John (Edmund) Gardner 1926–
English novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer.
Gardner is perhaps best known as the writer who resurrected Ian Fleming's secret agent 007, James Bond. Prior to the continuation of the Bond series, however, Gardner created several notable characters of his own. The first of these, Boysie Oakes, was deliberately planned as an amusing contrast to 007. Oakes is an inept, blundering coward who barely makes it to the end of each episode. He first appeared in The Liquidator (1964) and was the protagonist in at least eight novels published between 1964 and 1975. These works were generally well received by critics.
Gardner also invented other heroes who differ from the usual protagonists in spy fiction. These include Derek Torry, whose hatred of criminals and doubts about religion often lead him to confused, violent action in the name of duty, and Big Herbie Kruger, who views his own life and work as a failure. In The Return of Moriarty (1974) and The Revenge of Moriarty (1975), Gardner delves into the past to recreate Sherlock Holmes's enemy within the framework of the Victorian underworld. Although Gardner was praised for his vivid depiction of the time period in which he set these books, many Holmes fans were disappointed in Gardner's efforts to revive the series.
On the whole, Gardner's characters are considered successful creations. Critical reception was not enthusiastic, however, when Gardner revived James Bond in Licence Renewed (1981), For Special Services (1982), and Icebreaker (1983). In these works, Gardner attempted to capture the haughty, charming, invincible secret agent of Fleming's novels. However, Gardner's Bond is older, somewhat subdued, and, according to most critics, much less charismatic. Perhaps, as Reginald Hill suggests, Fleming's works were too much a product of the 1950s and 1960s to be translated to the 1980s, despite Gardner's efforts to update the technical aspects of espionage. Nonetheless, Gardner's Bond novels have been very popular; many readers, as well as some critics, find the books first-rate entertainment.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)
[In John Gardner's The Liquidator], 'L', the secret service killer who never kills and is terrified by flying in aeroplanes, is a sort of Ferdinand the Bull of the spy world; but there is enough real ingenuity in the plot to save him from the cloying cosiness of protracted parody. A few jokes about brand-names, and Sapperish smirks … fail to come off, but the whole achieves the cheerful mixture of self-indulgence and self-parody that marks the Bond films.
Francis Hope, "Olden Times," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIV, No. 1745, August 21, 1964, p. 253.∗
["The Liquidator"] starts off as a deliberate (and skillful) parody of James Bond, presenting in Boysie Oakes, of the Department of Special Security, a professional killer with all of Bond's surface qualities and a quite unexpected inner deficiency. It then goes on to involve this amusingly conceived character with an elaborate espionage-and-assassination plot, developed with neatness and finesse. In other words, Mr. Gardner succeeds in having it both ways: he has written a clever parody which is also a genuinely satisfactory thriller.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "The Liquidator," in The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1964, p. 46.
Mr. Gardner's Understrike is his second novel about the British Security Agent Boysie Oakes, and this time he is involved in the test firing of a lethal missile from an American submarine, with the Russians the baddies. Boysie Oakes, as before, is depicted as lovably human—i.e., keen on girls, frightened of pain and death, neurotically forgetful, careless and even stupid, but somehow winning through. I find this portrait too sophisticated to be gripping: the indulgent smile which I think the author means one to wear about Boysie to the point of faceache, prevents me from gasping or stretching my eyes, which is all I want to do when I read this kind of book. It is all rather an indoor romp—like playing cowboys in the squash court. (p. 727)
Elizabeth J. Howard, "The Strange Adventure," in The Spectator, No. 7145, June 4, 1965, pp. 727-28.
John Gardner's cowardly and inept secret agent, [Boysie Oakes] is sent to San Diego to witness a hush-hush submarine trial, in "Understrike" …; and the Russians send along a carefully trained duplicate to take over his place. This seems, naturally, less fresh and ice-breaking than Boysie's first case; but Gardner still brings off the trick of eating his cake and having it, presenting a neat parody and a genuine sex-and-violence thriller in the same story.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "Understrike," in The New York Times Book Review, August 1, 1965, p. 24.
