Win, Lose, or Die

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.

League of Gentlemen

“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929

Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work.

The year before he directed the all-star ensemble cast of League of Gentlemen, Dearden made Sapphire, a police procedural about a couple of cops trying to solve a murder. In doing so, they stumble into the middle of the hyper-charged racial tension boiling to the surface in London. In that film, the social message is front and center, becomes the very essence of the plot, and the viewer is not granted the emotional reprieve of forays into comedy. With League of Gentlemen, Dearden’s intent is no less political, but the message of the film—about the treatment of veterans after their service in a war and the difficulty combat veterans have readjusting to civilian life—is couched in the language of a heist film, with ample touches of humor to lighten what could be a much heavier film (for example, Dead Presidents, a couple of decades later).

A year after League of Gentlemen, Dearden directed another controversial film about a touchy social issue. 1961’s Victim starred Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay lawyer who takes on a blackmail ring preying on other gay men (homosexuality being a crime punishable by imprisonment at the time). Risking exposure, Bogarde decides to unmask the blackmailers. The film is often regarded as the spark that started a gay rights movement in the UK, which eventually led to the legalization of homosexuality in the UK.

Which makes it odd to me that so many critics dismiss Dearden’s films as empty, commercial, and bureaucratic. Not everything he made dwelled on social topics; The Assassination Bureau is really nothing more than a jaunty romp (albeit one with Oliver Reed blowing up a lot of people), but Dearden’s films often strike that sweet spot between commercially viable and socially challenging.

League of Gentlemen begins with a scene that seems like it should have come from a German krimi film. A well-dressed man emerges from a manhole onto a steamy London street and then hops into a waiting Rolls Royce. He drives himself home and sets about the task of writing seven letters. Each of these he places in a parcel alongside an American potboiler titled The Golden Fleece, ten half-£5-notes, and an invitation to lunch at the Cafe Royal (a restaurant established at 68 Regent Street in London’s Piccadilly by a Frenchman fleeing his bills in 1865; it was renown as having one of the best wine cellars in all of England. Sadly, it closed in 2008 and was converted into a hotel).

This man, we learn, is Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins, Oh! What a Lovely War, Theatre of Blood, The Lodger, The Bridge on the River Kwai…so on and so forth), a decorated veteran of the British army who was unceremoniously dumped into retirement—”Made redundant.” The parcels are delivered to similarly discharged veterans, though unlike Hyde, each of them left the armed forces under some cloud of disrepute and have arrived at undesirable, sometimes criminal stations in life. Hyde’s pitch to them is to use their military experience to pull off a bank robbery. Not like common thieves, mind you, but with the planning and precision of accomplished soldiers. At the end of it, they will all be £100,000 richer.

For most heist movie fans, the important thing isn’t the crime itself; it’s the scenes of planning and, even more important, assembling the crew. Much of League of Gentlemen‘s run-time shows us the lives of the conspirators. This crew is a who’s who of British players, including Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesey, Terence Alexander, Bryan Forbes, Kieron Moore, Norman Bird, and Richard “I brought dinosaurs back to life” Attenborough. Each man brings a specific set of skills to the heist, as well as being desperate enough to say yes to the idea of a bank robbery based almost entirely on the plot of a middling pulp novel (in the book on which this movie is based, author John Boland uses the title of a real crime novel, Lionel White’s Clean Break, itself the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing).

Then there’s the heist-before-the-heist. Guns, other than hunting rifles, are difficult to obtain in England, so Hyde decides the weapons they need must first be stolen from a nearby military base—allowing them not only to arm themselves with state-of-the-art gear, but also to the military that slighted them all. This plan is based on an actual occurrence. In 1954, the Irish Republican Army launched two raids on English military bases to capture weapons and ammunition. In both cases, one in June at Armagh and the second in October at Omagh (oh, those Irish names), the IRA infiltrated the bases disguised as British soldiers and took advantage of on-base distractions, such as dances, to obscure their chicanery.

This wasn’t the first time the IRA equipped themselves by robbing their British enemies. In December of 1939, they mounted what became known as the Christmas Raid, taking advantage of lax security and distractions caused by base festivities. The version that appears in League of Gentlemen is an amalgamation of the 1954 raids, and like those—and like every single movie heist ever that has every move planned down to the last detail—it doesn’t go off without a few hitches to heighten the suspense.

Having armed themselves, Hyde and the lads set about the bigger of their schemes, though once again in classic heist film form, the main heist only takes up a few minutes of the film’s time. It is, however, exceptionally well done, with the crew donning intimidating gas masks (conjuring images of London during the Blitz) and firing off their purloined machine guns while smoke bombing the entire bank so that they make off with the loot without actually seriously harming anyone. And as with just about every heist in heist film history, they took care of every single detail… except one.

If this plot about a group of soldiers getting together to pull off a robbery with military precision sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been used several times since then. Most famously, with a few tweaks, more humor (or less British humor I suppose), and more “hey babe” cocktail culture, League of Gentleman shares a plot with the American film Ocean’s Eleven, also released in 1960 and starring a similarly brawny list of who’s who that included just about every member of the Rat Pack. And decades after Ocean’s Eleven (but before the remake of Ocean’s Eleven), the idea of a group of army buddies coming together for one big heist was revived and retooled, becoming Dead Presidents, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes in 1995.

There is little political about Ocean’s Eleven. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) and his crew all seem pretty well off. They decide to pull a heist mostly as a lark and because why the hell not? The politics in League of Gentlemen are more substantial, but I’d hardly call them substantial, especially compared to other Dearden films like Sapphire and Victim or the very politically-charged Dead Presidents. There is something, however, about the way a country uses up its military men then, when their time is done, tosses them back into society with little preparation and often with little to support them. Making this point however, is not the primary focus. League of Gentlemen is more interested in being a breezy, humorous little thriller.

Dead Presidents is the most overtly political of the three. The veterans are all young black men who served in Vietnam and returned home to shattered communities, racism, and drugs. In each case, we can see a set of motivations decreed by class and circumstance. For the cats in Ocean’s Eleven, it’s just a way to amuse themselves. For the League of Gentlemen, the motivation is a mixture of revenge against the system and a desire to improve one’s station in life. For the crew in Dead Presidents, the motivation is a combination of desperation, anger, hopelessness, and in the case of black rights activist Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), political action.

In Ocean’s Eleven, they are all old Army buddies, but there’s not much thought given to that beyond being an excuse for them to know each other and be able to come up with plans that require Sinatra to read off a lot of timetables. In League of Gentlemen, more attention is paid to the military careers of each of the “gentlemen” (a term applied, in some cases, ironically). It takes on an almost Dirty Dozen style explanation of each man and the trouble in which he found himself (and in fact, at its core, Dirty Dozen is sort of a heist movie that seems influenced by League of Gentlemen). But as to showing us the service of each man, that is not the aim of the film. Dead Presidents is structured as much like a “coming-of-age” film as it is a heist film, and it spends a considerable amount of time showing us the childhood of the main character and his gruesome combat experiences in Vietnam. Although more overtly political and bleaker, Dead Presidents really is the most like League of Gentlemen, even if League‘s melancholy is buried under the stolid veneer of dry British humor.

Originally envisioned as a Hollywood film starring Cary Grant and David Niven, producer Carl Foreman was unable to obtain the services of Grant (busy making North By Northwest and Operation Petticoat), which derailed the project entirely. The rights to the script by Bryan Forbes were then procured by Basil Dearden, who had just opened his own production company, Allied Film Makers, along with Forbes, Richard Attenborough, Guy Green, Jack Hawkins, and producer Michael Relph. They were each unhappy with the current system and difficulty filmmakers faced getting financing and so decided to give it a go themselves. League of Gentlemen, after being tweaked to make it more British, was the first film the new partnership produced. It was the perfect project…this new crew of friends and professional associates…going against the system, coming together…to make a film about a crew of friends and associates going against the system.

It was a good gamble. League of Gentlemen was one of the top grossing British films of 1960. Ghe scars of the Second World War were still relatively fresh in the minds of the British public. Many of veterans were entering middle age, and a goodly many of them had, like the rascals of League of Gentlemen, found it difficult to re-acclimate to civilian life and adjust to a life of marriage, mundane jobs, dull apartments and houses (which leads me to image what The Best Years of Our Lives would have been like with a heist). Their midlife crises reminded them that, just fifteen years ago, they’d been duking it out with Hitler, sharing cigarettes with comrades on the front, and defending British air space from the Luftwaffe’s blitz. How do you go from that to saying “yes, sir” to some bank manager?

