Vying with Role of Honour and Never Send Flowers (we’ll get to that one…sadly) for the worst of Gardner’s Bond novels, Win, Lose, or Die is a dreadful way to close the 1980s run of novels. Coincidence, naive stupidity on Bond’s part, and blind luck have always played a role in the series, but this one pushes it beyond the pale. An upstart terrorist organization is able to somehow get an entire group of women recruited by the British military, trained, stationed in the same place, and all assigned to the same ultra top-secret mission. To successfully send an entire detachment of women through Women’s Royal Naval Service (aka WRNS or “wrens”) training and get them all exactly where you need them—surely even John Gardner knew that was a load. I am always amused when terrorists are able to get exactly the job they need—peanut salesman, janitor, night watchman, usher—in exactly the place they need to be to pull off a scheme. No terrorist plot in movies or books ever gets foiled by HR saying, “I’m sorry, but we don’t currently have any positions available for janitors or food delivery sevices. We will keep your resume on file.”
This is a book built on the premise that everyone involved will make increasingly stupid decisions in defiance of all evidence before them and refuse, at any point, to think or behave in a way even slightly resembling a rational human being. It’s so bad that, even though I steadfastly object to the trend of emoji and emoticons, I’m tempted to let my review of this book be nothing more than a little cartoon middle finger, which it turns out would serve both as my comment on the book and the book’s opinion toward its readers.
What makes the eventual quality of the book worse is that the premise is not a bad one: James Bond gets assigned to a case involving the Royal Navy and so, among other things, he has to pick up his former career as a Naval officer, also receiving a long-overdue promotion from Commander to Captain Bond. Watching Bond go through a series of refresher courses and Naval training isn’t thrill-a-minute, but it is interesting, and a new angle on a character who, by 1989, had very few new angles left to offer either writers or readers. Bond finds himself back in the mess hall because the hilariously named Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism—seriously, it sounds like something from The Venture Brothers—plans to attack a top-secret naval mission. Hidden in the midst of conventional looking war games, it turns out that Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and George Bush will be holding a secret high-level summit aboard one of the ships. BAST plans to blow them all up.
The plot is so dumb that even the characters in the book can’t help but point out how dumb it is. Bond himself, subjected to some villain cackling and plan-spilling about how the three deaths will throw the world into utter anarchy, explains that both England and the United States have, you know, plans of succession for such things. And the bulk of the Soviet government…well…they’ve been trying themselves to kill Mikhail Gorbachev themselves, so it’s unlikely they’ll collapse into chaos. So there’s that.
There’s the fact that somehow the entire security detail assigned to the summit ship—the entire detail—secretly works for the bad guys. And then there’s the fact that everyone knows exactly what the plan is and could foil it at any time yet they chose to all play along to the inevitable last-second save, because why the hell not? Seriously, the US, MI6, and Soviets all seem to know exactly what is happening and when. The main bad guy’s phone is tapped from an early point, and they listen in on every single plan, know his whereabouts at every single moment—and then they decide to just let it all play out, because nipping the attempted assassination of three world leaders in the bud is, to fall back on a John Gardner Bond plot classic, “just what they’d expect.”
Amid the smothering awfulness, there are a few bright spots. Bond’s time at the Naval base is, as mentioned, a nice change of pace. And there’s some stuff at an Italian villa that requires Bond to act supremely stupid. Gardner has 007 do that all the time, but at least this time there is some nice scenery. By and large, however, this is perhaps the most half-assed of Gardner’s Bond outings to date. Hell, 007 hardly does anything besides walk down corridors and get beat up and kicked in the balls (yep).
Also…Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism…come on! On the other hand, this is the franchise that gave us Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.