For Special Services

UK First Edition

Author: John Gardner
Publisher:
Jonathan Cape
Published:
1982

As a teenager, in 1983, I traveled through Asia – with my family of course – and in Taiwan, at the Imperial Book, Sound and Gift Store in Taipei I found the next two books in John Gardner’s series of James Bond continuation novels. Those being For Special Services and Icebreaker. I must admit, here I got into a little bit of trouble. As a tourist, on the other side of the world, you are expected to go see the sights. However, I was more thrilled to find two new Bond stories, so I spent my down time, on the hotel bed, reading, rather than sight seeing. In my defense, as a tourist, once you’ve twenty-seven Shinto Shrines you’ve sorta seen them all.

The Bottom's Up Club in Hong Kong Circa 1983

Of course, when I hit Hong Kong, there were Bondian sights to see, so I dragged my ass out of the room and armed with my Pocket Instamatic (although I was never much of a photographer), went searching for the Bottom’s Up Club – from the film version of The Man With the Golden Gun. And I found it, snapping away some photos of the neon sign. Of course, I was too young to enter the establishment. However, unlike the film, the Bottom’s Up Club is on the Kowloon side, and not on Hong Kong Island– but a small quibble. I was delighted with my investigative skills – and tracking down this piece of cinematic history.

When I originally read For Special Services (I’ve read it a couple of times), I thought it was one of the best of Gardner’s best continuation novels, and re-reading it today it still holds up quite well. There are some contrived passages to be sure, but on the whole, the story holds up better than Licence Renewed, but I’ll talk about that a bit later. First, here’s a brief synopsis.

Airplanes from around the world, and from different airlines are being hi-jacked for their cargo. The hi-jackings are so frequent that MI-6, teamed with the SAS, have placed security details on flights which carry valuable cargo. As the story opens, James Bond is the lead man for one of these security teams.  When terrorists attempt to steal the shipment of gold bullion on board, Bond, and the SAS operatives spring into ruthless and efficient action, polishing off the aggressors. However, before one of the hi-jackers dies, he mumbles ‘in…spector, inspector’, or so the SAS officer beside him thinks. Bond isn’t quite so sure. Could the word be SPECTRE?

Yes, James Bond’s old adversaries, the evil organisation SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) have risen from the ashes. And what’s more, it appears that a person named Blofeld is running the show. Of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the original leader of SPECTRE is dead. Bond killed him in his Castle of Death in You only Live Twice. So who is this new mastermind behind the world’s most evil organisation?

Bond is assigned to answer that very question when the CIA ask assistance from ‘M’ on a case. The CIA have been investigating a reclusive millionaire named Markus Bismaquer, but so far, every agent assigned to the mission has disappeared or been found dead in a Louisiana swamp. So the CIA decide to go off the grid, bringing in a new recruit, Cedar Leiter (the daughter of Bond’s old ally Felix Leiter) on her first official assignment. Coupled with Bond, she has to find out if Bismaquer is the new head of SPECTRE and calling himself Blofeld?

To get to Bismaquer, Bond and Cedar pose as a married couple who have a rare set of Hogarth prints to sell. Bismaquer is a fanatical collector of rare (and expensive) artwork, and once word reaches him that the prints are on the market, he simply must have them.

Upon Bond and Cedar’s arrival in the United States, Bismaquer’s first overture to acquire the prints are not the friendliest of gestures, sending a band of thugs to forcibly drag Bond and Cedar to his estate. Bismaquer’s estate is a actually a huge ranch, called (funnily enough) ‘Rancho Bismaquer’, which is almost like a huge theme park with its own monorail, racing track and international airport.

Bond and Cedar fight off the thugs and then go to ground. But Bismaquer has an efficient intelligence network across the USA, and soon enough, our heroic couple are tracked to a hotel in Washington.This time the thugs plan a nasty surprise for Bond and Cedar as they prepare to leave the hotel. One of the goons cuts the power and the breaking system to the elevator carriage that Bond and Cedar are traveling in, and the compartment careens out of control towards the bottom of the elevator shaft, where certain death awaits our heroes.

US Hardcover edition

Well, maybe not certain death. I wont spoil what happens, but I am sure it will come as no surprise that Bond and Cedar survive the attempt on their life. Afterward, they decide to confront Bismaquer directly at his ranch. He is all smiles and the perfect host when they arrive, claiming that any unpleasantness was just a misunderstanding, and his staff exceeded their orders.

As Bismaquer’s guests, Bond and Cedar are treated to the full extent of his hospitality, as he is still eager to buy the prints. However, for a brief moment, there is trouble for Bond. Bismaquer’s beautiful trophy wife, Nena, is truly an art expert – unlike her husband who is a rich faker. She spots that the prints that Bond is trying to sell, are fakes. But as a neglected an abused wife, she chooses not to reveal the truth to her husband, and throws in her lot with Bond.

As Bond and Cedar dig deeper into the Bismaquer’s world, the more tangled the plot becomes. Is Bismaquer Blofeld? Or could it be his partner, Walter Luxor, a weedy skull-faced man who has undergone extensive plastic surgery? Of course, as SPECTRE is involved, the diabolical plot involves more than hi-jacking aircraft for profit. And Bond finds him self in the thick of it – almost too close for comfort as he becomes an unwilling pawn in SPECTRE’s game.

For Special Services reads far more fluidly than Gardner’s preceding novel, Licence Renewed. Gardner appears to have relaxed, and is far more confident with the Bond character. Funny how a ‘bestseller’ would do that! He has returned to his own writing voice, rather than trying to imitate Fleming and Gardner’s strength in action passages comes to the fore. He may not be as descriptive and atmospheric as Fleming, but there is no doubt that Gardner knows how to tell a story at a rattling brisk pace.

But, and if you’ll forgive the bad pun. The ‘specter’ of Fleming still hovers over the novel. There are rather obvious odes to Fleming’s previous Bond stories in the For Special Services, but rather try to write like Fleming, Gardner simply attempts to evoke a Flemingesque feel using his own words.

Coronet UK Paperback edition

Gardner’s description of the relationship between the Bismaquers, for me, evokes memories of the Krest’s (Milton and Liz) relationship in Ian Fleming’s The Hildebrand Rarity (which was in the For Your Eyes Only collection. Markus Bismaquer, like Milton Krest is a pompous ass with too much money, and likes the power that his money can bring. The wives, in both situations appear to be smothered by their overbearing husbands and are looking for a way out. They almost hope that Bond will be their white knight. However, in The Hildebrand Rarity, Bond’s actions did not free Liz Krest. And as I don’t like to include ‘spoilers’ in my reviews, I will refrain from detailing if Bond succeeds in saving Nena from her husband.

The primary conceit of the novel is ‘Who is Blofeld?’, and generally this is handled pretty well. However at the start of the novel, Blofeld is almost an evil mastermind caricature, spouting the usual gibberish about the evil scheme that’s about to unfold. The reason it becomes cartoonish, is that Gardner is deliberately trying to be vague about who Blofeld is, and as such, description is kept to a minimum. Therefore when Blofeld launches into the megalomaniac spiel, it comes across as a pastiche. Later, however, the resolution is great – even if you have guessed who Blofeld is, the final confrontation is extremely enjoyable.

For Special Services still holds up reasonably well after all these years, which pleases me no end. I was scared that my childhood memories of the Gardner books would be shattered re-reading them now. But, as it did twenty-eight years ago, For Special Services still serves up lively thrills and chills, and as such I’d heartily recommend it to Bond fans.

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