And though League of Gentlemen deals with the male wartime experience, let’s not forget that for many women the war was equally harrowing and heroic, and the return to civilian life just as jarring. How do you ask a woman who was helping to break the Enigma code, serving as a front line nurse, or being parachuted behind enemy lines as a spy for the SOE to come home and be content with a life of changing diapers and caring for a husband?

The thieves of League of Gentlemen struck a chord with many viewers who were finding peaceful life difficult, who looked at post-war England and thought that, though no one wanted a war back, something vital and adventurous had been lost. What’s more, many felt that the men and women who fought this epic struggle had been tossed back after the war with no concern for their well-being or respect for what they’d sacrificed. It remains an issue to this day, and always has been. Politicians who blithely send people off to war are more than happy to screw those same people when they return, robbing them of treatment and benefits earned. Which is part of the reason League of Gentlemen seems to have aged so little. The accents might have changed, the war might be different, but the core that inspires Hyde to mount this complicated heist remains.

Of course, it’s also a fun movie, which helps. You get some of the best the British film industry had to offer doing their best. After all, it was their own production company. Almost everyone with a main role in the film also had a stake in Allied Film Makers. That the script spends so much time telling the stories of each of the men makes them relatable, which makes the complex double-heist that much more tense. None of the robbers is a perfect human. They are robbers, after all, and most were dismissed from the army for some criminal indiscretion. “You’re all crooks, aren’t you?” asks Hyde of his motley crew, “Of one kind or another.” Despite their faults, however, and their occasional distrust and personal quirks, the film convinces you to like them. Jaunty British can-do attitude keep the politics from becoming oppressive.

With so many British pros executing their craft on-screen, one can almost forget Basil Dearden behind the camera. His direction is not flashy, but it more than gets the job done. The two heists are expertly shot and edited. In the case of the raid on the arms depot, cutting between the hoax being perpetrated to facilitate the actual theft, with all its complicated moving parts, lends the scene a great air of tension. The direction of the bank heist is different, but no less effective. Shot quickly, with a cacophony of noise and movement and confusion, it’s a breath-taking sequence, even if you’re wearing a gas mask. Although League of Gentlemen is a largely light-hearted and spirited affair, Dearden knows how and when to ratchet up the stakes.

It’s not an action packed film; only the final heist has anything akin to action, the raid on the military base being played more for tension than thrills. But like I said, a good heist film is rarely about the heist itself. It’s about everything leading up to (and sometimes happening after) the heist. In that regard, there’s a reason the template set by League of Gentlemen has been used by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Hughes Brothers. A group of inspired British film makers making their own movie, on their own terms, with a defiant twinkle in their collective eye makes for a very engaging caper. Unfortunately for Allied Film Makers, this would prove to be their one and only big hit. Subsequent films produced by the partnership did not generate the same sort of success, and the group went under in fairly short order (just like what happens in most heist films). But if the movie you leave behind as a testament to your vision is League of Gentlemen, then you’ve done very well indeed.


Well, I hope you really enjoyed No Deals, Mr. Bond, because we’re back into dodgy territory with this one. There was a cult scare in the 1980s, similar to the Satanic Panic of the 1970s (umm, and also the 1980s again; we panicked a lot in the 1980s), which is probably why Gardner decided to turn in a story in which Bond goes up against a mesmerizing cult leader who, as is always the case, is using the religious fervor of his converts for more materialistic gains. Pretty much every spy novel franchise inspired by James Bond had at least one story where the main character went up against some robe-clad Moonie stand-ins, so I guess Gardner figured why the hell not? The resulting book isn’t particularly good. It’s another in the increasingly large pile of Gardner plots with a simple solution that everyone refuses to take for reasons no better than, “it’s what he’d expect us to do.”

Bond is in the middle of a refresher course when M calls him back to headquarters. Not long after, people start harassing 007. He discovers that he’s to investigate a nutty religious cult called the Meek Ones, led by Father Valentine, who plans to use his deluded followers—many of them from well-connect families—as assassins and suicide bombers. Valentine is really Vladimir Scorpius, a former Soviet agent turned freelance arms dealer. Despite the duplicitous nature of the villain’s identity, almost every assassination scheme he hatches is telegraphed well ahead of time and proves exceedingly easy to foil. So Gardner just has Bond and all of the other characters do a bunch of dumb time-wasting stuff so that action happens for enough pages to satisfy the publisher.

Bond is paired with, a woman from the IRS, since they too are investigating Valentine and the phony credit card company he’s established as a front. Not the most thrilling of cases, but I suppose it beats all that guano farming we got in Doctor No. Mostly though, what sinks this book is it’s the insistence against all evidence on the page to the contrary that Scorpius is a dangerous, charismatic leader who can inspire unquestioning fanaticism in anyone. Even Bond falls under the hypnotic sway of Scorpius dime-store new age philosophy, and Gardner expects us to swallow it. It’s simply too much to buy, and the more Gardner writes scenes about 007 staring deeply into the persuasive eyes of Scorpius, the more comical it becomes.

Throw in a finale at a Hilton Head resort—Hilton Head!—and you have a real clunker of an adventure. There is a long history of Bond having his adventure wherever the author last took a vacation, but when it’s Jamaica or Greece or Finland, it’s one thing. When it’s a resort for middle-aged bankers in flip-flops and gaudy golf shirts…come on, Bond! What’s next? 007 going out for Kahlua Mudslides at a Bahama Breeze restaurant (actually, we’d get close to that once Raymond Benson took over the series, but one thing at a time)?

During the finale, Bond accomplish nothing. The one thing he does causes the death of a supporting good guy, and in the end, Bond’s presence on the scene contributes absolutely nothing to the take down of Scorpius. In fact, the entire plot of the book, which sends Bond undercover in Scorpius’ sham cult, is superfluous to the wrap-up. If 007 had sat in his room ordering pay-per-view, exactly the same amount would have been accomplished.

Speaking of pay-per-view, there’s a scene where Bond watched The Untouchables on his flight to the United States and ruminates on how this Sean Connery chap is a pretty good actor. Good gravy, Charlie Brown.

No Deals, Mr. Bond

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.

Nobody Lives Forever

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.

Who Saw Her Die?

The violence in an average giallo film can evoke a host of reactions: a thrill, repulsion, disapproval, disbelief, incredulity, excitement, and even a sort of “oh, so it’s the straight razor again then, is it?” boredom, depending on your particular disposition. Rarely does the violence inspire anything approaching emotional sympathy or distress. This isn’t a failure of the genre, and in fact is often by design. This violence usually serves a little more than a visceral shock or as a way to move the plot along. Creating an emotional attachment to the characters, and a more sympathetic reaction to the violence done against them just isn’t a priority. So, when one encounters a giallo that not only tugs at the emotional heart strings, but succeeds in connecting with the viewer on a more personal level, the impact is amplified.

Aldo Lado’s moody thriller Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?, 1972) is the rare giallo that attempts this, and the rare one that succeeds, and it is thanks primarily to a committed performance from former James Bond George Lazenby in a role that puts him through an emotional ringer. Lazenby, looking haggard and emaciated even before tragedy befalls his character, plays Franco Serpieri, a sculptor living in Venice apart from his estranged wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg, who also stars in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), who lives in London.

They have a young daughter, Roberta, played by Nicoletta Elmi, who despite only being eight or so when she made this movie had already appeared in two other giallo, Giallo in Venice and Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, both 1971) and who would go on to appear in more Bava (Baron Blood), giallo (Dario Argento’s Deep Red), and general genre weirdness (Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Lamberto Bava’s Demons). In terms of little kids with impeccable Italian sleaze and gore records go, she’s matched only by Giovanni Frezza, a Lucio Fulci regular who gained fame as “little Bob” in House by the Cemetery and also appeared in Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, Enzo G. Castellari’s post-apocalyptic adventure Warriors of the Wasteland, and, once again, Lamberto Bava’s Demons.

