Recently I have been re-reading some of John Gardner’s James Bond novels, and although they have been rather flawed, I have still enjoyed them. That is till now. As a teenager, I remember enjoying Role of Honour, but upon this reading I found it to be extremely convoluted, and the writing style varied from chapter to chapter – only returning to what I would call Gardner’s natural fluent writing style for the climax – which, by that time the damage had been done.
Let’s analyse the mess. Firstly, the basic plot premise is that James Bond has left the secret service under somewhat of a cloud. Of course this is a ruse to draw out some foreign agents who have been recruiting former spies. This story base, is not too dissimilar to that of The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, where Alex Leamas posed as washed up and drunken ex-spy. So while it being derivative, it is still a solid foundation for a spy story, however, Gardner then implements his first layer of plot convolution, and that is to make James Bond a high-level computer programmer. Yeah, yeah!
And this is believed. Bond is introduced to computer mastermind named Jay Autem-Holly, who offers him a position. Now this may be a minor spoiler, but we are talking about a book that has been published for over twenty-five years, so forgive me, but Autem-Holly has been hired by SPECTRE to use his computer skills to implement their latest scheme. And furthermore, SPECTRE is aware that Autem-Holly has employed Bond, and yet they do not object. Surely SPECTRE would have a file on Bond, as he is responsible for the death of the last two leaders of the SPECTRE organisation, and be fully aware that Bond is not a computer programmer.
Okay, the thing is SPECTRE know who Bond is, and need him for another purpose, but that is really a moot point, because even if Bond had left the service under a cloud, he would not willingly work for the organisation that killed his wife. The fact that he does willing work for SPECTRE should have alerted Holly and SPECTRE’s hierachy that he had not in fact left the service, but it was a ruse to discover their plan. It’s a contrived double edged sword. Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. But that is just clumsy plotting.
In the book there is also a strange passage in the middle where Bond is spirited off to a SPECTRE training camp, called Erehwon, which I am sure you realise is ‘nowhere’ backwards. Actually, I like to think that this training camp is on SPECTRE Island which featured in the film From Russia With Love. I have often thought about SPECTRE Island and wondered if it was ever closed down. In the films, it’s a plot point that is never resolved, and as such I believe it is still operating to this day, training terrorists and other nefarious villains. But I digress. Now, at Erehwon, Bond is put through a training routine, and suddenly the story gets rather violent. What I mean is, more violent than the usual Bond adventure – and in particular the three preceding Bond novels written by John Gardner.
This is just a theory, with no basis beyond the fact that I have been reading a few Mack Bolan novels from the mid 1980s recently – that I believe there was a deliberate attempt to toughen up the Bond stories to compete with the burgeoning popularity of the Bolan stories. Remember, Mack Bolan and The Executioner series were rebooted in 1981, which also happens to be the same year that Gardner’s Licence Renewed hit the book stands. By the mid 1980’s, Mack Bolan had grown to the point where spin off series such as Phoenix Force and Able Team were being launched. Maybe the Bond publishers, or possibly even Gardner himself, saw Bolan and his expanding action adventure universe as a threat, and as such decided to up the ante, by bringing a harder visceral style to the action passages in the Bond stories. I must admit, I’ll be curious to read the action passages in the next Bond novel Nobody Lives Forever and see how they stack up. Maybe this burst of violence was just a brief blip on the radar, or maybe it was the beginning of a conscious move to toughen up Bond.
Role of Honour is definitely not the Bond book to chose to read as an introduction to the work of John Gardner. Admittedly, half way through, the story starts to pull itself together (with many of the plot elements from the first half jettisoned), but most readers wont have the patience to get that far into the story. And even then, a decent second half does not compensate for a poorly plotted and patchily written beginning. This was quite a disappointment. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have fond memories of Gardner’s Bond continuation novels, enjoying almost all of them when i read them as a teenager. The one I didn’t like was Win, Lose or Die – It’ll be curious to see how it stacks up today?
Gary Dobbs at the excellent The Tainted Archive, in his review of Role of Honour has some quotes from John Gardner, where he suggests that it was his weakest book (to that point), and much of this had to do with rewrites to avoid similar scenes in the film Never Say Never Again. Also, it is suggested that Gardner was burnt out after the first three novels, and was scheduled to take a break, but book sales were strong, and Gardner never got his break. Reading the story, this almost makes sense, the book reads very tired at the start, and as I alluded to earlier, many of the hi-tech computer plot points are jettisoned in the second half of the story.
Here’s hoping that Nobody Lives Forever sees a return to form for Gardner.