No matter how wearied you may be of the run of spies, the exploits of Boysie, England's less than adroit agent, must be excepted. He is as uninhibited … [in Understrike] as he was in his debut, The Liquidator. How he travels to San Diego to observe a weapons test, and what logically ensues from Boysie on the scene, is more hackle-raising and infinitely more entertaining than any adventure of Bond, Solo, Drake, or whatever your favorite. John Gardner is here to stay.
Dorothy B. Hughes, "Delivering Us from Bondage," in Book Week—The Washington Post, August 8, 1965, p. 19.∗
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The first part of this latest adventure of cowardly killer Boysie Oakes [Madrigal] is charming, with pretty send-ups of Len Deighton plus a touch of Bond, yet missing the usual fault of send-ups—insufficient plot. But by the second half Boysie has found manhood and we are in another kind of thriller. Both are above par, but they don't quite jell. And where does newly bold Boysie go from here?
"Criminiscule," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3420, September 14, 1967, p. 824.∗
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The time has been when detection was one thing and sex was another….
Today the rules have changed. Our heroes go to it with a mechanical alacrity which almost suggests that they are operated by an unusually large wheel. Where their predecessors were content to wait for the final paragraph before settling euphemistically into the heroine's embrace, they possess her in the most specific manner, often as early as Chapter 2: et seq. Possession, in fact, is nine-tenths of the narrative. Only time will tell whether this is merely a new convention—superseding, as it may be, the homicidal butler—or whether, as seems increasingly likely, thrillers are becoming a branch of erotic literature....
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Inspector Derek Torry of Scotland Yard, in John Gardner's "A Complete State of Death" … is at once an engaging and troubled cop, a character sketched in much greater depth than we are accustomed from the usually lighter-hearted Mr. Gardner. Torry … has become emotionally overinvolved in his mission, his hatred of criminals impairing his judgment and jeopardizing his career. And now, when a crucial investigation of a widespread criminal operation draws him into repeated critical situations, the Catholicism he thought he'd shed rises to confront his sexual involvements and add to his burden of guilt. This is a "message" novel, only slightly pretentious, relevant but underpaced.
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["A Complete State of Death" is a] superior crime story with a superior hero. The story has to do with a masterminded transatlantic syndicate that operates a finishing school for talented would-be criminals on a big estate near London, and with a looming graduation-day caper. The hero, whose destiny it is to uncover this technological triumph, is a Scotland Yard inspector who stands well apart from his fellows…. He is brilliant at his job, impatient of regulations, and so loathes crime that his interrogations often end in blows and bruises. Mr. Gardner shows us this complicated man from every aspect, and he emerges, in the old-fashioned sense, as a character—credible, understandable, and commanding....
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[In A Complete State of Death] John Gardner has crafted a moderately suspenseful tale about an English subsidiary of the Crime Syndicate, presided over by a very U type who trains his recruits and plans their activities as did the commando officers on the late TV shows…. The diverting and occasionally exciting plot is hindered by Gardner's Scotland Yard man, one Detective Inspector Derek Torry (nee Torrini) who is a pre-Vatican II Catholic, beseiged by doubt, guilt and adolescent sexual fantasies about women's underwear. One Graham Greene a century is probably enough.
A review of "A Complete State of Death," in The Critic, Vol. 28, No. 2, November-December, 1969,...
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Although John Gardner's new Boysie Oakes novel, "Air Apparent" …, climaxes with gun-running and an attempt to overthrow a government, everything leading up to the principal event is either banal or confused or both. Oakes, a former special agent, scarcely gives any evidence of professional qualification. A dummy air-agency is set up to help Boysie with his work—naturally it has three glamorous secretaries who double as hostesses. But Boysie falls for a beautiful model who works for a mysterious group which may be either for or against Boysie. Confused? So is the story—hardly worth the price.
A review of "Air Apparent," in Best Sellers, Vol. 30, No. 23, March 1,...
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After a number of books on the "comedy-suspense" formula, John Gardner has attempted a "straight" novel of some size and complexity [Every Night's a Bullfight, published in the United States as Every Night's a Festival]. It is certainly a workmanlike job, and while it convinces, entertains and sometimes surprises, it lacks depth: everything about it smacks of professionalism and competence; but it doesn't make us think, it has no significance.