Roberta comes to visit her father and, for the first twenty minutes or so of this film, the two have a grand time in old Venice. There’s a great amount of father-daughter chemistry between Lazenby and young Elmi. We, of course, know that these moments of bliss are inevitably going to be interrupted. As the rapport between father and daughter grows, the tension of the film slowly ratchets up. First, there’s an expectation of danger in this sort of film and, second, the off-kilter score by Ennio Morricone is brilliant at creating a threatening, moody atmosphere.

Sure enough, someone is stalking Roberta, someone involved in a previous child murder from the film’s prologue. Unaware of the evil following his daughter, Franco is naively willing to leave her alone with her friends on what he thinks are the safe streets of their neighborhood while he gets some sculpting done and engages in a tryst with a local flame. When Roberta fails to return home that evening, Franco starts searching the neighborhood for her; casually, at first, reasonably assuming she’s at a friend’s house. But when she doesn’t turn up at any of the places he expects to find her, Franco’s search becomes increasingly frantic. It also introduces us to the bulk of the film’s potential suspects, including a sleazy art dealer (played by former Bond villain Adolfo Celi, making this the most James Bondy giallo ever), a shifty homosexual who might also be a pedophile, a steely eyed boy toy, and Franco’s closest friend, who also seems to pay an unsavory amount of attention to Roberta before she vanishes. Other suspects come and go as Franco prowls the fog-shrouded labyrinth of Venice in search of his missing daughter.

The bulk of this film rests on the shoulders of George Lazenby, who at the time of its release was still somewhere between a punchline and forgotten. Lazenby was catapulted to fame when he won the role of James Bond after Sean Connery’s departure from the series, a plum acting job that was also obviously fraught with peril given how beloved Connery was in the role. Lazenby, an Australian with no acting experience, basically bluffed his way into the role, but what made almost as many headlines was his swift departure from the series. After just one film, the phenomenal On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby announced he was turning down the offer to appear int he next Bond film. As far as he was concerned, Bond was over, a relic of the 1950s that had no place in the age of hippies, social revolution, and the Vietnam War. He grew his hair long and grew a mustache which he refused to shave while doing the press rounds for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service much to the consternation of Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who didn’t want some shaggy hippie parading around under the mantle of 007.

On top of all that, reports were (and he later confirmed them himself) that Lazenby conducted himself poorly on the set of his first film, assuming a degree of egotism and self-indulgence that made him a number of enemies, including his co-star Diana Rigg (“I can no longer cater for his obsession with himself,” she said. “He is utterly, unbelievably … bloody impossible”). Lazenby might actually have been correct about Bond being out of touch with the times, but his behavior made him more or less persona non grata in the British film industry. He quickly found himself unable to secure quality work. Or any work, for that matter. As Lazenby himself tells the story, Harry Salztman said to him, “If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy.”

Even those were hard to come by. He put together what he described as a plotless anti-war comedy, 1971’s Universal Soldier, but really he spent more time indulging in the drugs and sex of the late-era counter-culture. Eventually, he drifted to Italy, where he secured his first real post-James Bond role in Who Saw Her Die? After wrapping, he took what money he earned from it, and whatever remained of his On Her Majesty’s Secret Service paycheck, and spent the next year and a few months sailing around the world with his girlfriend, Chrissie Townsend. Honestly, if you have to fail, that’s not a bad way to do it.

The fact that Who Saw Her Die? was an Italian horror film, and that Lazenby was Lazenby, meant that no one took it or him very seriously. But just as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has benefited from time and reconsideration, so too can one look at Who Saw Her Die? today unfettered by whatever baggage might have been strapped to George Lazenby’s reputation at the time. And what one finds is perhaps one of the best performances in the entire giallo genre. Whatever hard living gave Lazenby his wracked, hollowed-out appearance (he’s still muscular, but he also looks emaciated at the same time, like a body that’s been slightly mis-assembled), it works to his advantage here in the role of a father increasingly wracked with guilt, frustration, and grief. He has a few emotional explosions, but for much of the film he opts for a more reserved but still palpable quiet desperation that is much more effective than the histrionics in which one might be tempted to indulge.

In their scenes together, he has an easy believable chemistry with his young co-star Nicoletta Elmi that makes her later disappearance truly effective in a way rarely experienced in giallo. He ha similarly powerful scenes with Anita Strindberg as his wife, who like him is wracked with guilt and determined to unravel the mystery revolving around the disappearance of their little girl. It is a convoluted tangle of events surrounding Roberta’s disappearance, but no more so than in any other giallo. At times, it’s difficult to keep straight who is who and what they’re guilty of (everyone is guilty of something), and in classic giallo style, ultimately almost none of it has anything to do with the central plot. The reveal of the killer and the connection to another case is hardly surprising, but the film has by then successfully disarmed the expectation that its finale hinges on this revelation.

Most successful films in the genre accomplish their success by layering style (visual and sartorial) on top of their confusing plots, making logic and clarity less important. Who Saw Her Die? doesn’t lack for style, but it succeeds mostly thanks to Lazenby (and somewhat because of Strindberg, who is a strong actress but doesn’t have much screen time) and for the way director Aldo Lado and cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo (fresh off working with Dario Argento on 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet) shoot Venice. This isn’t a film full of eye-popping visual trickery. Instead, it settles into a grim, colorless depiction of one of the most famous cities in the world. It avoids the big tourist attractions and wanders the places where actual Venetians live and work, getting lost among the city’s backstreets and twisting alleys, its tiny courtyards and cul-de-sacs and crumbling piles of rubble. When it takes to the iconic canals, they are shrouded in a fog through which the characters drift like half-seen ghosts. At times, the only color that seems to exist is the red of blood.

The viewer can never find firm footing in the film’s world. The geography of Lazenby’s first search for his daughter becomes increasingly confused as his panic mounts, at times seeming to double in on itself and lead nowhere. The film’s most notable scene has Lazenby pursuing, then being pursued, through the misty streets, a chase that culminates in a cat and mouse game inside and around an abandoned warehouse. Di Giacomo and Lado stage the sequence in a disorienting fashion. It quickly becomes unclear, other than Lazenby, who is who or what they want. Rotting floors, stairwells, and fire escapes are rendered like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing.

Much like his character (though without the missing child), Lazenby found himself wandering aimlessly through the early 1970s. When he found himself broke and Chrissie Townsend pregnant with his child, he had to dock his endlessly questing boat and find real work. At first, luck seemed to be on his side. He washed up in Hong Kong and enjoyed an audience at Golden Harvest, a fresh-faced upstart studio that had collected dissatisfied young filmmakers from Hong Kong’s older studios (and would later become the home of people like Tsui Hark, John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung). At the time, though, one man ruled the roost at Golden Harvest: Bruce Lee.

Unconcerned with Lazenby’s reputation, Golden Harvest was overjoyed to have a former James Bond calling on them. Lazenby was cast in Bruce Lee’s upcoming film, which Lee was determined to make the martial arts movie to end all martial arts movie. Lazenby was scheduled to meet with Bruce Lee for lunch, but Lee never showed up. He had, shockingly, passed away. The film he was shooting and in which Lazenby was cast, Game of Death, became a fiasco of legendary proportions, as Golden Harvest scrambled to recoup their losses and capitalize on the sensation of Lee’s death by pasting together Lee’s footage with a pastiche of nonsense, stand-ins, lookalikes, and perhaps most absurdly, scenes in which a still photograph of Bruce Lee’s face is simply pasted onto the film to obscure the face of a double.

Lazenby may not appear in Game of Death (a bullet dodged, frankly), but he did get work in Hong Kong, starring in a reasonably fun martial arts adventure called Stoner, alongside martial arts superstar Angela Mao and, curiously, Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong mistress, Betty Ting Pei. He went on to star in two more Golden Harvest productions, The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and A Queen’s Ransom (1976) before returning to Australia and, later, moving to the United States. Although he never achieved the fame that could have been his had he played his hand better, he managed to build a career out of small film and television parts. In the 1990s, he kept busy alongside Sylvia Kristel in a television series based on her Emmanuelle films. He and Kristel appeared at the beginning of each episode, reminiscing about the erotic adventures of their younger selves.

