Once upon a time there used to be a bookshop on Charing Cross Road which focused solely on crime fiction.
Going through its doors and seeing its crammed to the ceiling shelves and smelling its slightly musty smell was like entering an Aladdin’s Cave for bibliophiles. There you could find hundreds, if not thousands, of crime novels most people would previously never have heard of.
Cult classics, neglected oddities, private detectives series whose names – and the detectives themselves – had totally passed me by.
One of the corners of this shop was focused entirely on Sherlock Holmes and the – startling at first – fact that there seemed to be dozens of authors who were making their living writing Sherlock Holmes fiction. Many of whom had written far more Holmes fiction than Conan-Doyle did himself.
I mention all this as John Gardner actually did write more James Bond novels than Ian Fleming. Throughout the Eighties he used to turn out pretty much one a year.
When I was young and making my way though the Bond novels for the first time, I did read a few of them – and to be honest I can’t remember much about them.
And so, it set me wondering whether, much like those other Sherlock Holmes books, these other James Bond novels – by the most prolific author to ever write the character – are destined to be sadly forgotten on dusty shelves of specialist bookshops.
I did hope for better, I did hope for a lost gem, but really, the first of the series, is not spectacular. It doesn’t make one totally reappraise the character, not does it feel anything like a lost Fleming classic. The best I can say about it is that it’s fine.
The first thing to address as a fan of the original books is that the timing takes a bit of getting used to. This is undoubtedly the same character Fleming wrote about, only now it’s the 1980s and this World War 2 veteran isn’t at pensionable age, but instead merely has a few grey hairs.
What makes this so odd is that Fleming’s originals aren’t set on a floating timeline. They seem to be fairly contemporaneous with the world around them and Bond gets older and wearier and more haunted by his memories as the books go on.
This floating timeline Bond seems to owe more to the films, and one can’t help thinking if Gardner wanted to go that way then he should have grabbed more from the films. (He did, after all, write a couple of novelisations.) As the films – for all their flaws – are at least trying to be entertaining, and this is just a bit dull.
This is a flat book, one without any panache. It’s perfectly fine for what it is, but that’s all it’s aiming for. And I really suspect that the reason I don’t remember anything of his books from when I was young is that there’s nothing there to really remember.
(ICEBREAKER, I certainly read as a youth; maybe ROLE OF HONOR too)
The villain is boring, the henchman is from large Scotsman central casting, and the Bond girl is so insipid that the only intrigue about her is why the villain kept her around for so long (I’m still not totally sure). The plot does have stakes and a certain amount of jeopardy, but it also moves from A to B to C without much in the way of surprises.
Spoiler alert: James Bond saves the day – which is obvious, but it’s all so rote that you can’t help thinking that he himself would have forgotten all about it by his first martini that evening.
Stepping into another author’s shoes is always going to be a thankless task. You’re generally never going to compare to the original, and I know that John Gardner’s own Boasie Oakes novels are held in high regard so his literary reputation is assured. This though is a by the numbers James Bond adventure that never takes risks and really does deserve to be sat in a dark, forgotten corner of the James Bond canon.
Fancy a taste of my own thriller, DIANA CHRISTMAS, you can read the first three chapters here!