17 November 2012

Finishing Up John Gardner’s Bond: COLD (a.k.a. Cold Fall)

COLD (1996)
By John Gardner

Four years ago this month, a James Bond film came out in theaters, Barack Obama won the presidential election, and I reviewed the second-to-last of John Gardner’s James Bond novels, SeaFire. In fact, all that happened in the space of one week. This month, a James Bond film came out in theaters, Barack Obama won the presidential election, and so I have to complete the cycle and review the last James Bond novel from John Gardner, COLD. (The title is an acronym; I am not shouting at you.)

This has been a long journey. When I reviewed SeaFire, I expected to finish up the Gardner series within a few months. But then I just couldn’t make myself do it. I read my first Gardner novel back in eighth grade, the mid-1980s, and it has taken this long for me to finish them all. The completist drive within me insists seeing this through to the end—and that means I may have to finish the Raymond Benson 007 novels as well. At the current rate, I’ll be through those in twenty years, and probably have re-read all of Fleming’s books three times over, and Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” novels. (Which completely embarrass Gardner and Benson, by the way.)

Anyway, COLD. Which was re-titled Cold Fall in the U.S. Because we Americans don’t recognize… uh, we’re not familiar with… ah hell, I have no idea why the title was changed. After he finished writing this book, Gardner retired from the series because of health problems. Fortunately, he lived another eleven years, but his days as 007’s amanuensis were over.

The novel has an unusual structure: Gardner divides the book into two sections, occurring years apart. Book One takes place in 1990, and Book Two in 1994. Although Gardner does nothing spectacular with this division, he wrings a few poignant touches from the passage of time when Book Two begins.

Book One opens with a terrorist act: explosives destroy a 747 as it lands at Dulles on its inaugural flight. The explosion kills numerous high-profile figures who were aboard for the maiden voyage, although Harley Bradbury, owner of Bradbury Airlines, was not on board. On the passenger list is Sukie Tempesta, one of Bond’s former lovers (from Gardner’s best 007 book, Nobody Lives Forever), although it turns out she received a warning to take another flight from someone pretending to be Bond.

The destruction of Flight 299 should make an exciting opening—but it occurs off-page, and the consequences get skimmed over. All those famous people dying? Ah, whatever, time to move onto boring briefing scenes where interchangeable government figures talk to Bond about the doings of Mr. Bradbury and the organized crime affiliations of the Tempestas, Sukie’s family through marriage. Sukie then apparently gets murdered (off-page, again), and MI6 and the FBI pair Bond up with Toni Nicoletti, one of the mistresses of Luigi Tempesta, to go to Italy and investigate the family and their possible connection to a high-tech U.S. militia group with nebulous nefarious goals, Children of the Last Days (COLD).

For eighty pages nothing happens except for scattering loose strands around what readers hope will eventually evolve into a plot. COLD feels like an organization someone in the Secret Service made up on the spot to explain what is going on; this “militia” doesn’t for a moment feel like a serious adversary. The Tempestas are incompetent mafia stereotypes who bungle killing Bond almost immediately, so they can’t pick up the slack from the uninteresting Children of the Last Days.

Book One ends with a tepid action sequences between helicopters in Spokane, where Bond has gone to chase down a COLD connection (a COLD lead? har har), General Brutus Brute Clay. Nothing gets resolved, all the various Mafioso, militia, and corporate shenanigans shut down without anything like a resolution—many will never get mentioned again—and five years pass.

When Book Two opens, the action arrives fresh from the climax of SeaFire—whatever it was, I barely remember—with Bond’s love Freddie von GrĂ¼sse close to death. This leads to a decent chapter where Bond reflects on his career. This is Gardner’s version of Bond, so he muses mostly on episodes from the Gardner books, but at least this means the author is closer to the material instead of making only the vaguest motions about Fleming. After five years of doing nothing, COLD becomes active once more. Bond finally learns the reason for the destruction of the plane (it’s boring) and yet another love interest from an earlier book (the Top Gun/Die Hard copycat Win, Lose or Die), Beatrice da Ricci, emerges.

Bond infiltrates a meeting of COLD in Italy where he finds out their diabolical master plan, which boils down to some mild terrorist bombings they believe will hand control of the U.S. government straight to them. As with SeaFire, Bond believes this imbecilic plot from a few nutcases might succeed. Really? Bombing post offices in Washington, D.C. will collapse the government? This is terribly lazy writing: making the character overreact in order to sell a weak threat to the reader.

Brutus Clay takes up the mantle of lead villain, and he is one of the worst adversaries in the whole Gardner canon. He has no presence, nothing about him is the least bit memorable, and as with the rest of COLD, he seems like he has no idea what he’s doing. There is a surprise secondary villain who does a much better job at being menacing in Book Two, even if the surprise is telegraphed. Gardner liked having characters switch loyalties as twists, but it’s a devious move to take a heroine from one his earlier books and flip her to unrepentant and sadistic baddie. I appreciate that.

Gardner continues to the last his tradition of forgetting crucial parts of Bond’s biography and character as established by Ian Fleming. “M had always been like the father James Bond could not remember.” Come on, John! Bond’s father Andrew Bond died when James was eleven! Kids develop solid memories long before they turn eleven. Andrew Bond wasn’t an absentee dad, either; James lived abroad with him and his mother, Monique. How hard is it to find this out? Turn to the famous obituary chapter in You Only Live Twice. The makers of Skyfall took the time to do this. Bond also quotes the Song of Solomon to say goodbye to Toni Nicoletti. Nope, sorry. Bond doesn’t memorize scripture. Or any kind of poetry.

Gardner must have known that COLD was going to be his last 007 outing. Not only does he link it directly into the Pierce Brosnan series that started the year before with GoldenEye by having the original M retire and be replaced with a woman, but he also makes numerous callbacks to his other books. Three of his previous heroines appear, and two of them play major roles. These returnees also have a high fatality rate, which gives the book an unpleasant fatalism, something that also applies to M’s departure. Was this Gardner’s fear of his own mortality?

However, M’s farewell is one of the best parts of COLD, a rare place where genuine emotion emerges in the writing. Aside from this and the opening of Book Two where Bond reflects on his career and aging, COLD is as icy as its name, a robotic and thrill-less exercise, just one more installment in a series with nothing left in the clip.

Many years have passed since I read the majority of Gardner’s books, so even though I’ve read them all, determining where to place the individual books in quality is difficult. COLD is definitely one of the worst, however. Using the books that are fresher in my memory, I would place COLD below SeaFire, near the same level as Death Is Forever, and a click above The Man from Barbarossa and Brokenclaw. The latter is my pick for Gardner’s worst.

Hell with it, now I need cheering up. I’m going to go read Moonraker and revel in Fleming’s fabulous world of card clubs, vengeful Nazis, wrecked ‘33 Bentleys, and nuclear missiles.