He also had a recurring role on the cartoon Batman Beyond and became a regular on the convention circuit, where his frank honesty about his past made him a fan favorite. Of course, almost all of that talk revolves around his brief tenure as James Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has, over the decades, gone from one of the most derided Bond films to one of the most beloved. Horror and thriller fans are rediscovering and reassessing Who Saw Her Die? and discovering, as did I, the best performance in George Lazenby’s checkered, interesting career; and one of the very finest, most thoughtful, and most emotionally mature films of the giallo genre.

A year after the release of Who Saw Her Die?, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony Richmond shot Venice in a similar fashion in Don’t Look Now, a film that has many similarities with Who Saw Her Die?—grief over the loss of a child, location work that minimizes Venice’s most famous sights, and a lanky shaggy-haired protagonist with a mustache. Don’t Look Now is rightly considered a moody horror masterpiece, which is a level of prestige generally denied Who Saw Her Die? But that doesn’t stop Aldo Lado’s film from being pretty damn good in its own right. If Who Saw Her Die? is considered not quite the measure of Don’t Look Now, it still holds its own plenty well when measured against it.

Role of Honour

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.


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.

For Special Services

Bringing the iconically fifties/sixties Bond into the eighties fell to British author John Gardner, and his first Bond novel, License Renewed—the first original James Bond book since Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun over a decade before—did its best to maintain the events and timeline of the original Ian Fleming novels while being set in and making sacrifices to the 1980s. Bond is greying at the temples, he drives a more fuel-efficient Saab turbo, he smokes low tar cigarettes. Overall, License Renewed wasn’t a bad novel; it just wasn’t great, and part of the problem with it was probably that Gardner was under so much pressure to maintain all the details that would make License Renewed seem like one of Fleming books.

Gardner’s second James Bond novel, For Special Services, maintains all the ties to Ian Fleming’s original novels (including conjuring up several specters—har har—from Bond’s past), but it gets a little more breathing room since it isn’t saddled with re-introducing Bond and acclimatizing him to the 1980s. As a result, it’s a better, faster moving, and more developed book than License Renewed.

Things kick off with a great action sequence in which Bond and some undercover SAS men foil a hijacking. We learn that there have been a large number of such hijackings lately, and Bond uncovers that they are the work of his old nemesis, SPECTRE—and more disturbingly, Blofeld, even though Bond knows Blofeld is dead. According to the combined intelligence of both MI6 and the CIA, this new Blofeld might be operating in conjunction with, or perhaps even be, an eccentric Texas billionaire named Markus Bismaquer.

Bismaquer (and yes, I did spend the whole book imagining it was actually Biz Markie) lives the life of a recluse behind the electric fences and walls of a sprawling estate that can only be reached by monorail, and it looks like he’s been doing business with all sorts of unsavory characters. At the request of the CIA, and because he is the world’s foremost authority on busting up SPECTRE operations, Bond is disguised as an art dealer, shipped off to the United States (along with his specially tricked out Saab) to determine if SPECTRE truly is back, and if so, whether Bismaquer is the new Blofeld—and if not, who is?

To assist in the mission, Bond is paired with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old buddy Felix “My God James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” Leiter. Cedar represents one of the weakest aspects of Gardner’s writing, and one of the most irksome tendencies in all sorts of spy lit: the woman who is constantly described by everyone as tough, competent, and every bit as professional as a man, who then proceeds to spend the entire book giggling, freaking out, screwing up, crying, and pining for the male hero. Considerable words are spent on assuring us Cedar is a tip-top agent, and then every action, every line of dialog Gardner saddles her with, seems designed specifically to disprove these assertions. She’s not a thoroughly terrible character; she’s just very disappointing, a typical example of how male writers often fail to make good on their female characters.

Gardner’s propensity for clunky sex dialog is carried over from License Renewed, and once again we have two women (Cedar, and Bismaquer’s wife, Nena) who within ten seconds of meeting Bond are trading lounge lizard quality double entendres with him as they try to get him in bed. I know some will claim this is all part of James Bond, but it’s really not, at least not in the books. Plus, it’s not the sex and the seduction I mind; it’s how poorly written it is. Nena is one in what will turn out to be a long parade of the “villain’s kept woman” who are described as giving Bond “conspiratorial glances” the second he shows up with a suspicious cover story that no one should believe.

Much of For Special Services is a pastiche of plots and events from previous Bond novels. Bismaquer’s sealed-off, Disneyworld-esque private estate is like the silly cowboy fantasy land constructed by the gangsters in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond’s cover as an art dealer is similar to his cover as a genealogist in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The eventual SPECTRE plot is reminiscent Goldfinger‘s raid on Fort Knox (the movie more than the book). And Bismaquer himself is basically the same villain as Dr. Murik from License Renewed: an oddball billionaire who is back-slapping and gregarious one moment, then batshit insane and furious the next. And like Murik, once he uncovers Bond’s true identity, he makes sure to explain every part of his plan to 007 and take him along whenever he can.

As to whether or not Bismaquer is the new Blofeld? The identity of the new Blofeld is a screamingly obvious mystery that is drawn out through the entire length of the book, mostly via lazy cheats in writing. For example, early in, there is a meeting of the new SPECTRE in a Louisiana bayou mansion. Blofeld is presiding over the meeting, in full view of everyone present and without manipulating appearance or voice—this exposure should, logically, extend to the reader, but while Gardner describes almost everyone else who plays a role in the meeting, he intentionally leaves out describing Blofeld, because he needs that to be a mystery—even though the solution to the mystery is visible from practically the beginning of the novel. Why be coy? Why cheat the reader in the service of such a weak “revelation?” And why did the movie Spectre fill the need to follow Gardner’s lead???

If you thought License Renewed‘s plot was far-fetched, then For Special Services‘ absurd mix of ice cream, mind control gas, mesmerism, and impossible invasions of top-secret military installations will have your eyes rolling. It’s like the plot of a Bond spoof than of an actual Bond novel. However — all those criticisms thus entered into the record, I thought For Special Services was a fun read. It’s obvious that Bond is not Gardner’s character, and that maybe Gardner is a poor fit for Bond, but when the author gets away from the character and concentrates on the action, For Special Services has an opportunity to shine. The opening hijacking scene is thrilling, as is a tense car race between Bond and Bismaquer’s typically disfigured henchman. Attempted assassination by ants and a number of chases and shoot-outs also afford Gardner a chance to take a break from writing Bond the character and concentrate instead on adventure. I’ll even let the ice cream-based infiltration plan slide. But not Cedar Leiter. Oh lord, Cedar Leiter.

Because these moments are good, I suspect the embarrassing awkwardness of the character moments, of the banter between Bond and the women, and the derivative nature of the villain is because Gardner was forced into a formula and a character with which he could not identify. Fleming was no great wordsmith, but his novels had charisma and spirit, because this snobbish old British man truly believed in, reveled in, and wanted to celebrate James Bond. Gardner took the job of writing another man’s character and as that other man, and it’s obvious that it doesn’t work well for him. Perhaps sensing this, For Special Services relies much more on Bond in action than the previous book, and it’s a substantial improvement.

Blending In with Bond

A Primer on Blended Scotch Whisky and 007’s Favorite Labels

It was a good plan. You managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain a madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target. But then his right-hand-man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you found yourself tied down in front of a villain sitting in an egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow-moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain to you his nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be blended scotch whisky.

For the villains of old spy and Bollywood thrillers, no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that slid open to reveal a silver serving tray, two rocks glasses, and a bottle of whisky. They drink it to celebrate. They offer it to the captured hero to gloat. They drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. It’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States—it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniac bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli slapping you around, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a wine cooler, and you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering a Fuzzy Navel. Those drinks have their place, but that place is not a secret lair inside a volcano.

James Bond, one of global culture’s most recognized imbibers, drinks no fewer than 317 drinks throughout the series of books authored by Ian Fleming. Most of those are whiskey or whiskey cocktails, with Bond favoring bourbon over scotch. It’s not random that Bond champions the American spirit; he likes to tweak his nose at his country of origin from time to time. Ian Fleming famously switched from gin to bourbon because his doctor told him it was better for his health. But scotch need not worry. Bond’s number one drinking buddy, American CIA agent Felix Leiter, has only two functions in the novels: to slap his forehead and exclaim, “James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” and to order Haig & Haig on the rocks.

