Several of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels have plots in which James seems, for large portions of the book, to just be along for the ride. A large chunk of From Russia With Love is about the villains, and at least as much features Bond’s local ally, Kerim Bey, doing the work while 007 hangs out behind him and fondly contemplates the man’s warm, dry handshake. Icebreaker is John Gardner’s version of one of those “Bond on a holiday” books. Bond does almost nothing—which is probably for the best, because when Bond does do something, it’s usually an example of some of the worst espionage work the man has ever done. Pretty much every single person dupes Bond in this story, and sometimes on multiple occasions since Icebreaker doesn’t settle for mere double crosses when it could go for triple and quadruple crosses. A shocking number of Bond’s decisions, and nearly every conclusion he draws, are the wrong one. For Special Services felt like a Bond spoof because of the absurdity of the villain’s plot. Icebreaker feels like a spoof because Bond is so bad at his job.
At least when Fleming passed off a vacation as a Bond novel, he usually succeeded, delivering indulgent descriptions of exotic locations, customs, drinks, clothing—the usual—and energizing enthusiasm. Fleming made Bond sitting around learning about branch water exciting. Icebreaker is set in icy Finland (Gardner admitted he came up with much of Icebreaker‘s plot while on an all expenses paid holiday in Rovaniemi courtesy of Saab) and, for at least a portion, cruises by in much the same way as Fleming’s most indulgent travelogue writing, provided you (as I do) enjoy snowy, remote locations. Gardner, also like Fleming, takes the opportunity to reflect on (or show off) bits of esoteric knowledge, on Finland, the fine quality of Saab cars, vacationing above the Arctic Circle, and the complicated nature of espionage in countries that are aligned with “the West” but share borders and culture with the then Soviet Union. As such, the setting alone is enough to carry me through a story that is basically a rehash of Ken Russel’s strange Harry Palmer spy movie, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), starring Michael Caine—only with less awareness of its own absurdity.
Bond is sent to Finland for a mission already in progress, which in accordance with all John Gardner missions, is a hopelessly convoluted time-waster when a simple “go in and kill them, 007” is already overdue. Teamed with cranky agents from Mossad, the CIA, and the KGB—none of whom trust one another, of course—Bond has to observe and report on the comings and goings of a group of neo-Nazi terrorists. It’s not a very useful assignment. Everything Bond observes and reports on is something the involved governments already know about, so there’s no point to any of it. Because a James Bond book is supposed to be exciting, Gardner crams in a ridiculous number of feints, traps, and double crosses.
Villain Aarne Tudeer, who keeps Bond alive on the flimsiest of excuses, commands a Fourth Reich up to the usual Fourth Reich business. They idolize Hitler, cosplay like WWII era Germans, listen to WWII era German music, and give Mein Kamp-fy speeches. The book keeps assuring us that despite their absurd WWII fetish, Tudeer’s National Socialist Action Army is one of the most dangerous threats the world has ever faced, and they are mere inches away from sparking a global Nazi revolution that will destroy us all and usher in a horrifying new era of people who don’t speak German never the less insisting on saying things like “Jahol, Mein Fuhrer.” And that’s a plot that should work, and that is depressingly relevant today, in our environment of moronic Nazi fetishists and white supremacists.
But just as For Special Services undercut claims of Bond sidekick Cedar Leiter’s competence by making her a fool in action, so too is the threat of Tudeer’s terrorist organization unrealized in deed despite frequent narrative insistence. Billion Dollar Brain‘s similar plot, about a bunch of Texas rednecks building a new Nazi army in the wilds of remote northern Europe, was much more successful. In that movie, the racist army was regarded as patently ridiculous but still dangerous, since a moron with a tank still has a tank. Icebreaker doesn’t manage that, however, and no matter how hard it tries to sell us the plot, the whole thing is just too silly, even by James Bond standards.
Additionally, the crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses are more wearying than they are surprising. No one is what they appear to be, and then they are not what they appear to be after they stopped appearing to be the last thing they were appearing to be. Improbably coincidences abound, and through it all, Bond exercises the worst judgment of any spy in the history of spies. I think at least 25% of this book is made up of the sentence, “Bond decided she was either the greatest actress in the world, or she was telling the truth,” only to have Bond be totally wrong. So I guess there are a lot of greatest actresses in the world operating out of Rovaniemi, Finland. If you plan to read Gardner’s Bond novels, you better get used to this, because it also pops up in subsequent books a lot.
In Icebreaker‘s favor are, as was the case in the previous two novels, Gardner’s skill at writing breathtaking action sequences. A showdown between Bond and his Saab and an army of deadly snowplows on the lonely roads of northern Finland is tense. The bobsled chases and shootouts in beautiful, desolate Lapland are thrilling. And as mentioned, the locations and descriptions of these remote places are superb. We still get slammed with the clunky come-ons and sex joke dialog I’ve quickly learned to fear from Gardner’s Bond novels, but at least it’s surrounded by sweeping Arctic wastelands, some good action, and lovingly detailed descriptions of Bond suiting up in his snow pants.