Licence Renewed

Author: John Gardner
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Published: 1981

As a kid I was always pretty lucky tracking down books. My aunt ran a second hand book shop and whenever I got hooked on a series, she’d help to find the books I was after. When I was really young, it was the Charlie Brown comic strip books which appealed to me – and she plied me with a great deal of them. But by the time I was nine years old it was James Bond who had grabbed my attention. And I loved those books – even if looking back now, I have to admit I probably didn’t truly understand them all. What does ‘killed with ignominy’ mean anyway?

I can’t tell you how much I treasured these books – their covers, the stories within, and even the adverts for other spy stories at the back of the books. On weekends, rather than getting out of bed, I’d select a book at random, flick it open to any old page and start reading, and then keep reading till one of my parents would holler for me to drag my good-for-nuthin’ ass out of bed. (I may be exaggerating slightly there!)

But there was a limit, because Ian Fleming only wrote fourteen James Bond books – or more precisely, twelve novels and two collections of short stories (and the rogue Bond story, James Bond in New York which appeared in Thrilling Cities). After a few years my paperbacks were pretty well thumbed and dog-eared – and I began moving on to other things. I had devoured all the written Bond that I could – I so I thought.

Rural Australia, back in 1981 wasn’t big on literary news – hell, even top 10 bestseller lists were not that important. My hometown didn’t even have a proper bookshop. The newsagent fulfilled the town’s literary needs with a shelf along the side, and even then, half of that was filled with Mills and Boon books. But it was here that my mother found a copy of John Gardner’s License Renewed – the first new James Bond book in about twelve years. I didn’t even know it had been written. But my eyes must have been wide with delight when my mother presented the book to me. Wow – a new James Bond book!

Now at this stage I didn’t know who John Gardner was. I hadn’t even heard of Boysie Oakes. Had I known, I must admit I would have found it curious to see Gardner chosen to be the Bond continuation author, as he had (allegedly) been quite vociferous in his contempt for the Bond character in earlier interviews.

Here’s a snippet from Donald McCormick’s Who’s Who in Spy Fiction (1977 Elm Tree Books) in which Gardner opinion of Bond is expressed. NB: I must add here, that while the entry on Gardner does have quotes from the man himself, the passage below is McCormick’s spin on how Gardner viewed Bond. The veracity of the information is open to debate.

Donald McCormick's 'Who's Who in Spy Fiction'

Like LeCarre, Gardner detested the character of James Bond. (There is little doubt that anti-Bondism actually pumped the necessary adrenalin into the veins of quite a few would-be writers in this period.) While he was proud and happy to be the only full-time drama critic on a weekly newspaper in England, the challenge of a new career as a novelist was accepted with enthusiasm. Though he reacted to the Bond era in much the same way as LeCarre, Gardner evolved his own type of spy story as a send-up of Bondism and the whole game of Intelligence. Where LeCarre evoked gloom and tragedy, Gardner indulged in comedy and laughter. The character of Boysie Oakes was not merely a comic anti-hero, but a positive antidote to Bond.

But Gardner did inherit the Bond mantle, and maybe his slightly cynical attitude to the Bond character was a big plus, particularly in this, the first of his many Bond books. There’s a few passages where Gardner attempts to analyze the Bond character and what makes Bond, Bond, and not just another spy pastiche. These explorations are quite successful, and not only flesh out the character, but add a layer to the already established Bond mythos.

I think it is fair to say that Gardner wrote for the Roger Moore – James Bond generation. It is obvious he had read and studied his Fleming, but there is also a sense of the cinematic Bond creeping into the stories. There was Bond’s new car, a Saab Turbo – nicknamed ‘the Beast’ which could come straight from the movies and rivaled the Lotus Esprit, which made such an impact around the world when it debuted in The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 – only three years earlier. Then there was Q’s new assistant, Anne Riley, nicknamed Q’ute. I know you are groaning, but you’ve got to remember I wasn’t even a teenager when I read this book, so to me, this was gold.

Girls on Guns

But as a teenager, Bond’s seduction of Q’ute (or is it Q’ute’s seduction of Bond?) probably was a bit over my head. Not the sex and seduction stuff, but the psychology of it. Above I mentioned there were passages where Gardner attempted to analyze the Bond character. This is one of them. The seduction takes place on a gun range at headquarters, where Bond is cleaning, dismantling and reassembling a new weapon (a Browning 9mm). Here Bond’s actions have a dual meaning. The gun is a phallic symbol (Gardner even makes an in-joke about the 1970’s Triad Panther Bond book covers – which featured girls sitting astride big guns), and as Bond ‘caresses’ the weapon, it is intended to excite Q’ute. Instead, it has the opposite effect. And in the process shows that Bond cares more about the gun, than he could about any woman. This is re-enforced shortly after with a cold reference to the death of Vesper Lynd in Fleming’s Casino Royale.

Onto the story. It appears that MI-5 and Special Branch have a problem with an international terrorist named Franco, who has been secretly meeting with a disgraced nuclear physicist, Anton Murik. Murik apart from being a physicist, is also a wealthy philanthropist, and the Scottish Laird of the Murcaldy. They figure something potentially dangerous is in the offing, and they require some assistance from MI-6. M agrees to help, but chooses to do things his way. He thinks James Bond is the right type of man for a job like this. Bond is not technically 007 in this story, as the double-O section has long since been disbanded, but M still uses Bond as a licenced trouble shooter, and still affectionately refers to him as ‘007’.

