Whatever good will was built up with the brisk action of For Special Services and the intriguing locations of Icebreaker is undone with Role of Honor, a dreadful entry in the series. Nothing makes any sense, every character is poorly written, Bond’s mission is moronic, and fully forty pages of the story are devoted to descriptions of Bond learning how to program a computer. The villain “every single person in the world, including myself, says I should not believe you, Mr. Bond, but I think I’m going to trust you” gullibility is ramped up to levels even the liberal amount of suspension of disbelief I have when reading Bond novels can’t tolerate. The villain is yet again a rehash of Murik and Bismaquer, a brilliant but insane billionaire who is friendly and fun one second then insanely filled with rage the next. But mostly, Bond learns COBOL.
When Bond inherits a small fortune from a distant relative, M uses the event to weave a plot in which Bond has been accused of impropriety, causing 007 to resign in disgust and take up the life of a wild and crazy playboy and disgruntled ex-agent who might be swayed to the cause of some other intelligence organization. This is all so Bond can worm his way into the inner sanctum of reclusive computer genius Dr. Jay Autem Holy, who builds realistic computer simulations used by the world’s military, flamboyant art thieves, and a shadowy terrorist organization that is pretty obviously SPECTRE under new management yet again. As was the case with Murik in License Renewed, Dr. Holy is on the verge of launching a massive terrorist action that will threaten the entire world, yet when Bond shows up with a half-assed cover story about how MI6 hurt his feelings, Holy accepts it and brings Bond into the fold—but this happens only after forty pages of Bond holed up in a Monte Carlo hotel room learning about computers.
His teacher is Percy Proud, a CIA operative who was formerly married to Holy before Holy faked his own death. Anyway, it’s Gardner’s Bond and a woman, so cue juvenile dick jokes and double entendres. Despite having basically no character, we’re meant to believe that over the course of his training, Bond falls head over heels in love with Percy. In perhaps the worst example of writing yet in Gardner’s run as a Bond author, 007 will frequently picture Percy or think of her, and it’s written in a way that practically demands cheeseball romance movie soaring string music. All things considered, I prefer the dumb sex jokes.
Once Bond infiltrates Holy’s secluded mansion, he meets yet another woman who casts conspiratorial glances at him and immediately wants to bed him and make dumb sex jokes. And then Bond is kidnapped by not-yet-announced-as-SPECTRE 3.0 so that at least something happens besides Bond hanging out in a bedroom typing “10 print James Bond is cool/20 goto 10.” Despite the fact that James Bond killed Blofeld, and then killed the other Blofeld, and ruined all sorts of other SPECTRE plots, and despite no one being sure whether they believe that Bond resigned from the secret service and harbors a grudge against them, SPECTRE still recruits 007. Then after some training in the desert, they dump him back at Holy’s compound for the big mission, a scheme so half-baked and stupid that it only gets off the ground because M decides it should and I guess spoiling the scheme at the first opportunity isn’t as cool as waiting until the last second then revealing that there was no last second, and that the villain’s master plan had already been found out and disarmed before it even started.
John Gardner himself said that Role of Honour stinks, and far be it from me to disagree with him. For Special Services and Icebreaker were dumb and had silly plots and some bad writing, but at least they also had some positive attributes that made them readable. Not so, Role of Honor, a book that exceeds every length of slack I try to cut it. Gardner lies at least part of the blame on coincidence — that the plot he came up with about computers and war-simulator video games was close to a more or less throw-away scene in the off-canon Bond film Never Say Never Again, and so he had to do a lot of last-minute replotting. But that excuse only gets him so far, and there is enough rotten in this book that “it was too much like a scene from Never Say Never Again” can’t account for all of it.
The convoluted fake disgracing of James Bond makes little difference. We spend multiple chapters reading about him learning to program computers, a skill he never has to use. The in to SPECTRE’s plot is Holy’s advanced computer model of their nefarious plan, a plan so simple, so common, so exactly like any other SPECTRE plan, that it doesn’t need any sort of advanced computer simulation in the first place. Then the plot is exposed and disarmed before it’s ever set in motion, and the only reason we have a climax to the book with a fist fight in a blimp is because M figured, why the hell not? And also, why not leave James Bond in the dark that the entire world isn’t actually about to be destroyed, because…I don’t know. Screw James Bond?
The only moment this book has going for it is one off-hand paragraph where Bond is excited to be driving into Monaco, only to discover that the Monaco of the 1980s blows. Traffic, chain stores, package tourists, tackiness, scoured almost entirely of the romance and glamor he remembered. It’s about the best Bond segment Gardner has written up to this point. It understands that 007 is a man forged in the 1950s but now in the 1980s, forced to deal with the erosion of the world he knew. It’s the first moment where the reader gets a sense that Bond is a man out of time and that at least part of him knows that. It’s certainly a more effective means of conveying the passage of time than previous attempts at a similar nostalgia, which have mostly just been Gardner having Bond mechanically think of the names of past women and villains in his life like a bulleted list. It’s too bad that one effective and thoughtful moment is couched in such an awful book.