Douglas Silver is a well-known director of stage plays. He is appointed director of the tired, established Shireston Festival, set in a sleepy town and noted for its dullness. Silver perks it up. His season of four Shakespeare plays … all...
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["Every Night's A Festival"] does nothing to dispel the idea that theatrical people spend much of their time in bed with one another…. The author gives explicit descriptions of the sexual act, both normal and otherwise. Evidently, this is the formula for a successful novel, a little plot and plenty of sex, with a variation of black-and-white sex thrown in to make everything more attractive….
One thing "Every Night's A Festival" does do—it helps the reader to make the distinction between the product of the artist and the artist's life. In this case, most of the actors involved, and their director too, are so sexually oriented that sex life comes very close to interfering with dramatic...
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Like many others of his colleagues John Gardner, best known for his funny thrillers about Boysie Oakes, has turned to Victorian England [in The Return of Moriarty], with Moriarty, back from the Reichenbach Falls, picking up the threads of his vast criminal empire in London. So far as convincingness goes, this Moriarty, at Gardner's chosen level of period melodrama, is perfectly adequate, and Gardner sensibly never lets the surely unmanageable Holmes appear in person. There are many felicities but the fantasy is overloaded, and never gets off the ground, just plods remorselessly, overcrowdedly, at last boringly on.
A review of "The Return of Moriarty," in The Times...
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[According to John Gardner in The Return of Moriarty], nobody disappeared into the boiling pool at the base of the Reichenbach Fall; instead, Holmes and Moriarty agreed on a truce. Neither was to return to London for three years, and after that they would keep out of each other's way. Preposterous! Holmes would never have agreed.
Gardner's Moriarty is a young fratricide who often disguises himself as his deceased elder brother, the mathematics professor—apparently the disguise had fooled Holmes. He does indeed control most of the crime in London, but his modus operandi is clearly borrowed from The Godfather….
Gardner's reluctance to present Holmes himself is...
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"The Return of Moriarty," by John Gardner, [is] based on the concept that Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes did not perish in the Alps and that Moriarty resurfaced in the London underworld…. Something of the vitality of the old Dickens London of crime, which also inspired Doyle, may be found in these highly researched tales.
From these tales American readers may learn that a "dollymop" is a whore, that a "drum" is a building, house or lodging, that a "dipper" is a pickpocket, and a "duffer" is a seller of stolen goods. We learn that a "lackin" is a wife, that a "macer" is a cheat, a "magsman" is an inferior cheat, that a "monkery" is the country, and "palmers" are shoplifters. Not surprisingly, the...
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John Gardner's Boysie Oakes, the lily-livered government liquidator, used always to provide some mildly enjoyable fun, but Gardner, too, has also been drawn into Holmes-mania, and will be, his blurb indicates, for two more books after last year's Return of Moriarty. Of Boysie he now seems weary, opening his tale of assassins' revenge in an atmosphere of seedy incapacity and ending with more or less the old set-up renewed, though Mostyn, Boysie's horrid master, has bought it. Boysie's inconsistency was always tricky—now a lily-liver, now a male Touchfeather—but it used to come off. In A Killer for a Song, it does not.
Marghanita Laski, "Deaths for the Idle,"...
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There's no particular reason to assume that Holmes' followers or even faddists will be drawn to this second in the series [The Revenge of Moriarty]…. The Napoleon of Crime has become a charismatic don; Holmes is attempting to withdraw from cocaine; and Moriarty's plots and coups are less dumfounding than dumb. This tale is primarily concerned with Moriarty's attempts to bring his international colleagues into line—the German crime lord is humiliated by a jewel robbery; the Frenchman by an elaborate hoax involving the Mona Lisa; the Italian by his own lust; the Spaniard is dead. Inspector Crow is presumably immobilized by adultery (there's a good deal of un-Doylean sex). It's no surprise when this...
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YA's who enjoyed The Return of Moriarty … will also like this latest appearance of the "Napoleon of Crime" [in The Revenge of Moriarty]…. Fast-paced, readers will have fun following Moriarty's adventures, crimes, disguises, plots, and counter-schemes. (pp. 57-8)
Joni Bodart, in a review of "Revenge of Moriarty," in School Library Journal, Vol. 22, No. 5, January, 1976, pp. 57-8.
