Written June 19th
I last read a novel by John Gardner about five and a half years ago.
For those disloyal (or new!) readers who have never read through my (imo) seminal “review” of Never Send Flowers, then I would direct you to that, post-haste, as it will be more entertaining than this review of Role of Honor [sic], as – though a similarly bad book – this one isn’t quite as outrageously terrible as that one, which was written about a decade later and stuffed full of advertising copy about Disneyland Paris, which John Gardner was angling for a free trip to, because at that point in his life he was bankrupt after getting cancer while living in America.
Gardner wrote SIXTEEN James Bond novels, and though two were novelisations of scripts which he had no hand in, fourteen of them were stories he made up completely by himself.
Role of Honor [sic] was his fourth, and it’s very bad.
He was into double figures by the time Never Send Flowers was published, which is a much more pleasurable read, because its badness, the problems with it as a text and Gardner’s failures as a writer had compounded, or solidified, i.e. become more extreme.
Clearly, these terrible novels were a cash cow for whoever was publishing them, and the sales at the time must have been both sizeable and taken for granted: there are few novels I’ve read in my life which felt more rushed, unedited and slapdash than the two books by John Gardner I’ve so far read. (I wish I had the self-control to not read more. I do not. I will read more of them, likely all of them, Jesus Christ.)
This “thriller” never really becomes thrilling; the action always feels like it’s about to happen, but then Bond will be injected with an anaesthetic and wake up in a different place, undamaged. Bond is never in danger, he doesn’t get injured, he kills easily and regularly and thus with Role of Honor [sic] Gardner misses out one of the three essential “S”es of Bond: the text is not at all sadistic.
It’s also not sexy. Bond fucks a lot of women, tbf, and he has a bloody good time, apparently, but – as with Never Send Flowers – Gardner gives the impression of being a sexual naif. There is nothing sexy about his sex scenes.
Snobbery? This might count: there’s some woefully outdated (for the eighties!) racism and homophobia (the male homosexual character (a computer programmer) refers to heterosexual men as “red-blooded men”, and though this character is described as “brave” by M, the narrator of the novel usually refers to him as “the little programmer”), which maybe counts as snobbery, but there is also a real absence of an understanding of affluence, which is Gardner’s biggest flaw.
At one point, Bond is “challenged” to spend £100,000 in four months and being able to do so is meant to be impressive. At another point – in 1984 – Bond receives a “life-changing” inheritance of £250,000, which would not be significant at all for a person who already has “a private income”.
At a later point in the novel, a quarter of a million pounds is again mentioned: clearly this was the highest amount of money Gardner could comprehend. There is some relief, I suppose, in knowing that Gardner’s atrocious novels didn’t make him rich.
What else is wrong with Role of Honor [sic]?
A character is introduced who is an expert at “disguise” and then another character is introduced who looks “slightly like her” and keeps revealing private information about the original person, heavily implying that the second character is the first one in disguise, but she isn’t, and the fact that she isn’t is not a plot point either: Gardner didn’t write a “red herring”, he implied the disguise by accident.
One of the main set pieces in the book is Bond and the “supervillian” (the supervillain is a shit villain who is casually executed by a new “super super villain”, revealed at the end as the previous super villain’s employer, who escapes, to feature, I imagine, in another John Gardner James Bond novel)-
One of the main set pieces in the book involves James Bond and the villain playing a high-stakes game of a fictionalised version of Settlers of Catan. The supervillain and his dastardly plot involve computer programmes, but Gardner appears to not really understand what a computer is: which was fair enough; in 1984, the laptop was not yet a ubiquitous object.
An imaginary nerdy board game is not much fun to read, particularly as they play a reenactment of a historic battle and the supervillain loses the game to Bond because he only does the moves the real army did in real life, which surely surely surely defeats the point of inventing a turn-based military strategy board game?
Anyway, it’s a bad novel. Don’t read it. I, though, will continue to acquire John Gardner Bond novels as and when I encounter them, which is rarely. I have another one on my shelf at the moment, though, and I can see myself opening it up very very very soon…
EDIT from August: A couple of weeks after reading this book I was looking through a secondhand bookstore and found a stack of ALL SIXTEEN of Gardner’s Bond novels. I panicked, and left without buying any, my commitment (and plan) to buy them as I saw them foundered. I haven’t been back to that bookshop since, in fear that I will bow to the eternal internal pressure to spend $100 on a pile of TERRIBLE fiction. Liking James Bond truly is the English disease.