For Special Services

Bringing the iconically fifties/sixties Bond into the eighties fell to British author John Gardner, and his first Bond novel, License Renewed—the first original James Bond book since Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun over a decade before—did its best to maintain the events and timeline of the original Ian Fleming novels while being set in and making sacrifices to the 1980s. Bond is greying at the temples, he drives a more fuel-efficient Saab turbo, he smokes low tar cigarettes. Overall, License Renewed wasn’t a bad novel; it just wasn’t great, and part of the problem with it was probably that Gardner was under so much pressure to maintain all the details that would make License Renewed seem like one of Fleming books.

Gardner’s second James Bond novel, For Special Services, maintains all the ties to Ian Fleming’s original novels (including conjuring up several specters—har har—from Bond’s past), but it gets a little more breathing room since it isn’t saddled with re-introducing Bond and acclimatizing him to the 1980s. As a result, it’s a better, faster moving, and more developed book than License Renewed.

Things kick off with a great action sequence in which Bond and some undercover SAS men foil a hijacking. We learn that there have been a large number of such hijackings lately, and Bond uncovers that they are the work of his old nemesis, SPECTRE—and more disturbingly, Blofeld, even though Bond knows Blofeld is dead. According to the combined intelligence of both MI6 and the CIA, this new Blofeld might be operating in conjunction with, or perhaps even be, an eccentric Texas billionaire named Markus Bismaquer.

Bismaquer (and yes, I did spend the whole book imagining it was actually Biz Markie) lives the life of a recluse behind the electric fences and walls of a sprawling estate that can only be reached by monorail, and it looks like he’s been doing business with all sorts of unsavory characters. At the request of the CIA, and because he is the world’s foremost authority on busting up SPECTRE operations, Bond is disguised as an art dealer, shipped off to the United States (along with his specially tricked out Saab) to determine if SPECTRE truly is back, and if so, whether Bismaquer is the new Blofeld—and if not, who is?

To assist in the mission, Bond is paired with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old buddy Felix “My God James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” Leiter. Cedar represents one of the weakest aspects of Gardner’s writing, and one of the most irksome tendencies in all sorts of spy lit: the woman who is constantly described by everyone as tough, competent, and every bit as professional as a man, who then proceeds to spend the entire book giggling, freaking out, screwing up, crying, and pining for the male hero. Considerable words are spent on assuring us Cedar is a tip-top agent, and then every action, every line of dialog Gardner saddles her with, seems designed specifically to disprove these assertions. She’s not a thoroughly terrible character; she’s just very disappointing, a typical example of how male writers often fail to make good on their female characters.

Gardner’s propensity for clunky sex dialog is carried over from License Renewed, and once again we have two women (Cedar, and Bismaquer’s wife, Nena) who within ten seconds of meeting Bond are trading lounge lizard quality double entendres with him as they try to get him in bed. I know some will claim this is all part of James Bond, but it’s really not, at least not in the books. Plus, it’s not the sex and the seduction I mind; it’s how poorly written it is. Nena is one in what will turn out to be a long parade of the “villain’s kept woman” who are described as giving Bond “conspiratorial glances” the second he shows up with a suspicious cover story that no one should believe.

Much of For Special Services is a pastiche of plots and events from previous Bond novels. Bismaquer’s sealed-off, Disneyworld-esque private estate is like the silly cowboy fantasy land constructed by the gangsters in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond’s cover as an art dealer is similar to his cover as a genealogist in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The eventual SPECTRE plot is reminiscent Goldfinger‘s raid on Fort Knox (the movie more than the book). And Bismaquer himself is basically the same villain as Dr. Murik from License Renewed: an oddball billionaire who is back-slapping and gregarious one moment, then batshit insane and furious the next. And like Murik, once he uncovers Bond’s true identity, he makes sure to explain every part of his plan to 007 and take him along whenever he can.

As to whether or not Bismaquer is the new Blofeld? The identity of the new Blofeld is a screamingly obvious mystery that is drawn out through the entire length of the book, mostly via lazy cheats in writing. For example, early in, there is a meeting of the new SPECTRE in a Louisiana bayou mansion. Blofeld is presiding over the meeting, in full view of everyone present and without manipulating appearance or voice—this exposure should, logically, extend to the reader, but while Gardner describes almost everyone else who plays a role in the meeting, he intentionally leaves out describing Blofeld, because he needs that to be a mystery—even though the solution to the mystery is visible from practically the beginning of the novel. Why be coy? Why cheat the reader in the service of such a weak “revelation?” And why did the movie Spectre fill the need to follow Gardner’s lead???

If you thought License Renewed‘s plot was far-fetched, then For Special Services‘ absurd mix of ice cream, mind control gas, mesmerism, and impossible invasions of top-secret military installations will have your eyes rolling. It’s like the plot of a Bond spoof than of an actual Bond novel. However — all those criticisms thus entered into the record, I thought For Special Services was a fun read. It’s obvious that Bond is not Gardner’s character, and that maybe Gardner is a poor fit for Bond, but when the author gets away from the character and concentrates on the action, For Special Services has an opportunity to shine. The opening hijacking scene is thrilling, as is a tense car race between Bond and Bismaquer’s typically disfigured henchman. Attempted assassination by ants and a number of chases and shoot-outs also afford Gardner a chance to take a break from writing Bond the character and concentrate instead on adventure. I’ll even let the ice cream-based infiltration plan slide. But not Cedar Leiter. Oh lord, Cedar Leiter.

Because these moments are good, I suspect the embarrassing awkwardness of the character moments, of the banter between Bond and the women, and the derivative nature of the villain is because Gardner was forced into a formula and a character with which he could not identify. Fleming was no great wordsmith, but his novels had charisma and spirit, because this snobbish old British man truly believed in, reveled in, and wanted to celebrate James Bond. Gardner took the job of writing another man’s character and as that other man, and it’s obvious that it doesn’t work well for him. Perhaps sensing this, For Special Services relies much more on Bond in action than the previous book, and it’s a substantial improvement.

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