Eyes on Books


By John Gardner


G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Originally published in For Your Eyes Only #27, Sept. 1991.

Hard to believe it's been 10 years and 10 books (11 counting the novelization of “Licence to Kill”) since Ian Fleming’s estate hired spy author John Gardner to write a new series of James Bond novels. In his first few attempts, Gardner seemed to take his inspiration from Bond screenplays more than from Fleming, and his updating of the format was less than adroit. He went through some painfully predictable and ludicrous rehashing, probably the worst in his second book, For Special Services. That's the one with a new SPECTRE headed by Blofeld's daughter (who in the best Fleming tradition of physically deformed villains has only one breast), and Bond teaming with (and of course bedding) Felix Leiter's daughter.

Since the Bond stories were essentially Fleming's bizarre daydreams about himself, other writers are ill equipped to continue them (although Kingsley Amis made an estimable attempt in Colonel Sun, his 1968 novel that was the only other stab at continuing the series). Gardner's style is nothing like Fleming's and his attempts at Fleming touches have come off more like parody than homage. He's done much better in the last few books since he's given up trying to ape Fleming and settled into his own approach. They aren't top form Bond but they're good reads.

So it is with the latest, The Man From Barbarossa, in which Gardner has added a new wrinkle to Bond: weaving the tale around recent, real world events. The story very pointedly takes place from December 1990 to January 1991, touching on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the United Nations' deadline for Iraq to withdraw. Though it seems to start off as another hoary old Nazi war-criminal plot, the story takes some interesting turns before arriving at its not-too-surprising destination. I don't want to give too much away (though astute readers will figure it out). Suffice it to say that the events of Aug. 18 – 20 in the Soviet Union have serendipitously given The Man From Barbarossa a topicality never before seen in a Bond story.

The book's major weakness is that of many Gardner Bond novels, the lack of a truly memorable, Fleming-esque villain. The group of plotters and counterplotters parading through this story brings to mind the nondescript movie villains seen in “The Living Daylights.” Gardner has never been able to come up with villains to match Goldfinger, Blofeld or Dr. No (or even Hugo Drax or the Spang brothers). That changes the original Bond equation quite a bit, but Gardner has hit on his own approach to Bond and his efforts can't be dismissed as merely better than nothing. Fleming just can't be equaled.

                                                                                — Craig Henderson