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Believe it or not, [The Revenge of Moriarty] is agonizingly slow and uninteresting reading. Neither the theft of the Mona Lisa nor the "bawdy" sexual matters add anything like life to this work. One feels as though he is reading an arithmetic equation—Moriarty will systematically bring all betrayers in line with his Alliance, by doing A, B, and C. Yet, there are a number of bright spots along the way. Certainly, some of the descriptions of the fogged-in London underworld of the Victorian era, with its "lurkers," "toolers," and "cracksmen," create the desired eeriness. It's also heartening to see that some honest-to-God human beings emerge, like the concupiscent Inspector Crow. But, all things considered,...
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"The Cornermen" brings the American Mafia to London, and blood runs in the streets. Scotland Yard eventually brings things under control. There is plenty of action in "The Cornermen," but the writing is clumsy and the construction awkward. There are no believable characters here—Gardner's heroes and villains are all cardboard figures. But at least they create a sizable racket.
Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The Cornermen," in The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1976, p. 36.
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The terrifying power of the Nazis over writers' imaginations is undiminished, despite the difficulty that now its men are old or dead. John Gardner, in The Werewolf Trace, has found a new device with which to re-evoke the horror now and in England; but his recall of the unspeakable last days of Hitler and the Goebbels family is more powerful than the fictional modern threat—apart from the threat of The Trade, prepared to act almost as unspeakably to safeguard what are seen as British interests. This is Gardner's best so far—what a versatile creature he is! (p. 459)
Marghanita Laski, "Fresh Spring Crimes," in The Listener, Vol. 97, No. 2503, April 7, 1977, pp....
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John Gardner knows that the Nazis still sell books but seems a bit uneasy about it—a dilemma he resolves by contriving to have it three ways at once. "The Werewolf Trace" … is simultaneously laden with detailed lore about the final days in Hitler's bunker, debunking of the excesses of an intelligence service obsessed with the eradication of nonexistent evil, and a ghost story as well. Even more astonishing, at least to the point where one turns the pages to see how on earth he is going to bring it all off, the book actually works.
"Werewolf" is the British code designation for a 9-year-old boy who may, or may not, have survived the last hours of the Third Reich and who just might be primed to...
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[The Werewolf Trace] continues to puzzle me after having thought about it for several hours. Often it is quite satisfying and genuinely mature, but at times it is very predictable and even slick in a very juvenile way. (p. 106)
[A plot] summary may suggest yet another standard mystery novel, but Gardner clearly intends to do more than entertain. The real themes are the dangers of certain obsessions, the problems produced by the abuse of power and the insensitive use of technology, and the importance of a basic respect for another's privacy. The way in which Gardner rather cleverly reverses our expectations about the outcome calls attention to serious concerns while poking fun at the usual tidy...
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[Should they read "The Nostradamus Traitor" admirers of Gardner know he] will take an implausible—if not preposterous—premise, weave in enough characters, adventures, mysteries, and twists that, once begun, one has little choice but to continue on to the conclusion to see if the author can possibly unravel it all. Gardner can, and does in a wow finish; after all, he used to be a magician….
Red herrings abound. Soon it is not only things that don't seem to be as they should. People don't seem to be who they're supposed to be. Someone—maybe everyone—is lying….
Rust Hills, Esquire's fiction editor, has written: "The more successful a story based on mystery is in the middle,...
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An unusual idea, based somewhat on historical fact, is the centerpiece of John Gardner's ["The Nostradamus Traitor."]…. It is well known that Hitler and some of his high command took astrology and other occultism rather seriously. And anybody who takes occultism seriously is going to take Nostradamus seriously. To this day there are those who believe that the prophecies of the 16th-century astrologer-physician are uncanny anticipations of the future; that everything he predicted has come true.
Anyway, Mr. Gardner has written a book on two levels of time. "The Nostradamus Traitor," an espionage novel in the le Carre or Deighton pattern, takes place mostly in the France and Germany of 1941, in...
