04 December 2007

Death Is Forever, Even if John Gardner Is Not

Death Is Forever (1992)
By John Gardner

I mentioned in October the death of British espionage novelist John Gardner, who had an important role in the literary career of James Bond, even if fans' opinions of the quality of his contributions are not high. He wasn't Ian Fleming, but he wasn't trying to be, either. Over the scope of his fourteen 007 continuation novels he did provide some entertaining times, and I rate him higher than Raymond Benson, the author who followed him with six more novels. Benson tried to move closer to Fleming, but his writing plain and simple falls flat for me. And too often he switches into an "autopilot" mode where it seems he's rattling off a script for one of the Pierce Brosnan movies.

Last year I read a few of the John Gardner Bonds I had not picked up before. I initially read them in high school when they were still coming out regularly, but I stopped after Win, Lose or Die, which I really disliked. Its uncreative mix of Die Hard and Top Gun I couldn't stomach (although it did inspire me to write the only piece of fanfic I've ever done, and it wasn't bad for a tenth grader). In 1999 I dropped in for a moment to read Never Send Flowers just for a quick Bond fix. I still think it's one of the better Gardners, and wins points for being different without completely losing the Bondian touch like The Man from Barbarossa does. Last year, while in the Bond reading groove because of the approaching release of the movie version of Casino Royale, I started to read the Gardner 007s I had missed: Scorpius, Brokenclaw, and the aforementioned Man from Barbarossa. Gardner's recent death has now prompted me again to edge toward completing his Bond cycle. I finished Death Is Forever last night, so there only two more books remain. Appropriately, they are Gardner's last two books in the series: SeaFire and COLD (U.S. title: Cold Fall).

Death Is Forever takes its title from a line in Diamonds Are Forever where Bond muses on death's permanency after he kills an organized crime assassin aboard the Queen Mary. "Nothing is forever except what you did to me," Bond imagines the dead man says to him. At the conclusion of the book, Bond segues into the title with the realization that, "Death is forever. But so are diamonds." Gardner's novel, however, isn't connected to Diamonds Are Forever in any way, nor does the title have much thematic relevance. Hell, almost any bond novel could be titled Death Is Forever. Like many of Gardner's later Bond books, the story is just a long series of double-crosses and false identities, none tightly woven or intriguing. There's a depressing sense throughout Death Is Forever that Gardner is making it up as he goes, and that he isn't much invested in the book.

The novel does have political interest, as it is the first Bond book published after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gardner addresses that in the plot, but seems to ignore its implications to backtrack to a standard "evil commie" story. A former Stasi agent and lapboy to "Uncle Joe" Stalin (no kidding, that's what he calls Stalin) named Wolfgang Weisen—a.k.a. "The Poison Dwarf," even though he isn't short nor is he dangerous when ingested—has started a campaign take out the agents of CABAL, an underground Western operation in the former East Germany. Bond gets sent in to find out why the agents of CABAL, who have gone into hiding, are dropping dead from old-fashioned Cold War murder methods. Bond, accompanied by a very forgettable love interest from the CIA named Easy St. John, inserts himself among the CABAL survivors, but can he trust anyone? Yes, the requisite fake-outs follow, but none of it is particularly griping until some action in Venice and the final race to stop Weisen from blowing up the newly constructed Channel Tunnel with the world's leaders trapped inside it. Weisen meets a pleasing graphic death, at least. The "spider sandwich" murder tactic is vividly icky, but Fleming would have gotten much more mileage out of it. Otherwise, this is a file-it-and-forget-it novel from Gardner.

I guess I will have to get around to SeaFire in the next couple of months. You can feel the enthusiasm gushing through the screen when you read that, can't you?

Update: I ended up waiting a whole year to bother with SeaFire. It was time well spent.

Update: And four more years after that before COLD.