As John Gardner settled into the role of Bond author for the long haul, he began to lose interest in the aspects of the novels that made James Bond “James Bond.” Partly this was a symptom of the times. What worked in the 1960s, what defined James Bond first in Fleming’s novels and later in the Connery movies, didn’t really translate to the 1980s, at least so far as Gardner could see (there was still plenty of flash and cool in the 1980s, but it must have passed Gardner by). Which means that we are increasingly left with a sort of bland guy who just happens to be named James Bond — which, in a way, might be bringing the character back around to how Fleming originally imagined him, as an anonymous blunt instrument into whom a reader could pour his or her own identity; a characterless cypher of a man who might not be interesting but to whom interesting things happened. But honestly, by the middle of the 1980s, with decades of suave, awesome James Bond under our belts, did anyone really want an anonymous 007?
Released in 1986, Nobody Lives Forever has a similar feel to the movie For Your Eyes Only, in that both are essentially one chase scene after another. I admit, after the grind that was Role of Honour, the only thing that moved me on to this book was a combination of grim determination and the need to finish all the novels. It isn’t a triumphant recovery from a terrible previous entry, but it is a recovery, with a brisk pace, a lot of dumb coincidences that set off alarm bells to which Bond never pays attention, and another go-round for the newly reformed SPECTRE, the Daleks of the James Bond universe (when in doubt, trot ‘em out). It’s also the first (and only) Bond book that puts Moneypenny and, unbelievably, Bond’s maid and “Scottish treasure” May in the middle of the plot, if not the actual action. Sadly, if you were hoping that John Gardner would take the opportunity to reveal Moneypenny as a resourceful and brave woman despite not being a field agent, well…you haven’t been paying attention to the way Gardner writes women.
Bond is en route via a leisurely drive to pick up his housekeeper May from a clinic where she’s been recuperating from an illness (I guess he didn’t want to send her to Shrublands) when he learns that blimp enthusiast and head of SPECTRE Tamil Rahani miraculously survived his tumble out of an airship in the last book, though he sustained so many crippling injuries that he basically a crushed man with only weeks to live. He has decided to spend his final few bedridden days by putting a price on James Bond’s head and waiting for one hitman or another to bring it in—something you have thought was sort of like a standing invitation for the past few decades. Thus Bond finds his progress across Europe hampered by a number of assassination attempts, many of which are almost comically unsuccessful thanks to the assassins trying to do one another in as well.
Along the way, Bond picks up Sukie Tempesta, a lovely Italian princess, and her bodyguard, Nannette ‘Nannie’ Norrich. That at least one of these women is a SPECTRE operative is screamingly obvious to everyone except James Bond, though to his credit he does at least vacillate between being cautious and being the typically gullible oaf Gardner turned him into. And also as one expects from Gardner, he goes to great lengths to establish at least one of the women—Nannette—as a cool, competent bad-ass, then of course constantly undercuts that claim with the way he actually presents her on the page.
The cliché of Bond getting captured by the main villain, who then inexplicably refuses to just kill Bond and end things then and there, is well established by this point and just something you have to deal with. When Fleming did it, he usually came up with some way to make the delayed execution plausible. Under Gardner, however, that almost never happens, and the illogic of the situation is simply too glaring and impossible to ignore. That’s certainly the case here, where Bond’s inevitable capture and inexplicable stay of execution never makes any sense other than “the formula required it.”
At least this time around, Gardner keeps the (slightly repetitive) plot moving quick enough so that few of the book’s weak spots stick around long enough to sink the ship. Role of Honour really seemed to be a case of Gardner not giving a shit about the book, and it dragged on forever. Here, Gardner still doesn’t give much of a shit, but at least he seems mildly engaged in writing decent action bits in between all the dumb coincidences, irrational behavior, and terrible sex jokes. And it really only takes a day or so to read, so at the end of things, an easily satisfied lout like me—especially coming off a thoroughly boring and dreadful entry in the series—Nobody Lives Forever is a decent enough adventure.