If real-world politics made their way into Fleming’s novels, it was purely by accident. John Gardner, on the other hand, seemed to have really wanted to put current events and issues in his writing, though one assumes having to adhere to the publisher-issued Bond formula tethered his aspirations. Let the harsh reality of Cold War politics remain the purview of John le Carré. Icebreaker hinted at political content but still defaulted to the usual megalomaniacal madman (in that case, one who dreamed of resurrecting the Reich, complete with retro uniforms and a soundtrack of “Greatest Nazi Hits” piped through his secret base).
But Gardner, when not neck-deep in James Bond, wrote a series of books that had more in common with le Carré than Ian Fleming. With No Deals, Mr. Bond, he finally achieved enough clout, or had at least been around long enough, that it seems he was given a little more leeway to “do his own thing.” The result is one of the Bond book series first full-on Cold War espionage thrillers since, well, since From Russia with Love, really. It’s also one of Gardner’s better Bond books, possibly because he seems energized by pretending that he’s not really writing a James Bond novel.
We join Bond in the midst of a mission to extract two agents from East German territory. The agents, Ebbie Heritage and Heather Dare (pretty good spy names, those), were part of a “honey trap” operation—the common practice of using good-looking agents to seduce enemy targets and extract pillow talk secrets, classified information, and all the other stuff moon-eyed fools spill when someone bats their eyelashes at them. Five years after completing the mission, Bond is pulled back into it and learns the history of the two women and “Operation Cream Cake.” It turns out that Cream Cake’s intention had been to use five honey trap agents —four women and one man—to spirit two highly ranked Soviet defectors to safety in the West. The operation was a disaster, however, and the agents taking part in it were dispersed and given new identities. The whole sordid failure was then put to rest — until two of the female agents turn up gruesomely murdered.
Bond’s charge is to find the remaining members of Cream Cake and get them to safety. Some of them have already caught on they are in danger, however, which means there will be a lot of scrambling around as Bond attempts to herd the agents in while also trying to determine the identity of the murderer and juggling the (inevitable, for this sort of story—news that one of the surviving operatives may, in fact, be a double agent. And because Bond can never deal with just three or four complications, it looks like his old enemies at the now renamed SMERSH are somehow involved, and they are none to happy with James Bond.
Overall, despite the usual Gardner plot contrivances and decisions that are made expressly to complicate the plot and cause the reader to roll eyes, this is among his best efforts in the Bond arena. Although this story—with its jumble of East German, Soviet, and British spies and politics—was closer in spirit to what Gardner wanted to write, one thing with which he was expressly unhappy was the title forced upon him by the publishers. Gardner had originally called it Tomorrow Always Comes, which isn’t exactly a stellar name but is a damn sight better than the title the publisher initially wanted: Oh No, Mr. Bond! With the exclamation point. Between that and an operation dubbed Cream Cake, it would seem that 007 had wandered into pure Carry On! territory, and that the story would be full of flabbergasted British gentlemen being shocked by saucy ladies exposing their knickers.
Title aside, this is a pretty good one. Bond gets to chum around with an Irish buddy, and for once we have a plot that doesn’t seem like it could have been wrapped up easily in a few pages if M hadn’t dismissed some common-sense, surefire plan as “too obvious.” Which means that for once, all the twists and turns through which Gardner runs Bond are actually a good deal of fun. Somehow, a plot that involves England, East Germany, and Russia that plays out quite a bit in Ireland ends up for the finale in Hong Kong. It’s another one of those “I could kill you, but why not play a game instead” sort of deals where the villain devises a ridiculously elaborate way to kill Bond (these almost always boil down to “let’s play The Most Dangerous Game!”), but I don’t really mind it this time out since the Hong Kong stuff is good and the whole book is a good deal of fun. Best of all, this novel doesn’t really tie into any others or require you to have read previous of Gardner’s Bond books, so you can skip right to it and enjoy yourself.