Please, sir, don’t send any flowers
So ends one of the strangest books I’ve ever has the misfortune to encounter.
A few weeks ago, my friend* Joe sent me a link to an article entitled ‘The 6 Weirdest James Bond Adventures (That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)’**. I chortled through the list and ordered two. This was exactly what I needed whilst planning my Christmas holiday reading, as I kinda wanted something trashy to read, and I thought I’d run out of Bond.
I have read everything Ian Fleming ever published (other than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and though I’ve read a couple of the recent licensed Bond novels, the only one I’ve enjoyed is Sebastian Faulks’ Devil My Care, which is a borderline pastiche deliberately copying Fleming’s style. However, this article reminded me of something I had forgotten: before the one-book-a-writer relaunch that began with Faulks and has gone through William Boyd, Anthony Horowitz and some American white male I can’t remember the name of, the Fleming estate were much less picky with their publications.
Kingsley Amis, a literary novelist quite comparable with the recent crop, published a single Bond novel in 1968, Colonel Sun. In the 1970s, two of the Roger Moore films were written as novelisations by a man called Christopher Wood, but from 1981 things started getting out of hand, when the era of John Gardner began.
John Gardner was a former Anglican priest and Royal Marine who drifted into serious alcoholism after losing his faith and becoming the drama critic for a Stratford-upon-Avon local newspaper in the early 1960s. He published an autobiographical novel about alcoholism called Spin the Bottle***, then began regularly publishing thrillers for the next 40/50 years. In 1981, his thrillers became Bond novels, and he went on to write SIXTEEN: one for every year between 1981 and 1996, when someone called Raymond Benson took over (but we’re not talking about him here). Never Send Flowers was Gardner’s thirteenth novel, and it’s very apparent that by that point he was pretty much out of ideas.****
Actually, that’s not fair. Never Send Flowers is full of ideas, full of weird, contradictory, unexplored ideas that never get resolved or explained and make absolutely no sense within their context of a James Bond novel, particularly given the generally accepted pre-Craig high point of the Bond films either side of the book: Licence to Kill and Goldeneye.
What we end up with is a novel about multiple criminally insane serial killers, like something out of a shit Batman, a scarily confused idea of sexuality (sex scenes written like the “Confessions of a Randy Santa” type spoof you get in Viz) and a denounement in fucking Disneyland Paris that genuinely seems to contain regurgitated statements straight out of a press release. Gardner, cancer-ridden at the time of writing and pouring all the money he could find into private treatment in the US, was probably trying to wangle a free trip to Disneyland to distract himself from the pain, which is the only possible explanation for some of the awful dialogue and description that exists in the travelogue chapter at the end of the book where Bond spends a day, alone, dressed as an old man and going on all the rides in Disneyland. I annotated my copy as I read through the book, so get ready for the most quotation-heavy blog I may have ever put on here.
The premise of the novel is thus:
- Four very high profile people in different fields are murdered on four consecutive days, and on the fifth day an MI5 (i.e. not Bond’s agency) agent is killed, after recently breaking off her engagement with David Dragonpol, a now reclusive former superstar actor. These deaths are all linked by the same super rare rose (white with a pattern like a blood stain on the petals) being sent to the funeral of all these people;
- As a favour, Bond goes to investigate the death of the MI5 operative in Switzerland, and discovers that her older brother was a serial killer who chopped women into pieces in the North when he was a student, keeping their heads as he thought the Egyptian god Isis would speak to him through their mouths. There are about five chapters dedicated to this, but it bears absolutely no relevance to the actual plot of the novel.
- In Switzerland, Bond pisses off the manager of his hotel, who steals an important document from him while he is distracted (i.e. fucking) and then reports him to his superiors for having loud sex, even though it was actually quiet sex he was having.
- He is sent back to London, where MI5 start tracking him. He loses them very easily, meets with a rogue, bisexual agent from MI5 (who he does not have sex with) who tells him that her departmental head of MI5 is in the shit because he didn’t notice that the dead agent had a serial killer brother. Who is dead, by the way – there is an implied twist that he isn’t going to be, the book gives the real feeling that eventually it will emerge that the MI5 agent killed the actor and swapped him with her brother, who is believed dead. She didn’t, he is: Gardner just keeps introducing new serial killers. Which isn’t very Bond, fyi.)