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[The Last Trump is set in] the mid-1990s, and Russia has conquered Europe, with Britain (rotted with leftists from within) surrendering to a Soviet "peace-keeping force" and the US "neutralized" by having its intelligence apparatus totally sabotaged. There's only one hope to avoid nuclear holocaust (China's ready to decimate the whole western world): Operation Golgotha, a plan created back in the 1970s that involves missiles already secreted throughout Europe (aimed at the USSR), with details of the plan divided up and hypnotically implanted in the minds of assorted undercover British agents (a novelist, a theater director, etc.). So the US Prez (Ted Kennedy, apparently) activates Golgotha by sneaking US-based...
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[John Gardner] is not so successful in The Garden of Weapons as he was in his previous books. The world of secret services is by definition intangible and hard to comprehend, but Gardner has sometimes managed to expose it to outsiders more clearly. This one follows Herbie Kruger, the spymaster in an earlier Gardner book, as he retraces his steps during the years since he left the rubble of post-war Berlin, both physically and in memory. It's ingenious and eventful, but not interesting enough for the concentration required.
Jessica Mann, in a review of "The Garden of Weapons," in British Book News, January, 1981, p. 10.
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[John Gardner] has sometimes been compared to Ian Fleming, but in fact the hero of this new spy thriller [The Garden of Weapons]—a German-born, British intelligence officer named Herbie Kruger—bears little resemblance to James Bond. Herbie … is fat, sexually impotent, passionately devoted to the music of Gustav Mahler … and tends to regard himself, in both his life and work, as a failure—a view which the events of The Garden of Weapons do much to support.
All of which, it might seem, not only distinguishes Gardner's hero from that of Fleming's but provides little in the way of character or plot which could serve as a basis for a spy thriller. In fact, however, Herbie and his...
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John Gardner attempts to revive James Bond in "License Renewed" …, an earnest simulation of an original story as it might have been written by the late Ian Fleming….
To his credit, Mr. Gardner has not aimed for a laugh rating, as others have. One can see the meticulousness of his craft as he tries to recreate the atmosphere of understated electricity and suspense that is the hallmark of Fleming's novels; in the thought processes, nuances of speech and descriptions of its characters; in the breaks in the narrative and the deft switching of scenes; in the climax; in the footnote-like quality of the final chapter.
Bond's enemy this time is Anton Murik, an outcast nuclear...
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Ian Fleming's James Bond books were never as crass as Licence Renewed. Writing for himself, Gardner is intelligent and original. In this Fleming rip-off, he reproduces Fleming's faults without their saving charms, except that he has cut down on the sex and sadism. Fleming's plots were always preposterous, but they carried a crazy, unifying conviction. Gardner's is just illogical. And how the mighty Bond is fallen; he has become a dull, dim—too many knocks on the head in the past, perhaps?—middle-aged man who chooses the wrong trade-names to advertise.
Jessica Mann, in a review of "Licence Renewed," in British Book News, July, 1981, p. 391....
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[In Licence Renewed the] licence is the immortal James Bond's, but the failure to renew the spirit of Ian Fleming's classic thrillers rests with author Gardner. Bond has been amusingly updated for the conservation-conscious 80s…. But these innovations do not begin to atone for a dreadfully static plot and a decidedly tame collection of villains. Gardner has a good grasp of Bond's character and may well make better use of it in the future, but his first attempt at reviving the 007 legend is a crashing bore.
Paul Stuewe, "Talk of the Devil … Musical Memoirs … A Duo on Dance," in Quill and Quire, Vol. 47, No. 8, August, 1981, p. 31.∗...
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["For Special Services"] is a James Bond story—Mr. Gardner's second try at rattling those moldering bones—and, as the author's foreword suggests, it was inspired not by any of the nine Muses but rather by a consortium of 007's copyright holders and publishers, along with the Saab motor car company of Sweden, which now provides Bond with his transportation.
At this point I will say that, after considering the extraliterary alliance associated with the venture, I don't believe any writer could have done better with this curious project than John Gardner, but it is simply a defeating project to start with. Ian Fleming was a dreadful writer, a creator of books for grown-up boys, a practitioner of...