Single Blender

Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains and water, with yeast added to activate fermentation. Scotch, simply enough, is whisky made in Scotland. Like champagne is to a specific type of sparkling wine from a specific region in France, so is “scotch” a legally defined and pugnaciously protected term. It has to be whisky, and it has to be from Scotland. There are other rules, but those are the basics. Within the sub-category of scotch, there are subdivisions, but the most important for now are single malt and blended scotch. A single malt is a whisky that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley. It does not have to be from a single batch distilled at the same time; just from the same distillery. For years, single malt was a niche product, but during the scotch revival of the 2000s, that changed.

Even with that change, blended scotch still makes up the bulk of the scotch that is made and consumed. Blended scotch combines a number of single malts in pursuit of a particular profile. These malts can come from any distillery, as long as it’s in Scotland. This blend is then further blended “neutral grain spirit”—something close to vodka, produced inexpensively and in large quantities. Traditionally, when people referred to scotch, they were referring to a blend, and when someone is asked to name a scotch brand, chances are that if they don’t say “Jack Daniels,” they’ll probably name a blended scotch: Johnnie Walker, most likely.

In a blend, the neutral spirit generally makes up the bulk of what you’re drinking. The higher the price, most times, the higher the amount of single malt in the blend, or the older the single malts. If you are going to put an age on the whisky, for single malts it is the duration between when it goes into a barrel and when it goes into a bottle. Whisky does not age once bottled. A ten-year-old whiskey from 1940 is still a ten-year-old whiskey. On a blend, if it carries an age statement, the age is of the youngest whiskey present. So if you combine a 50-year-old scotch and a four-year-old scotch, you have a four-year-old blend.

Because most single malts, despite the market for them on their own, are still sold to professional blenders (in fact, quite a few single malts will never be tasted by consumers, as 100% of the output is allocated for blending), and because less actual “whisky” goes into them, blends are less expensive and, thus more popular. Some are great, some are good, and some are terrible, but master blenders have been at this game for a long time now, and in a competitive market like whisky, few producers manage for very long with an inferior product.

If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of scotch, or if you are looking for a gift for an old-timer, blends are almost always the best bet. Master blenders work hard and have passed knowledge down for decades about creating appealing, enjoyable, and above all, consistent blends. Single malts, lacking the cheaper-to-make neutral grain spirit, are usually more expensive and have traditionally been less popular. However, among whisky connoisseurs, single malts enjoy much greater popularity, even if master blenders will joke that drinking a single malt is like eating the ingredients of a cake instead of combining them to make a cake.

Of War and Whisky, Monks and Malts

Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a fun but pointless endeavor. By the time people get around to writing something down, it’s been around for ages. For the sake of verifiable facts, however, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first known recorded appearance of whisky in Scotland. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry into the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky revealed its existence. But of course, that was just for the tax man. It had been around longer.

According to whisky lore, distillation came to Scotland by way of Ireland and is likely traced back to North Africa. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on grapes to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine-making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted. The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being “medicinal.” Surprisingly, it was sometimes even true. Scientists figured out that the presence of certain antibiotics, which would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years, in Egyptians mummies was because they occurred naturally in the beer Egyptians consumed.

The medieval version of whisky—the water of life, aqua vitae, or usquebaugh in Gaelic, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, you can figure it out—was raw stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that modern scotch. Distillation was primitive. The recipe and process varied from one maker to the next. Aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, growing in popularity but with no sort of agreed-upon definition or production method. A modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV of Scotland granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Whisky’s popularity continued to grow during the 1500s. The quality of spirit improved. Advances in still design and distillation produced spirits considerably less harsh than the early whiskies. And then there were the monks.

At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that seemed designed to guarantee rather than prevent war. The first to go at each other were Italy and France, in what would become known as The Italian Wars. If there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France, so England allied itself with Italy. James IV of Scotland, however, had a binding treaty with France. In 1295, Scotsman John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by the Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.

Italy—which is to say, Pope Leo X—was most displeased with Scotland and threatened the Scottish monarch with censure. England’s King Henry VIII decided that if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well declare himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out raids and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. the Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as the Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.

Things settled down, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Reformation, which among other things sought to combat the vast wealth of the Church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry VIII was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population—and also happened to make it easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the Church (and get a divorce). In 1534, Henry issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the Crown, rather than the Pope, supreme head of the Church of England.

Among the things Henry did as the Church of England extracted itself from the Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries. Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together going to do with their time? You can only chant so much. When Henry declared the monasteries to be no more, suddenly a lot of monks were out of a job. Forced to make it in the outside world, many fell back on their distilling skills, resulting in an influx of knowledgeable experts to the world of whisky-making and substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers—grocers who had surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.

Blend in the Wind

In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey, or Patent, still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky had been made in a pot still consisting of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only distill one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday.

The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.” But isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time meant that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate to call them “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly-flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because it is distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced using column stills, and many grain spirits are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof and then aged. So, a little fuzzy sure, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the history and laws of booze are fuzzy.

Grain whisky off those early column stills had an altogether different taste than the rustic pot still whisky being cooked up by Scottish hillbillies. But that hillbilly stuff, well, it had it’s good points, too. A man named Andrew Usher wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined , delicate column still whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world. Since then, “blended” scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts were a statistically non-existent sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch; that is to say, blended scotch.

Yet, as mentioned, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and “dumbed down” for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth—while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf. This arrangement does not reflect the reality of the market as a whole, however, even if it may reflect the focus of people at that particular specialty shop. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. There are fantastic, complex single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. The same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best single malt has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible, and the whole range in between.

The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are when ordering your first whisky, you probably ordered a blend. Those are the brands everyone knows. If your grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend (your dad didn’t drink scotch, at least not when he was your age; he drank beer and smoked weed). Recently, that wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers started making blends glamorous again. The over-inflation of single malt prices as they gear themselves more toward ultra-mega-billionaire investors and portfolio managers rather than drinkers also meant that people with less money to spend started eying blends. What they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good.

Going for a Walk

When you talk blends, especially blends favored by movie villains, there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker, the drink of choice for screen villains and heroes alike. Johnnie Walker boasts an almost incomprehensible cinematic pedigree, thanks to its popularity, along with VAT 69, in the prolific film industry of India. Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor, including Johnnie Walker, a comedic actor who changed his name to reflect the popularity of, well, Johnnie Walker.

To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of the government, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra has celebrated victory or drowned defeat with Red or Black Label. Pretty much every Bollywood hero has had it offered to him by a sneering villain or femme fatale. The “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in Johnnie Walker Red likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.

Johnnie Walker started as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer-turned-grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He figured that, although tea leaves were nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more palatable. He began mixing malts together, then blended them with less abrasive grain whisky to create his signature store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut—at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business. Alexander Walker was ambitious. He was the one who created the brand’s unique identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was the one who came up with the square bottle, a design that reduced breakage during shipping and also enabled retailers to fit more onto a shelf.

Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business in 1889. Alexander Walker Jr. expanded and improved the product portfolio. By 1906, the John Walker & Sons whisky company offered three blends: the basic blend, with a white label; Extra Special Old Highland, with a red label; and Walkers Old Highland Whisky, 12-years-old and sporting a black label. In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. In 1909, George Walker hired cartoonist Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne created a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots—the iconic Walking Man.

Through a combination of canny, aggressive advertising and quality product, Johnnie Walker became one of the pre-eminent global brands. In 1925, when a lot of consolidation was happening and businesses were reeling from American experimentation with Prohibition, Johnnie Walker merged with Distillers Co. Ltd, an arrangement that stayed in place until they became part of Guinness in 1986. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, the whisky world’s number one Blofeld-esque supervillain. Diageo’s stewardship of Johnnie Walker has been fraught with controversy, as are most things involving Diageo.

The global beverage mega-corporation shuttered the facility in Kilmarnock, causing substantial economic strife in a small town who’s number one industry was Johnnie Walker. Accusations of a substantial drop in quality plagued the brand as well, though whether these are true or simply a symptom of the dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter of debate. Suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good chance the entire town of Kilmarnock found itself dangling over a crocodile pit while Diageo offered it a tumbler of Johnnie Walker and explained its dastardly plan to close the plant (citation needed).

