Renewed never comes together. It feels like a promising draft but not a final novel. It’s not the usual things that are cited that bug me. I don’t mind that John Gardner isn’t Ian Fleming. This is a different author writing the same character in a different era. It shouldn’t read like a Fleming imitation. In fact, the whole “he’s not like Ian Fleming!” criticism rings false. His style is close—mechanically, if not quite in spirit—and like I said, before his death, Fleming’s style was often as savaged by critics as was Gardner’s.
What does irk me, and this may be purely an “in retrospect” effect because I am reading this book in now instead of 1980, is the late ’70s cheeseball factor that creeps in. Gardner’s handling of “sexy banter” between Bond and the three main female characters—Q’ute (oh God, how I loathe that nickname), Lavender Peacock (itself a pretty dumb name), and Murik’s mistress, Mary Jane Mashkin—is dreadful. I would say it’s only worthy of Roger Moore’s Bond at his worst, but that would be selling Moore short. Bond operates with all the cool of a middle-aged lounge lizard with new hair plugs working divorcees at the bar in one of Reno’s less popular casinos. The double entendres and sex talk are less James Bond, more Dean Martin as Matt Helm. I groaned aloud several times (which I’m sure Gardner’s Bond would have used as occasion for another lame double entendre), but never so often as I did during the ridiculous “assembling the gun” scene between Bond and Q’u…oh, let’s just call her Ann.
The primarily plot, in which Murik wants to hold the world blackmail by sending terrorists out to take over nuclear power plants, is a bit on the far-fetched side, but not unbelievably so. Within the world of James Bond, it’s perfectly passable as a mad scheme. Murik is a decent villain with the usual Bond villain shortcomings, and his henchman is…well, he’s just muscle. Like Red Grant without any of the interesting back story or character motivation. The secondary plot, about Murik’s fake lordship and the true heir to the Lairdship of Murcaldy, is inconsequential for most of the book.
Bond himself is about the same character as when last we saw him, except for the sub-Roger Moore sex quips. Complaints that this Bond is a little more wishy-washy, a little more unsure of himself, are again remembering Sean Connery more than the books, where Bond was frequently conflicted and, frankly, a bit over-emotional and even panicked from time to time. Lavender Peacock exists primarily so Bond has someone to bed, someone to assist him, and someone who can constantly say, “Oh James, you will protect me, won’t you?”
Gardner can’t write women, but he does write action well. Bond’s initial stalking of Murik’s remote castle, a car chase in the dead of night, and the finale on board a cargo plane are all fun. Once again, we have a villain who for no believable reason keeps Bond alive and brings him along to where he can muck things up, but I reckon that’s just one of the things you have to roll with, like Bond always getting captured.
Overall the book is as about as good as Casino Royale and about as flawed, though in different ways. For the most part, I enjoyed it just enough not to mind the flaws. License Renewed is not the sort of book I would go to war for. If you were bored by it or actively hated it, I would understand, but I thought it was perfectly acceptable. If you, like me, are interested to see where Bond would go after Fleming (and Amis) now that it was the 1980s, then License Renewed isn’t going to let you down, but it’s not really going to excite you either.