- Bond then finds out that these crazy roses are made by the sister of the reclusive actor, in the massive castle they live in. Bond and the Swiss agent he was fucking earlier go there, get locked in a room, break out, kill Dragonpol’s nurses/guards in a weird fight scene that happens inside a virtual reality/animatronic “Theatrical Museum” that the villain is building. It’s fucking weird. In the castle they discover that there is definitely a killer in the house, and that he next plans to target Princess Diana!
- Bond and Flicka (that is the name of his lover) then go to Milan, where they meet DANIEL Dragonpol, the secret twin brother of the actor. He reveals that David was originally the secret twin brother, because he was born deaf, and only gained the gift of hearing when he was dropped on his head as a toddler. This also made him evil, and the only time he stopped killing people and animals was when his acting career was going well. Eventually, David had a breakdown and retired to his siblings’ castle, where the three of them lived together. Daniel kills David, supposedly the evil one, and whilst in the custody of local police, he kills a load of them and escapes in disguise. An absolutely fucking pointless plotline. The evil twin is introduced, apropos of NOTHING, then killed, only it is the good one who was actually killed and who the reader never met. It’s absolute bollocks. It’s here that we discover that the sister is also evil, putting to bed the implied and awaited twist about the brother really being the decapitating serial killer from Yorkshire.
- Bond goes to Athens for a night (two hours – see below) of sex, then is called by M saying that the killer has escaped. Bond’s hire car explodes, killing the valet (no biggie) so Bond heads to Disneyland, where Dragonpol has made his plans to kill Diana, Queen of Hearts, England’s Rose. Bond has 24 hours to secure the park, kills time by going on (and positively reviewing) all the rides – especially ‘Star Tours’, which he queues for for over an hour – then loiters until Dragonpol arrives with a massive bomb, which he explodes, killing the villain.
- Bond returns to London, discovers that Flicka went and caught the evil sister, who’d been preparing to kill Diana with a massive grenade, M congratulates them both (at some point M hired Flicka to MI6, bypassing all background checks in the exact same way as the derided MI5 boss did earlier) and it is implied that Bond will “finally settle down” with “this one”. “Please, sir, don’t send any flowers” is Bond’s response to M asking if a wedding is on the cards. Hahaha. Because flowers are sent to people who’ve been murdered.
So, plot points that are introduced and left, abandoned: everything to do with the MI5 agent, who was implied to have deep secrets and possibly be as sinister as her brother; the MI5 boss who hired badly and then had Bond under surveillance. In short, Gardner finishes a completely different novel to the one he started – as mentioned above, he had cancer and was in his late 60s, but there is no excuse for this bullshit. And the Fleming estate let him do THREE MORE after this atrocity.
I’m going to do some close textual analysis now. I say close textual analysis, I mean quoting bits of the book out of context and laughing at them.
Gardner cannot write about sex. Every sex scene is skimmed over, but referred to as excellent: “world class”, “world champion”. Additionally, every session takes the same amount of time, which is implied to be ages: “about two hours”, “almost two hours”, “more than two hours” – as if this is the most erotic period of time imaginable. Gardner also overuses the words “seem” and “appear” – there is no confidence in his own imagery: there is poor writing throughout.
Let’s get onto those tasty quotations:
On 1990s sexuality: “If you want the truth, I’m like the Circle Line. I go both ways. You’d be surprised how many people are bisexual.” Three times sexuality explained in that line there. Just in case you hadn’t got it.
Piss-poor attempt as sex writing: “she stepped back to reveal that she was wearing the bare minimum underneath, with the accent on bare.”
And again: “It proved to be one of those world-champion nights about which most people only fantastize” … Most people, like John Gardner. Reading Fleming, you never get the impression that he was a sexual naif. Reading Gardner, you never feel far away from an “all the positions” type line.
Accidental Partridge: “a sleek Lexus”
A misjudged attempt at Bond satire/trying to make Bond hip and cool, yeah: “He’s living in another world, that’s for sure – ‘Please don’t bother to dress, we’re very informal here.’ When did you last hear a line like that?”
