13 April 2013

James Bond Book Review: Scorpius by John Gardner

Scorpius (1988)
By John Gardner

I finished reading all of John Garnder’s “continuation” James Bond novels last year with COLD (alias Cold Fall), a project I started in the mid-‘80s when I read Icebreaker. I don’t have any intention of going back and reading them again—at least not in the far foreseeable future—but I discovered a few ancient reviews I wrote for them back in the early 2000s and posted on a forum somewhere. Don’t remember where. Maybe it has gone into the dead case files. But I still have a few of them saved on the hard drive, and here is a revised version of my original thoughts on Scorpius. I recall when this book was published; I had read all the Gardners up to that point, but disliked Win, Lose or Die so much that I quit Gardner for almost fifteen years starting with Scorpius. The book is now back in print, along with all of Gardner’s and Benson’s 007 novels. My advice: read Fleming instead. If you have already read all of Fleming’s books, go read them again.

We now turn things over to me, ten years ago:

One year before the cinematic James Bond faced a villain who used a religious cult to front his activities in Licence to Kill, John Gardner sent the super-spy against Father Valentine, a.k.a. terrorist-funder Valdimir Scorpius, and his brainwashed followers in the Society of the Meek Ones. How meek are they? They’re so meek, they’ll detonate themselves next to British politicians! How better to disrupt an upcoming special election?

It’s an intriguingly pulpy idea for a Bond novel. But Scorpius, Gardner’s seventh outing as the official author of the James Bond novels, is not as much fun as the premise promises. (Or the promise premises.) It marks the beginning of the downturn in Gardner’s novels, as if the author was developing malaise with the series and was running short of enthusiasm. Scorpius falls between two of Gardner’s most derivative Bonds: No Deals, Mr. Bond, which borrows its finale direct from the classic Richard Condon short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” and Win, Lose or Die, cribbed from Top Gun and Die Hard.

Gardner at least gives Bond a more creative workout here with the religious cult with Jonestown-like pretensions and murderous ambitions beneath its “peace, love, and drug-free life” mottos. The plot, however, often wanders around in the first two thirds, promising to pick up the pace at any moment, but never getting there. No Deals, Mr. Bond at least moved fast and kept the story rolling. Scorpius has enough intrigue about the unfolding events to keep readers turning pages in anticipation of the big twists, but not until Bond gets to Scorpius’s Ten Pines Plantation in Chapter 16 does the novel finally advance to the next level. And the only big twist arrives in the final chapter, and by that point most readers will have figured it out—especially those familiar with the way Gardner usually crafts his plots.

The story remains in England for the early chapters. In itself, England isn’t a bad setting for a Bond story. Fleming managed to make a thrilling novel out of Moonraker, which never got farther away from London than the coast of Kent. Bond novels don’t necessarily need the visual exoticism of the movies to sustain interest as long as the story and atmosphere are right. A nuclear missile plant in Southeast England is still a nuclear missile plant. But Scorpius’s action in England consists entirely of Bond dashing from site to site so he can engage in long briefings with M, find the remains of Scorpius’s handiwork, and occasionally get involved in a bloody firefight.

When the action finally switches to another spot in the world, it moves to the uninteresting coast of South Carolina. At least the swamps around the resort have water moccasins, and Gardner promises a tense scene of Bond having to make his escape from Ten Pines Plantation, but the thrills that result are minor. As a climax, it’s a disappointment. The novel does have a surprising trick up its sleeve for the principal girl of the story, IRS agent Harriet Horner, and it’s not of the usual Gardner “identity switch” predictability. (For those of you who enjoy these gags, don’t fret: there are still a few awaiting you.)

And where, in all this, is our titular villain character? He’s mentioned plenty of times, but he’s a no-show until Bond jets to South Carolina (and gets to watch Sean Connery in The Untouchables on the in-flight movie—an overly forced in-joke). When Scorpius does have his obligatory dinner conversation with Bond, he turns out to be an unfocused villain who can’t explain exactly what he hopes to achieve with his schemes. The false wedding he forces on Bond and his gal-pal Harriet Horner is an especially loopy move that has no effect on the plot. Scorpius’s supposedly hypnotic power over people (but not, of course, over a strong-willed man like Bond) a la Charles Manson also isn’t convincing for a character who makes so few appearances.

The most effective character is Bond’s ally, Pearly Pearlham. Gardner’s novels often lack the important male friendships that Ian Fleming made such an integral part of his books, but Pearlham is a step in the right direction. His reasons for aiding Bond against Scorpius make him an unusual and suspicious partner. Bond’s constant doubts about Pearly’s and Harriet’s allegiances, however, gets wearisome. It feels as if the author, aware of the flagging suspense in the middle of the book, tossed in these passages to artificially heighten the tension.

The violence rises to a more graphic level than in Gardner’s previous Bonds, almost as if anticipating the gorier dispatches in Licence to Kill. The carnage left behind in the Puttenham clinic is especially ripe, even if the writing doesn’t make it clear what exactly happened. Bond also gives the villain a nasty, visceral send-off. If only Valdimir Scorpius and his namesake book were worthy of such a grand exit.

Worse books would follow, but Scorpius marks the end of John Gardner’s honeymoon in Bond-land.