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'The World is to be held to ransom by an an insane nuclear physicist who threatens meltdown of six nuclear power stations. Believing he has designed a truly safe nuclear reactor, his plan will demonstrate the threat of current reactors, and supply him with the capital he needs to build his own...'
In 1981 a new series of James Bond books began and it was British author John Gardner who had the enviable/unenviable task of writing them and trying to fill the late Ian Fleming's shoes. Gardner was not Vladimir Nabokov (or even Kingsley Amis for that matter, Amis once the author of an excellent Bond novel called Colonel Sun) but was seen as a solid sort who could churn out a thriller fairly rapidly so he got the job. I remember once starting a Gardner book about an invasion of Britain by the Soviet Union or something and never got beyond seven pages so I can't claim to say he's a personal favourite of mine. His James Bond continuation novels tended to divide opinion on the whole with some enjoying the cinematic nature of the plots and feeling they were actually better than the scripts EON were conjuring up for the films and others feeling they were very prosaic and that it was a tad jarring to have Fleming's literary character transplanted into the eighties.
In Licence Renewed the elite 00 section of British agents has been disbanded due to budget cuts but M insists on keeping James Bond around. 'There are moments when this country needs a troubleshooter - a blunt instrument - and by heaven it's going to have one.' Bond now has flecks of grey in his hair, has cut down on his drinking and smoking and drives a, er, gadget laden Saab instead of a gadget laden Aston Martin. 'James Bond shifted down into third gear, drifted the Saab 900 Turbo into a tight left-hand turn, clinging to the grass shoulder, then put a fraction more power to bring the car out of the bend.' The plot has SIS becoming aware of connections between Franco Oliviero Quesoscriado, a terrorist, and Anton Murik, a nuclear physicist who left the International Atomic Energy Commission. Murik is Laird Anton of Murik and hosts Highland Games. He also has a castle and a henchman named Caber. Bond is sent to investigate Murik and discovers a potentially devastating plot to take over six nuclear power plants and hold the world to ransom.
As this was the first Gardner Bond book it's understandable that he still seems to be finding his feet and riffing on moments from the films with Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty's Secret Service all seeming to provide inspiration here in one form or another. It's not all one way traffic though as Gardner's excellent fight between Bond and Murik's henchman Caber in a C-14 cargo plane later turned up in the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton battling henchman Necros in a cargo plane. Gardner does not have the languid descriptive abilities and charm of Ian Fleming but he does know how to keep a story going and makes Licence Renewed as action packed as possible. A weakness of the book though is the fact that while you can just about get away with having the cinematic Bond in the present day the literary character is a slightly different animal and it never quite felt right to me to have him wandering around in the eighties and driving a Saab etc. There are a lot of gadgets in Bond's Saab but Gardner maintained they were based on real life inventions and not pure fantasy.
Licence Renewed benefits from a good villain in Anton Murik who is five feet tall and collects weapons and torture instruments. The relationship between Bond and M is quite pleasantly done too and a little warmer than it sometimes was in the Fleming books with Bill Tanner also returning. Licence Renewed was the first James Bond novel since 1968 and the sense of a sort of rebirth here is quite nicely done. 'James Bond's heart leaped, and he felt a new urgency coursing through his veins. It was a long time since M had addressed him as 007, and it signified that he could well be off into the real unknown again. He could almost smell the possibilities.' The banter between Bond and Moneypenny owes quite a bit to the films in Licence Renewed. Q branch is still run by Major Boothroyd but he has an assistant called Ann Reilly known as Q'ute who features instead. As I understand, Gardner couldn't use Q because that character was a creation of the film series and so decided to introduce something new to Q branch. Major Boothroyd remains in the background here and isn't seen.
Although it lacks the polish and elegance of Fleming's better works, Licence Renewed is likeable enough for rattling along at a good pace with some fun set-pieces and decent characters. The plot is slightly reminiscent of a film called The China Syndrome but at least supplies a grand and dangerous scheme for the villain to plot and explain to Bond. The last actual Bond film had a truly rubbish villain trying to steal water or something so I'd take nuclear reactor ransom any day of the week when it comes to Bond baddie schemes. With locations including London, Murik Castle (Scotland) and Perpignan (France) this is a modestly inventive book that can be read relatively quickly and is undemanding fun. The main quibbles would be Gardner lacking Fleming's descriptive abilities and parts of the plot being rather contrived with Bond able to gain confidences and infiltrate places just a little too easily at times.
Like many of the Gardner Bond books, Licence Renewed is readable and entertaining but somewhat forgettable and lacks the panache of Ian Fleming. I don't think this is the best example of his Bond related works but it's of interest as the novel which relaunched the literary adventures, paving the way for others to follow. James Bond fans will get a mild kick out of Licence Renewed but the heavy shadow cast by Ian Fleming is a difficult one to escape.
It wasn't until 1981 that Bond really took a step forward. Well known writer, John Gardner had a big job on his hands. He had just been commissioned to bring back one of the greatest literary characters created to life. Even though Kingsley Amis wrote the novel Colonel Sun released in 1968 in an attempt to revitalise the novels, this was only a one off book.
Gardner liberally bought Bond into the eighties. Bond, who according to previous novels was actually born in 1921, would have in reality been retired with a pension by now, however what Gardner has done is take the character round about roughly the same age as Fleming's Bond and simply bring him into the present with a few changes.
Of course Bond has changed, the character had to. However Gardner has given a description of Bonds appearance at the beginning and describes Bond in far more detail than in any Bond novel before. Explanations are given of how the skin around Bond's jawline is still taught, even compared to some of Bond's friends where the obvious aging process has already started to produce the jowls. Bond still has the thick black hair with the infamous comma of hair falling down above the right eye, with minimal specs of grey at the temples. This really does give a foundation of what he looks like in build and does the story justice as the mental picture can be built, after all most people reading the novel at the time would have seen Roger Moore's face as Bond.