Bollywood’s relationship with whisky in general, and Johnnie Walker in particular, is also contentious and often contradictory. India consumes more Johnnie Walker than anywhere else in the world, and their fondness for it is what makes it the most popular whisky in the world. In fact, Johnnie is so popular in India that there are years when Indian consumers purchase more Johnnie Walker than is actually made. Counterfeiting Johnnie Walker is a booming business that India is only just now beginning to get under control, a fact that has led to a seemingly endless economic and legal battle between India and the Scotch Whisky Association, the body tasked with enforcing a variety of trade agreements and copyright issues.

In movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia inherent in judging the perceived vices of others. Out of one side of the mouth, Indian cinema frames alcohol as a demon stalking virtue and traditional Indian goodness. Johnnie Walker, more times than not, is the drink of the evil or a crutch for the weak. Out of the other side of its mouth, of course, whisky is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. That message, of Johnnie Walker equating to a more sophisticated status, is often undercut by the need to pander both to the urbane city dweller and the more suspicious traditionalists who see such advancement as horrifying and immoral.

Ultimately, the morality expressed by most Indian cinema is the same as the one espoused by the cinema of most other countries: buy a ticket. So Johnnie Walker remains both hero and villain, success and ruin. Whatever the case, you’ll see a lot of it. When the villain swivels around to offer you a pour from his bottle of Johnnie Black, sneer at him and say, “I prefer Green Label. But then, it’s less common so perhaps you’ve not familiar with it.” You may still get strapped to the nose of a nuclear missile, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniac super villain.

Bond In a Pinch

Ironically, the most recognizable scotch in the world never makes an appearance in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Fleming himself, when he wasn’t downing a pint of gin or whatever, preferred bourbon because he thought it was healthier (he also thought Miller High Life was the greatest beer in the world). But as mentioned, while James Bond might have reflected Fleming’s taste for the American spirit, and while Johnnie Walker may be conspicuous by its absence, there’s no shortage of scotch consumed in the Bond books, most of it by Bond’s number one sidekick, Felix Leiter. And there’s nothing Leiter likes more than Haig & Haig on the rocks.

Perhaps no other brand is mentioned by name and consumed quite so often as Haig & Haig, known these days as Pinch and instantly recognizable thanks to the odd-shaped bottle enclosed in a thin web. Haig & Haig, or Pinch—or Dimple, as it’s known everywhere but the United States—was one of the first-recorded whiskey distilling companies. Well, in a manner of speaking. It got on the books when farmer Robert Haig was summoned before church elders in 1655 to answer for the crime of operating his still on the Sabbath. Blue laws, you know. Haig & Haig proper came into existence 1824, when one of the blasphemous farmer’s descendants, John Haig, opened a distillery in Cameronbridge, Scotland. In 1870, John’s son, John, became the first Haig to go into scotch blending. One of his best creations was Pinch, introduced sometime in the 1890s. Like many scotches, Haig & Haig was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate United Distillers and Vintner, and later became part of beverage leviathan Diageo.

Massive quantities of the stuff, still referred to at the time as Haig & Haig (that portion of the name was eventually dropped) are consumed in the Bond novels. Felix Leiter has two Haig & Haigs on the rocks in Casino Royale. In fact, it shares space with perhaps the single most quoted drinks order in James Bond history, short of “vodka Martini…shaken, not stirred.”
Bond insisted ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A Dry Martini”, he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” That’s Haig & Haig, rubbing shoulders with the cocktail soon to be known as the Vesper.

In Live and Let Die, Bond and Leiter drink it in Harlem and share a bottle when they’re in Florida. Bond also drinks Haig & Haig by himself while wasting time in his hotel room in New York. In Moonraker, Bond finds a half a bottle of Haig & Haig in the villain’s desk and drains it with Gala Brandt. You know, to prepare for the harrowing life-or-death mission ahead. The Dimple also makes appearances in Goldfinger, the short story The Living Daylights, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Marc-Ange Draco drinks Pinch when he meets 007. Draco is one of the Bond associates for whom Fleming had the most affection (note his “warm, dry handshake,” a sure sign of trustworthiness in any Bond novel), so having him prefer Pinch is a glowing endorsement.

Bond in Black and White

Bond also proves fond of Black & White, a blended scotch whiskey that traces its beginnings to the 1880s. It was an offshoot of London-based whiskey makers James Buchanan and Company’s Buchanan Blend and was originally known as House of Commons. Buchanan was actually born in Canada, lived in Scotland, and was raised in Northern Ireland. He got into the whiskey business through his brother’s grain company, and after picking up experience, became a London agent for whiskey blenders Charles Mackinlay & Co. He set up his own company five years later, acquiring casks of whiskey for private clients.

He soon noticed that the bulk of the product available on the market did not appeal to the London palette. He set out to create a blend that would find purchase among the denizens of the big city. The result was House of Commons, deriving its name from one of Buchanan’s biggest booze clients, the British House of Commons. However, the distinctive packaging—a black bottle with a white label depicting a Scottish Terrier and white Westhighland Terrier—eventually became so recognizable that the whiskey changed its name to Black & White.
Buchanan pushed Black & White into other markets: France, Germany, Canada, The United States, New Zealand and South Africa. He established satellite offices in Paris, New York, Hamburg and Buenos Aires. He used the money from his success to purchase several Scottish distilleries, including the lowland distillery Bankier and the highland distillery Convalmore. He built his own distillery, Glentauchers, at Mullben in 1898 and later acquired the Campbeltown Distillery Lochruan.

Buchanan, like many distillers, ran into hard times because of Prohibition. The industry was already in turmoil. Many distilleries were going out of business, so distillers began forming coalitions. Chief among these was the Distillers Company, Ltd. (DCL). Buchanan and some associates formed their own Scotch Whisky Brands, Ltd. in 1915. When, on top of that, Prohibition began across the Atlantic, things got dire. After a merger in 1919, Buchanan’s coalition changed its name to Buchanan-Dewar’s. Eventually, “Buchanan” was dropped. Dewar’s became part of the DCL family. Black & White changed hands a couple more times, passing for a time to Guinness before finding its way to its current home under the globe-encompassing umbrella of spirits megalith Diageo, which it turns out is actually controlled by SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavros Blofeld (citation needed).

Bond drinks his first Black & White in the novel Moonraker, when he stops in at a Dover pub called World Without Want to investigate the murder of a Ministry of Supply security officer. He also enjoys a Black & White in the movie Dr. No when he, Leiter, and Quarrel are having a post-dinner round before they confront a mysterious female photographer trying to snap their pictures.

Starting in the Pierce Brosnan era of movies, single malts started making appearances, first int he form of Talisker and, in the Craig era, Macallan. Additionally, the movies finally started tapping into that spirit that truly captured 007’s heart: bourbon. And that is another tale.


It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.

Arjun Rampal plays Aadit Arya, super-duper Army commando and part-time international spy. When evil Kashmiri Muslims hatch a scheme to kidnap the President of India while he is in Switzerland, it’s up to Arya, and for some reason only Arya, to foil the dastardly scheme. You might think that the kidnapping of a country’s president would inspire a slightly more forceful reaction and better security, but I guess the security here is orchestrated by the same people who arranged the security for the transport of weapons-grade plutonium in James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. I also thought by the time of this movie, the whole evil Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim thing was played out. Didn’t Sunny Deol single-handedly defeat the entire Pakistani army and all radical Muslim terrorists groups simply by staring at them in an intense fashion with a flag waving behind him in slow motion? Years after the fact, however, Rai returns to that seemingly eternal well, though frankly, the whole Kashmiri/Pakistani thing is really little more than window dressing by this point. It doesn’t feel like the movie’s heart is really into it. I reckon they assume you pretty much got the gist of things at this point, so they throw the Kashmiri terrorists in as a way to get the ball rolling without having to explain motivation.

In Switzerland, Arya poses as a reporter and meets the obligatory gorgeous female pop star, Alisha (Priyanka Chopra). Since this is a Bollywood film, we can’t have just one plot. So Alisha is the unwitting drug mule for slick Switzerland-based Indian criminal Sam Hans (Naseeruddin Shah, who steals the film, though that’s no big feat considering the rest of the cast), who works with her handlers to hide the drugs inside musical instruments. Having Alisha in the movie means that we now have our excuse for gratuitous musical numbers, though in all honesty, they’re pretty tame by comparison to many musical numbers. Most of them are just passed off as club performances or video shoots, which is kind of weak even if it is more “realistic.” None of the songs are all that catchy, and the choreography is pretty listless. In an effort to add to the realism, we frequently cut from people who do look hot and are able to dance to people who don’t and can’t. Seeing big hulking gangster henchmen beaming big, goofy smiles and doing that “I can’t really dance” dance is pretty funny, though.

