Although adept at creating original characters, John Gardner devoted much of his career to mysteries that developed the characters of other detective writers. Ian Fleming’s James Bond ranks foremost among those that Gardner used for his own purposes. Bond plays the principal role in two of Gardner’s series, the first using the name Boysie Oakes and the second explicitly continuing the original Bond novels. Another character Gardner adopted is Dr. Moriarty, the greatest antagonist of Sherlock Holmes. Not all Gardner’s work, however, was variations on themes by other writers. He also wrote a number of espionage novels—one trilogy in particular earned wide recognition because of its detailed picture of life in England during World War II.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels appealed to audiences in the 1950’s in part because of their ruthless but suave and sophisticated hero. Although Fleming took Bond very seriously, certain elements of his stories readily lent themselves to parody. Gardner made apt use of these elements in his Boysie Oakes series, beginning with The Liquidator (1964).
The Boysie Oakes Series
In his first Boysie Oakes novel, Gardner paints an easily recognizable character. Oakes, also known as “L,” works as a professional killer for the Department of Special Security. Unlike most members of his profession, he fears violence and hires others to do his killing for him. As if this were not enough, Oakes also cannot stand flying. In the Oakes series, which eventually numbered eight novels, the plot usually matches the principal character in absurdity. In Understrike (1965), Oakes—nervous, inept, and forgetful as always—goes on a mission to observe the test of a Russian submarine. The Russians quickly catch on and send a duplicate of Oakes, an agent of their own, to substitute for the real Oakes. As usual, Gardner’s hero somehow muddles through.
Many of the Oakes novels illustrate a feature that appears often in Gardner’s work. He depicts sexual scenes very graphically. In the Oakes novels, this subject becomes an occasion for humor: Oakes overcomes his habitual indolence for extended exercises in lechery, often with Miss Chicory Triplethrust.
A Complete State of Death
Readers who viewed Gardner as a skilled parodist and comic mystery writer soon learned that his talents extended far beyond this rather minor genre. In A Complete State of Death (1969), he introduced Inspector Derek Torry of Scotland Yard. Unlike Oakes, Torry is a very serious character. To him, crime stands as a personal enemy, and he is consumed by his hatred of it. Interrogations often end with Torry losing his temper and slugging his suspects. He does this not because he is cruel but because he becomes too involved. Torry, a conservative Roman Catholic, also finds himself troubled by religious doubts. Some people see in Torry a reflection of Gardner himself. Gardner, however, denied that Torry mirrored his own problems and viewed with hostility attempts to read his novels as autobiography.
Although Gardner intended A Complete State of Death and his other Torry novel, The Corner Men (1974), as comments on criminal violence and its malevolent effects, the author found his taste for the bizarrely humorous difficult to abandon. In the former novel, for example, the plot centers on a school for aspiring criminals run by a character whose manner resembles that of an English university teacher. The aristocratic head of the school is, for all of his apparent good breeding, an agent of the Crime Syndicate who operates with ruthless efficiency.
The Return of Moriarty
Gardner soon returned to novels featuring another writer’s character. In The Return of Moriarty (1974), Gardner began a popular series that features the main antagonist of Sherlock Holmes. According to Gardner’s series, Moriarty, like Holmes, survived their famous showdown at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Moriarty, portrayed as a professor, has returned to London in an effort to control all crime in Europe.
Although the Moriarty novels do not boast the fine character portrayal of the Torry stories, they...
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