Bond’s mission is to ingratiate himself on Murik, gain his trust and find out what dastardly plot both he and Franco are planning. M briefs Bond thoroughly, not just on Murik, but also on his mistress, Mary-Jane Mashkin, and his ward, Lavender Peacock. And then Bond goes to work, shoehorning his way into Murik’s life.

The chapter where Bond ingratiates himself on Murik at Ascot races is a bit muddled. On one hand, the horse race itself echoes Fleming enough that it is damnably readable. But the pick-pocket passage, wherein Bond utilises some time honoured thievery skills to remove a priceless pearl necklace from Murik’s ward, Lavender Peacock is contrived. Even more so, when Bond turns up at Murik’s private box with the pearls, claiming he found them on the floor outside the door. If Murik was in the midst of planning a major terrorist operation and a unknown gentleman shoehorned his way into his life, then surely he would have had him killed. There’d be no games, or tests – which make up the next portion of the novel. It’s a shame in a way, as I said, the raceday, as far as a passage of descriptive Bondian writing was on track (pardon the pun), but then it trotted away from Gardner with unbelievable actions, which are wedged into the story simply to throw the two protagonists together. The scene ends with Bond being invited to join Murik at Murcaldy castle in Scotland. It’s an invitation that Bond gladly accepts.

Thankfully once Bond is in Scotland and at Murcaldy castle and a guest of Murik, the story is more cohesive and the actions of the characters make sense – or at least in the Bondian universe.

At Murik’s castle, Bond is potentially offer employment with Murik, but first he has to pass a test. And that test involves facing off against Murik’s number one minion, Caber, in a wrestling match. Caber is a bear of a man, and Bond stands little chance in a fair fight, so he uses a gadget supplied by Q’ute, to turn the odds in his favour. Personally, I see this reliance of gadgets a bit of a distraction, and only serves to make the character impotent, but as you’d expect Bond wins the fight, and consequently Murik’s favour.

Now a (somewhat) trusted member of Murik’s team, Bond is given a few details of Murik’s plan, which is to hijack several nuclear reactors simultaneously around the globe, and hold the world to ransom. Armed with the information required, Bond simply has to report to M, and his mission is over. Of course, things go wrong, and Bond has to use his wits to save the world (and the girl) once again.

Gardner appeared to take on (or was assigned) the task of bridging the literary Bond with the filmic Bond. I can understand why this decision was made, as the films – with the recent mega hit Moonraker – were incredibly popular then, while the popularity of books was beginning to decline (the ’60s ‘spymania’ bubble had well and truly burst by this time). Gardner achieves mixed results with his marrying on the two Bonds, as well as creating a few problems for himself later on in the series – most notably his novelisation for Licence to Kill which incorporated story elements from Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die.

The most notable links to the film Bond in Licence Renewed are the initial briefing passage with M – I could almost see Bernard Lee as I read the chapter – and the extrapolation of Q Branch. There’s also a passage where Bond makes his escape from Murik castle in his tricked out Saab, with Murik and his minions on his tail. However, the chase culminates with Bond being forced off the road, to crash, and being rendered unconcious. When Bond awakens he finds himself strapped to a torture table. There isn’t a laser aimed at his genitals, and Murik does expect Bond ‘to talk’ (then ‘die’), but the passage echoes the filmic version of Goldfinger, more than Fleming’s novel of the same name.

It’s strange reading this book again after so many years. When I read it as a boy, I can unashamedly say, I loved this book. Now, many years have past, and I have read many more spy books and watched many more spy films, and while I still enjoyed reading Licence Renewed, I see it as a patchwork quilt Bond story, with its disparate patches not quite matching up. John Gardner is not Ian Fleming, but he is a very good writer in his own regard, and each section works on its own, but not placed next to each other. As I have suggested, there are Flemingesque sections, filmic Bond sections, and Gardner’s own, slightly cynical exploration of the Bond character. Outside of the Bond universe, there’s also the legacy of twenty years of popular spy fiction. For example, there’s one passage, where Bond is being interrogated that owes a very large debt to The Berlin/Quiller Memorandum. I can imagine Quiller fans almost being outraged at such a blatant reappropriation of an incident, that is so (well for me anyway) associated with Quiller, and hijacked for Bond series. With so many different styles taking place, it’s almost remarkable that the book is readable at all. But it is. Very.

I still like Licence Renewed, but maybe not with the passion I did as a boy, but I still recommend Gardner to Bond fans, and if you’ve never read any of his books, I suggest you do so, but also do it with an open mind. There is only one Ian Feming, so if you expect a Fleming book, you’re sure to be disappointed. If you’re after a brisk thriller, in the Bond tradition, then Gardner’s Bond continuation novels aren’t bad. They’re flawed to be sure, but not ‘bad’.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent review, David! It really makes me want to revisit Gardner. Like you, I haven’t read them since I was a kid… but I did like them–some, like this one, more than others. (Nobody Lives Forever was my favorite.) I’ve been tempted to see how they hold up, but every few years when I get the urge to plunge into literary Bond again, I always end up re-reading Fleming instead. I really need to make the effort to revisit Amis and Gardner and Benson one of these days.

  2. Thanks Tanner. I know what you mean – as soon as I finished this, I started reading Live and Let Die (again)…it’s so easy to fall into reading Fleming again (not that that is a bad thing!).

    Cheers.
    D.

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