Eventually, we learn that Sam is involved with the terrorists who kidnap the president, but he’s hardly in the scheme for political reasons. And since he’s the coolest character in the film, you can also figure that he’ll be the one with ulterior motives and depth of character that allow for the obligatory “moment of redemption.” There’s another subplot that unveils the fact that someone in the Indian Embassy has betrayed their country as well and is in league with the terrorists. Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Switzerland is apparently staffed by a number of leggy bombshells in micro-skirts and cleavage-revealing tops.

Naseeruddin Shah seems to be channeling a bit of Gary Oldman crossed with Graham Norton’s wardrobe in his portrayal of Sam Hans. He’s flamboyant but stops just short of scene-chewing or going needlessly over-the-top, though he does wear lots of lavender silk suits and whatnot. Whatever the case, he turns in a good performance made better by the fact that everyone else is pretty bad. The hitman in the long shiny blue trenchcoat is just silly, and he looks sort of like Benny Urquidez mixed with Christian Slater, but with none of the menace such an abomination would actually exude. Our hero Arya is pretty much a non-entity through most of the film. He shows up from time to time to kungfu the crap out of people, but Arjun Rampal really isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. He looks good, he handles action believably, but his character is thoroughly uninteresting. Villains are always the better and more complex characters, and it takes an actor of tremendous talent or a very good (for the hero) or bad (for the villain) screenwriter to make the hero more interesting than the villain. Compared to Sam Hans, Arya barely even registers. For long stretches of film, you’ll forget that he’s even in it.

Priyanka Chopra has little more to do besides tag along, get captured, and look beautiful. She does all these things well, and also handles most of the movie’s musical numbers. The one that doesn’t involve her is also the only one that isn’t set in a club and grounded in some daft semblance of reality. Upon successfully kidnapping the president, the vile terrorist organization retires to their lair of villainy to celebrate with a musical number that involves a scantily clad woman singing and dancing with a whole cast of bald gay guys in short shorts, combat boots, and chain mail. It’s like these terrorists pack an entire dance troupe of Right Said Fred clones with them. Maybe they should have just unleashed their nightmarish Right Said Fred army on the world. No one would be expecting some Islamic Fundamentalist to stand in front of a camera and broadcast through Al Jazeera that he’s “too sexy for this Jihad!”

But then, this terrorist organization does have a martial arts hitman in a shiny blue trenchcoat, and a squad that drives around Switzerland in generic “mercenary” fatigues, including a woman in camo booty shorts and a halter top. And you thought the revolution was all chadors and guys with scraggly beards. This is by far the battiest musical number, and as such, the best.

There are a couple of things this film does differently than the average Bollywood film, and even the average Bollywood action film. Most noticeable is the more or less complete absence of a romantic subplot. Oh sure Alisha and Arya are going to fall in love, but the film spends hardly any time at all on this. There’s not even a musical montage of them set against the various famous landmarks of the world. No, they simply meet, and then we assume they’re in love because this is a movie and they’re the male and female leads. Some Bollywood films would spend a good hour on a romantic comedy subplot, but Asambhav is content to simply take the well-worn path all action films take, and just say, “Look, they fall in love, OK?” Then it’s on to some kungfu. There’s also precious little comic relief. Arya gets saddled with a comic relief sidekick agent in Switzerland, but his mugging is graciously limited.

Even with all that, the director must have thought that the real star of the film was the director, because he crams every cheap trick and technique he can into the film. It’s like watching distilled essence of 24 mixed with Mission: Impossible, which seems to be this film’s main inspiration, especially since “mission asambhav” translates more or less to “mission impossible.” Or if that’s too good for you, then Mission: Impossible 2. For starters, this film can’t go ten seconds without a split screen. Sometimes, it’s five or six different frames in one shot. And it’s not just in scenes where split screen might heighten the tension or give us an alternate point of view. No, much of the time, it happens when something as mundane as a guy reaching for a tissue is all that’s going on. Need to pick up a pencil? Show three different angles, and make sure one of them is in slow motion with thumping techno music in the background. This movie also loves that thing where you start in slow motion, then the action speeds up to super-hyper fast motion for a second, then goes back to slow motion. Once again, this is used at the drop of a hat, often with no meaning at all. Walking down the street? Why not shoot it slow-hyper-slow? And it’s not like anyone is walking to a fight or anything. They’re just walking down to the mailbox to see if their new issue of India Times has arrived.

There’s also the tendency to have “ghost images” of a person appear, again for no real reason. Rather than augmenting or working with the action in the movie, all these goofy tricks simply distract you. They muddy the waters. They stink of a first-time music video director getting final edit on a feature film, though Rai is not a first-time director. He’s just a bad director. The one thing I will say in his defense, however, is that as far as I remember, there was not a single instance of “bullet time.” And let that be a lesson to all other directors: if bullet time is too tired even for Rajid Rai, who has never seen a stupid editing trick he didn’t like, then it’s really past its prime. So let bullet time go, people. Let it go. Rajit Rai did, and he replaced it with doing four-thousand split screens in one shot.

It’s amazing just how crippling over-direction can be. Asambhav would not be an especially good film even if it had a good director, but Rajid Rai’s relentless over-indulgence really pulls the carpet out from under what was otherwise an unimpressive-but-enjoyable action film. At the same time, I might have been bored if this movie had been competently directed. The sheer insanity exhibited by Rai does, I must admit, turn this film into an absolute disaster, but one that is largely entertaining. I don’t like to pull the “so bad it’s good” card all that often, but it sort of applies here. You have an average film. It’s made awful by an over-indulgent director. But then, it becomes so over-indulgent, so awful, that it comes full circle and manages to be sort of entertaining in a way. It’s by no means much of a recommendation, but it’s the best I can do. The fight scenes are solid but uninspired. The acting is mostly below-average. The musical numbers are largely unengaging. But you know, the whole thing is such a hideous eyesore that it kept me watching.

Plus, Sam Hans was all right. Every single time he shows up on screen, no matter how mundane his appearance, the soundtrack blares with “O Fortuna.” And it can’t bear to stop the song. They thought it was so cool that even when Sam talks, they keep “O Fortuna” rolling, only at a nearly inaudible level. As soon as Sam pauses, the song volume rockets back up, then back down if he speaks again. So Asambhav really has few redeeming features (Naseeruddin Shah’s hamming is the only one I can think of at the moment. Well, that and Priyanka Chopra’s midriff, and that crazy-ass hard gay musical number the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists put on).

It’s a crummy action film with awful direction. It’s a completely soulless, paint-by-numbers action film that could have been churned out by a computer. It’s never thrilling, and the lead male and female character disappear for large swaths of film, and you don’t even notice or care because they were pretty boring anyway. This movie is a total bomb, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Don’t listen to me, because I’m going to tell you to go ahead and see Asambhav. The near universal chorus of bad reviews this movie received are right, and I am wrong. Don’t do it. Why do you even trust me any more? For God’s sake, man, that’s the road to madness!!!

License Renewed

In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. Critically, it was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis “writing down.” So on and so forth.

Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding Martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name—Robert Markham—never came to fruition. While the Bond franchise flourished on screen, it was dormant throughout the whole of the 1970s in print other than the occasional adaptation based on one of the movies. By 1980, however, with the movies still bringing in massive box office returns, Putnam Publishing—which had acquired the rights to the character from Glidrose Publications—figured it was time to hire someone new to put pen to paper (or probably finger to keys) and start authoring new James Bond novels.

The job fell to John Gardner—no, not that John Gardner; the other John Gardner. The one who didn’t write Grendel. Having grown up with an Anglican priest for a father, and during the war having proved himself not much of a military man (Gardner described himself as “the worst commando in the world”), young John Gardner was prepping for a life in the priesthood when he realized one day that he didn’t believe anything he was studying or preaching. His loss of faith ended any religious aspirations, and Gardner became a drama critic and depressed alcoholic.