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James Bond is dead, and John Gardner's second effort to remove the nails from that coffin, though not so dreary nor so silly as the first, is nonetheless very thin gruel. For Special Services … is exceptionally bad when read, as I have just done, back-to-back with Ian Fleming's "From a View to a Kill," a story embedded in For Your Eyes Only…. The aging Bond is now teamed with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old friend, and he goes up against a reincarnation (son? daughter? who knows?) of Blofeld in an appalling and sexist, though highly cinematic, confrontation with the usual mix of sadistic cheats in Amarillo and like romantic places. The book is full of one sentence paragraphs—did Fleming ever...
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License Renewed is a return to the "classic" Bond story that Ian Fleming himself eventually grew weary of, his weariness resulting in aberrations such as The Spy Who Loved Me. Anton Murik, international nuclear physicist and Laird of Murcaldy, is the brilliant and extremely unattractive villain…. Mary Jane Mashkin, Murik's female sidekick, is no Rosa Klebb or Irma Bunt, but she is serviceable. The heroine, Lavender Peacock (a name I am sure Ian Fleming would have been proud of), is a conventional Bond heroine, not one of the semi-equals that have been showing up in the films of late…. [Bond] does not seem to be so witty or quite so charming as he used to be. But, needless to say, Bond escapes from a...
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I was not pre-inclined to like John Gardner's second James Bond adventure For Special Services …, and I didn't. I missed Mr. Gardner's first conjuration of 007 but I believe it enjoyed considerable success, and I've little doubt that this one will too. Mr. Gardner is far too good a writer not to make a fair stab at the job. No mere arranger of other men's flowers, he is of course a thriller writer of the first water, author of many novels in many veins, and creator of that splendidly reluctant agent, Boysie Oakes. In For Special Services he resurrects SPECTRE and chucks in a mad millionaire, a plot to rule the world with the help of drugged ice-cream, killer ants, giant pythons and a no-holds-barred...
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[For Special Services is] John Gardner's second venture into Bond territory…. Gardner's Bond is to some significant extent reshaped, probably influenced by the extraordinarily successful series of films freely adapted from Fleming's work which has lightened the original Bond image, adding not only humour and tongue-in-cheek burlesque but also charm and even sympathy to the somewhat unpleasant, sadistic slant in the original characterization of this twentieth-century man of action. These highly entertaining fantasies require a particular skill to invent, a skill with which John Gardner seems well endowed, especially the capacity to blend sufficient genuine technological knowledge with a vivid imagination that...
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[In Icebreaker James Bond is] in Finland and Russia—for more of the same, just colder. This time Gardner's neo-Bond (who's less vividly characterized with every book) is sent by M to join three other agents—a CIA man, a KGB man, and beauteous Rivke of Israel's Mossad—in an action against the NSAA, a neo-Nazi group that has been responsible for heaps of recent terrorism. The plan? To catch the NSAA in the act of getting arms supplies … which are coming from Russia, of all places, near the Finno-Russian/Arctic-Circle border. But Bond suspects that the operation is not quite what it seems to be…. So it goes, with the requisite bursts of techno-violence …, kidnaps, grenades, mild smirks of sex,...
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[John Gardner's "Icebreaker"] strikes me as deficient in many of the basic requirements. I see now why Mr. Fleming is so hard to imitate: though his books were not brilliantly written, they were, like Bond himself, very smooth. What made them so easy to read was an almost complete absence of awkwardness. The illusion of unseriousness was seriously maintained.
Mr. Gardner, however, is all awkwardness. Every time I try to enter into his latest conspiracy we bump heads. It's one thing to accept an improbable plot and quite another to accept an improbable style. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief, but not my affection for the English language. I don't see why, when Mr. Gardner can learn all about the...
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"Icebreaker" is John Gardner's third James Bond novel, and this British author … has begun to influence the rather stock presentation of the 007 series. In Fleming's hands Bond tended toward a kind of macho cartoonishness…. Mr. Gardner, in this latest novel, has added a touch of the plot subtlety of less insistently action-oriented thrillers….
The most intriguing aspect of this Bond caper, however, is determining who among the Icebreaker team is a double agent. The final scenes are as surprising as they are exciting.
Although Mr. Gardner's Bond is less raffishly macho and arrogant than previously depicted, the spirit of the 007 series remains intact, and few Fleming admirers...
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