What is interesting about the novel is that Bond has been given a training role and has been performing this for some time to which the feelings of being stale and out of touvh ahve come to the fore, it is only when he gets the call to return to London to see M for an assignment that Bond really comes alive and shows real passion and a renewed interest for his role. The Secret Service had radically changed and has been cut down as well, gone are the Double O section that Bond was part off, in fact Bond is the only thing left that M has freedom to use at will. Again Gardner has explained this well with cut backs and redundancies within the service, something that M is fighting against.
Bond has completely changed from the Fleming Bond; he has virtually given up smoking and tries to avoid the alcohol when necessary. Gone are the days of the Bentley and in comes a top of the range Saab 900 Turbo, dubbed The Silver Beast by Bond the car has a number of extras that Saab wouldn't be able to provide! In fact Gardner does add a passage to say that Q branch would give their hind teeth to inspect the vehicle.
The character of Bond is a somewhat of a lighter version that is more tuned to the times rather than attempting to continue in Fleming's manner. Curiously Bond is also in an on/ off relationship with the new head of Q branch, Major Boothroyd, known as Q, now has an assistant and in comes a lady called Anne Reilly, but affectionately called Q'ute due to her stunning looks, something that Bond has no choice but to appreciate close up.
The plot of the story is about Bond given the assignment to track down a terrorist, the terrorist is called Franco and has chameleon like skills for disguising himself and avoiding the authorities. British Secret Service believes that a trade off and possible collaboration is taking place with Franco and a renowned nuclear physicist named Anton Murik. Murik has recently bought his own title and is a Scottish Laird. Bond intercepts Murk and his ward, Lavender Peacock and by means of theft manages to gain the trust of the Laird which allows Bond to investigate further.
I thought this was an original idea with regards to the storyline and the threat that Bond comes up against in the last third of the book, of course I only read the novel after seeing the Bond film The Living Daylights and was aghast to discover that some of the ideas that Gardner had when he was writing the book some eight years agao had been lifted and transferred so that Timothy Dalton was basically acting pieces from the novel, which did dampen the novel somewhat but also meant that it was obvious as to who copied who, the novel came first! Hopefully John Gardner took this as a major compliment as Dalton fits the description of Gardner's Bond perfectly.
Throughout the novel the story describe things to the extreme and does remind you of a number of scenes from the Bond movies themselves, for example the car chases with the Saab being chased and the on-board weapons coming into play reminds me of Goldfinger when Bond is using the Aston Martin to similar effect. This does tend to repeat the play over and over again yet builds a fair amount of tension and suspense along the way. What I also enjoyed was the granular way that Garner tends to expand upon the weapons that Bond uses, he not only explains what their capabilities are, but also describes in quite graphic details the consequences of Bond actually using them on another human being and for a book that is nearly thirty years old is quite something to read, which I found to be towards the end and the climax of the story where an incident is described in such detail that it is more chilling to read than anything else.
As is always customary there is always a damsel in distress, and in Licence Renewed it is one with a sense of adventure. Lavender Peacock is a character who Bond steals from to gain trust from Murik, he does this by stealing something that Peacock considers the most valuable, her jewellery. This allows Bond to be given an "in" and he builds up the trust of Murik from there onwards. Peacock can be a bit of a shady character as throughout the story, you are never quite sure as to what side she is actually on. With the obligatory henchman in tow, we have been given a classic Bond character that puts Bond on edge at a number of times throughout the story. Although I did feel that even though Bond was in a situation, some of the methods that he used were typically clichéd as, apart from a few instances, you don't feel that Bond can be placed in any danger due to his armoury and gadgets that Q branch have supplied. Surprisingly it does say in the acknowkedgements that the gadgets used in the novel are available in real life which adds further reality to the story and not something like a laser watch or invisible car being used that keeps one step ahead of today and keeps the factor of belief at a bearable level.
Gardner comes into his own when describing the fighting between 007 and the person he is fighting, a fight could easily alst two or three minutes, but with Gardner explaing to the reader what Bond is actuallythinking and decising on what techniques to apply takes the combat to extreme levels, even to the extent that the person that Bond is fighting has his thoughts and fellind conveyed to the reader as well which does even the text up.
Obviously it is Bond who is the central point of focus of the story as this is effectively a re-launch story bringing the hero into a new age, but the rest of the cast do get a look in as well as the back stories are fully fleshed out to bring an extra dimension into the story telling which does genuinely thrill in the right places.
Gardner has turned Bond on its head, he had to as he couldn't have written a novel as a continuation at this time because I get the feeling that he wanted to make this Bond his own, and to be fair this is what he has achieved. The obvious comparison between the book and films are always going to be made and even though the novel does play like a film script, the enjoyment is actually finding out about the characters and who they actually are and what makes them tick. Trouble is that to do something like re-invent a character means that you have to start fresh and build, and in further novels Gardner has done just that with Bond becoming tee total and a non smoker as well.
Gardner was initially given a three book contract, based on the success of the novels he ended up writing fifteen books about Bond adventures. Ironically this mirrored Flemings total as well, and with Licence Renewed this managed to revitalise the Bond novels for a new generation.
Overall I enjoyed the novel immensely, even though the story is fresh and Bond's return to duty is a high point as this takes up about the first fifth of the book the story unfolds at such a pace that you just want to continue, I found myself reaching the end of a chapter and going to put the book down, to which I said that I must read a bit more. I did, and by the time I had reached a quiet place to finish for the evening I found that I had read another three chapters, perfect bedtime reading. That says a lot on its own.