By 1964 however, his drinking was under control, and he published his first novel, Spin the Bottle. That same year, he also wrote The Liquidator, his first adventure novel. It tells the story of Boysie Oakes, an icy, calculating, tough-as-nails bruiser who is recruited into the British Secret Service—where Oakes is terrified they will discover he is, in fact, a queasy, weak-kneed coward. The book was written as a response—a negative one, mind you—to the popularity of James Bond. Gardner was not alone in his desire to skewer Bond. A host of authors, including John le Carré, started writing books that were consciously “anti” Bond. le Carré went grim and bleak. Gardner went with humor. He built a fair career for himself as a novelist who didn’t mind dabbling in the world of espionage thrillers.

When it came time to chose an author to continue Ian Fleming’s legacy, the publisher found it difficult to fill the job. Most authors of note did not want to step into the shadow of Ian Fleming and James Bond, feeling that it was either too much cultural baggage to lift or that they were above such material. Eventually, the job was offered to Gardner, who after careful consideration, perhaps figured that this was a way to rectify some of the things he had always thought to be wrong with Bond.

Assuming the mantle of “author of the James Bond novels” was a loaded situation. Fans of Fleming would dissect the pages to see how “Fleming” they were, tolerating no deviation from how they thought Fleming might have written the book. Fans of Gardner would inevitably want to see the author’s style in the story, a new take and new direction for Bond, rather than a man trying to mimic Fleming. And a lot of other people, those who knew James Bond as Sean Connery or Roger Moore, would demand that the new books be like the movies, while others would inevitably complain they were too much like the movies. All of this you could predict would happen before Gardner had even typed his first word.

Expectation and misconception (in retrospect, many of the criticisms that say Gardner’s books aren’t enough like Fleming’s betray a lack of memory regarding Fleming; they are, in fact, remembering traits from the film and projecting them onto Fleming’s books) were only a portion of what Gardner had to deal with. The publisher was understandably protective of Bond and had a number of demands and restrictions. Gardner had to submit outlines for approval. There was a long list of things Bond, M, and the rest of the recurring characters must and must not do (M never curses, for example). And there was, overall, a specific formula and tone to which Gardner had to stick. It was a lot for a creative person to agree to. But agree he did, and in 1981 License Renewed, the first original Bond novel since Colonel Sun, hit the shelves.

License Renewed sets the stage for the entirety of Gardner’s run. They are contemporary stories, rather than being set in the ’50s and ’60s as were Fleming’s (contemporary themselves, for the time they were written). Some minor lip service is paid to Bond being older (he is greying at the temples), but the flow of time has been tweaked, so he’s not that much older (more Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, less Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again). Basically, it is as if the dozen or so years since Colonel Sun happened, but they only took a few years. In that time, a lot has changed for Bond, intelligence services, and the world in general. The 00 section has been disbanded, and Bond finds himself something only a step or two more active than a desk jockey. He’s also switched to low-tar, filtered cigarettes and has traded in his beloved Bentley for a more fuel-efficient Saab 900 Turbo.

John Gardner (left) and author Douglas Rutherford (right), with the Saab that Saab paid a lot of money to have James Bond drive.

The frustrating idleness in which we first reacquaint ourselves with Bond affords Gardner to do one of the things he really wanted to do with the character: show more of his life outside missions and MI6. While it may not sound fun to read several pages of Bond puttering around the house, it’s actually something I found interesting. Granted, it doesn’t last—even I don’t want a Bond book entirely about Bond doing household chores and wondering what’s on television. That’s more of a Harry Palmer thing.

When MI5 (In England, MI6 like the CIA takes care of international affairs, while MI5 is like the FBI and handles domestic incidents) starts to get suspicious about a temperamental, brilliant, disgraced nuclear scientist living in the remote wilds of Scotland, they ask MI6 if they might borrow a man for a bit of work. Partially agreeing, M privately reactivates the 00 section under the name Special Services and assigns it a single agent: James Bond.

After getting a new gun and bedding the assistant armorer (the books never had a Q; they had Major Boothroyd. License Renewed splits the difference, giving us a female assistant to Boothroyd who is irritatingly—extremely irritatingly—referred to as Q’ute), Bond is off on a typically convoluted mission to ingratiate himself with the reclusive, likely mad, billionaire genius Dr. Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy, though his lordship is highly suspect (I guess Gardner read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). To figure out what it is Murik is planning, and why he seems to be consorting with known terrorist mastermind Franco, Bond sells himself as a mercenary looking for work. Despite being on the verge of a major terrorist plot that will shake the world, Murik doesn’t seem especially suspicious when a stranger shows up out of the blue at a horse race looking for work that would make him privy to all of the doctor’s secret machinations. Helping Bond out along the way is the forgettable Lavender Peacock as Murik’s niece, the first in a long line of terrible female characters written by John Gardner. And I mean terrible. Almost incomprehensibly terrible. If female representation is important to you (it is to me), you’ll find yourself thinking even Ian Fleming was better at writing women.

I went into this book pretty excited and prone to liking it. I knew that it and all of the Gardner Bond books received lukewarm receptions, but that didn’t matter to me. Unfortunately, “lukewarm” is a pretty apt description of License Renewed. I understand the restrictions under which Gardner had to labor, and I understand what he was trying to do, but License Renewed never comes together. It feels like a promising draft but not a final novel. It’s not the usual things that are cited that bug me. I don’t mind that John Gardner isn’t Ian Fleming. This is a different author writing the same character in a different era. It shouldn’t read like a Fleming imitation. In fact, the whole “he’s not like Ian Fleming!” criticism rings false. His style is close—mechanically, if not quite in spirit—and like I said, before his death, Fleming’s style was often as savaged by critics as was Gardner’s.

What does irk me, and this may be purely an “in retrospect” effect because I am reading this book in now instead of 1980, is the late ’70s cheeseball factor that creeps in. Gardner’s handling of “sexy banter” between Bond and the three main female characters—Q’ute (oh God, how I loathe that nickname), Lavender Peacock (itself a pretty dumb name), and Murik’s mistress, Mary Jane Mashkin—is dreadful. I would say it’s only worthy of Roger Moore’s Bond at his worst, but that would be selling Moore short. Bond operates with all the cool of a middle-aged lounge lizard with new hair plugs working divorcees at the bar in one of Reno’s less popular casinos. The double entendres and sex talk are less James Bond, more Dean Martin as Matt Helm. I groaned aloud several times (which I’m sure Gardner’s Bond would have used as occasion for another lame double entendre), but never so often as I did during the ridiculous “assembling the gun” scene between Bond and Q’u…oh, let’s just call her Ann.

The primarily plot, in which Murik wants to hold the world blackmail by sending terrorists out to take over nuclear power plants, is a bit on the far-fetched side, but not unbelievably so. Within the world of James Bond, it’s perfectly passable as a mad scheme. Murik is a decent villain with the usual Bond villain shortcomings, and his henchman is…well, he’s just muscle. Like Red Grant without any of the interesting back story or character motivation. The secondary plot, about Murik’s fake lordship and the true heir to the Lairdship of Murcaldy, is inconsequential for most of the book.

Bond himself is about the same character as when last we saw him, except for the sub-Roger Moore sex quips. Complaints that this Bond is a little more wishy-washy, a little more unsure of himself, are again remembering Sean Connery more than the books, where Bond was frequently conflicted and, frankly, a bit over-emotional and even panicked from time to time. Lavender Peacock exists primarily so Bond has someone to bed, someone to assist him, and someone who can constantly say, “Oh James, you will protect me, won’t you?”

Gardner can’t write women, but he does write action well. Bond’s initial stalking of Murik’s remote castle, a car chase in the dead of night, and the finale on board a cargo plane are all fun. Once again, we have a villain who for no believable reason keeps Bond alive and brings him along to where he can muck things up, but I reckon that’s just one of the things you have to roll with, like Bond always getting captured.

Overall the book is as about as good as Casino Royale and about as flawed, though in different ways. For the most part, I enjoyed it just enough not to mind the flaws. License Renewed is not the sort of book I would go to war for. If you were bored by it or actively hated it, I would understand, but I thought it was perfectly acceptable. If you, like me, are interested to see where Bond would go after Fleming (and Amis) now that it was the 1980s, then License Renewed isn’t going to let you down, but it’s not really going to excite you either.