Terrible use of booze: “Flicka asked for a screwdriver” She does not mean the tool.
Forgetting the start of a sentence by its end: “He could even smell the crowd, a mixture of spices, bodies, and an amalgam of scents.”
Bond finds out the villain plans to assassinate Yasser Arafat, which could obviously lead to a massive international war. He then finds out the next target is Diana, Candle in the Wind: “it really doesn’t bear thinking about”
Again, metaphors falling apart: “The sky was like velvet, speckled with stars”
Next thing I’ve flagged up is Bond’s gushing speech about Disneyland, which I’ll save until the very end, and then the paragraph that is clearly copied out from a press release or brochure. It’s too long to bother with, but take my word for it: it’s ripped from marketing materials.
Bond’s favourite Disney characters: “Now, as he wandered around the park, he smiled with pleasure to see Chip and Dale”
Wasting time: “he took himself off to pass the time on some of the rides” […] “he spent almost an hour in line for the Star Tours” […] “entering the very realistic spaceship” […] “rattled at seemingly impossible speeds”***** […] “he ate a pleasant salmon steak at the Blue Lagoon restaurant”
Bond has superpowers and Gardner has superpowers of hyperbole: “Bond stood, sniffing the air. Suddenly, just as he had felt eyes upon him, he knew, as if by some extra sense, that he was here: that Dragonpol had penetrated this wonderland of illusion, pleasure, fun, excitement, and laughter.” Note the Oxford comma.
Breathtakingly awful: “Then the fireworks began to burst high above the castle and the wonder and sorcery of dreams and imagination were there to be carried away in the mind, a fairy tale held in the memories of all, from the smallest child to the oldest adult, forever.”
In the final chapter, we see that Disney have a private fire service and hospital and the ability to drag a lake and cover up a death within only a few hours. It’s fucking ridiculous.
The entirety of Never Send Flowers is a barely thought-through, accidental gem of a novel: how can anything this piss poor exist? And why in fuck’s name is it still in print? It’s hilarious, a curiosity, some kind of weird advert for Disneyland stuffed into the end of one of the least thrilling and poorly plotted thrillers I’ve ever encountered. Maybe Gardner, who had a long-term secret second family and managed to squeeze out multiple commercially successful novels a year even when undergoing cancer treatment, is an interesting topic, but Bond pursuing a serial killer with eyes on Diana Spencer? It’s directionless, confused trash.
I enjoyed its ridiculousness, but I don’t recommend anyone else reading it. But I read it expecting to feel like this, so it’s not same as the crushing disappointment of Spectre.
I will close with Bond on Disneyland, possibly the least Bond pair of paragraphs ever written.
Finding these, if nothing else, makes me glad I read Never Send Flowers. But I find it hard to believe anyone else has my temperament.
‘You know, the first time I went to the Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, I didn’t think I was going to like it.’ Bond thought he might put the man [from Disneyland] at ease by telling him the truth. ‘Funny, I went with a girlfriend and we only booked for two nights. I thought the whole thing would be tasteless, tawdry, and a bit phony. In the end we stayed for a week. The great thing about Disneyland is that it works. The moment they walk through those gates and find themselves in the Town Square and Main Street, the visitors know that they’re going to have one hell of a good time. The rides are a knockout, and it does become wonderful.
‘I’m pretty case-hardened, Ben, but there’s a child in all of us, and that place brings out all the wonder of childhood. I noticed then that there were as many adult couples having a good time as there were children. I tend to get a little angry when people knock your outfit.’
I don’t know if Gardner got his free trip to Disneyland (though god knows it’s deserved), but I do know that he managed to beat the cancer and live for another fifteen years. So, I suppose, there’s some kind of happy ending there.
PS: I was going to write a micro-essay on smug online photographs in relation to the image at the top of this, but this is already well over 2,500 words and I haven’t digressed once. That may be a record. I’ll do it with the next blog.
* I’ve still got a couple, like.
** Link here, but I’m about to go into great detail about one of them, and likely too another in a couple of days’ time.
*** A title that makes it sound more like a book about teen sexuality.
**** The aforementioned article, actually, makes it clear that Gardner was out of [good] ideas very, very quickly.
***** That’s funny, because “rattled” is now a slang term for “shagged”.