Book Review

Licence Renewed by John Gardner

reading more of John Gardner's James Bond so you don't have to

September 18th 2022

The name’s James Bond. James. Bond. 

Jamesbond.

James B. Double o nd: James Bond.

Licence renewed to kill.

Licence to kill renewed

Renewal of licence completed. 

Complete renewal of killing licence complete

Little Jimmy Bond.

Jimmy B

JB

Sock it to ’em JB.

JIMMINI Immini Bimini Bond.

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo he’ll kill you

James.

James Bond.

James the Bond Bond.

John Gardner was, without a doubt, one of the ten most talented writers to ever write a James Bond novel officially approved by the estate of Ian Fleming.

Gardner wrote 14 James Bond novels, which is an absurd amount, given how I feel like I’ve read more than several lifetimes’ worth of them, and I have barely scratched the surface of his JB oeuvre.

This one, Licence Renewed, was his first, published in 1981, and the first official James Bond novel since Kingsley Amis’ 1968 Colonel Sun.

There is an introduction included in this 2021 “40th anniversary” edition of Licence Renewed (remember all the celebrations???), which has been written by a thriller writer who I’ve never even glimpsed the name of before – and I’m someone who spends far more time in bookshops than anything else I do – very much writes as if he doesn’t really know who or what “James Bond” is.

The introduction is clearly from someone who knew John Gardner, at least that is the only possible explanation, as the only thing it does seem to do is offer titbits of information about Gardner’s undeserved and incompetent tenure as literary custodian of the James Bond brand.

To say that Licence Renewed is a bad James Bond novel is to imply that the success or failure for James Bond novels comes down to writing on a sentence level, would it obviously doesn’t.

A “good” James Bond novel has those three classic S-led pillars upon which it rests: sex, sadism and snobbery.

As I’ve discussed on this blog before, John Gardner cannot write snobbery, he can’t really write remotely believable depictions of lust, and he baulks at sadism to the point that in Licence Renewed, the much-foreshadowed torture scene involves James Bond being tortured not by cruel, invasive, violences, but rather by being drugged with a truth serum and Bond has to – and does – use his powerful mental strength to hold off from revealing state secrets…

///

The narrative in this one is fine and maybe in a better writer’s hands it could have been executed well. A super-rich nuclear scientist is going to get six terrorist groups to force nuclear meltdowns on various nuclear power stations positioned close to large global population centres, because he wants to force all international nuclear agencies to transfer to his – apparently – safer, though more expensive (particularly with the profit margin), new design of nuclear power station.

This super-rich, super-evil nuclear scientist has a head henchman who is a giant Scotsman called Caber, he has a sexy 20-something ward who James Bond shags and he has a 40-something mistress who tries to shag James Bond, but James Bond is – of course (this is before the Daniel Craig era) – utterly repulsed by the advances of a woman so far beyond an acceptable age for a lover (for him).

There’s some really fucking pisspoor writing related to plot points in here.

For example, James Bond nearly dies because MI6 are unable to trace a French telephone area code without the French Secret Service being awake (they’re not trying to find the exact phone, they’re trying to find the area code, something that – even in the ’80s – would have been a matter of looking up in a reference book).

There is also another point where Gardner suddenly adds unnecessary and deeply coincidental exposition to make James Bond familiar with every location he happens to be in. Gardner has a habit of saying “James Bond went on holiday here many years ago” over and over again. There is also the implication of a historic queer hook-up between Bond and a French military type, though the absence of detail or further innuendo means that Gardner either pulls the punch and refuses to out Bond as bisexual, or I’m just projecting onto his text as a progressive – yet prurient – 21st-century reader.

///

Licence Renewed is not a raucous disaster in the way that Gardner’s later bond novel Never Send Flowers is – I highly recommend you read my list of quotations from that novel via this link; it’s one of the funniest posts on this blog – but it’s ultimately a shit novel written by a shit writer who shouldn’t really have had the opportunity to write one James Bond novel officially sanctioned by Ian Fleming’s estate, let alone 14.

Instead of the gruff old man, Q has been replaced by a woman nicknamed Q’ute who is described by Gardner as having “a commanding manner and a paradoxical personality combining warm nubility with cool efficiency.”

When a guest in the billionaire-villian’s Scottish mansion: “Bond recognised the bed as the famous and exclusive Slumberland 2002 Sleepcentre”

On music: “James Bond knew little about old instruments, having been a devotee of popular music during his schooldays”

No, John Gardner, no. This is not. James Bond.

John Gardner’s James Bond isn’t really James Bond as he appears anywhere else.

He’s not as horny, as cruel, as violent, as efficient, as charming, as suave, as broken, as damaged, as ethically corrupt, as single-minded, as selfish, as gluttonous or as destructive as he is in almost any of his other evocations.

Obviously, James Bond is a superhero akin to those found in American comic books, who have existed for so long and have been interpreted by so many different writers in so many different periods, styles and broader socio-cultural environments, that of course there have to be outliers in terms of competency and continuity.

The 14 – and I can’t believe there are 14 – John Gardner James Bond novels are the outliers in basically all of the definitions that matter.

They do not replace po-faced seriousness with entertaining kitsch, they do not rage against objectification of women by objectification of Bond, they do not rail against tradition nor function as blunt depictions of it. They are beige and underdone in a way that could be impressive were they more fun.

Licence Renewed is not the worst book I’ve ever read – and it was thankfully a quick read – but it was definitely not a pleasure and definitely not a joy.

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