Novelist John Gardner; Reimagined Fleming's James Bond

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

John Gardner, 80, a British novelist who had been a magician, a clergyman and a Royal Marine before giving new literary life to one of fiction's most famous secret agents, the legendary James Bond, died Aug. 3 in Basingstoke, England.

The Daily Mail reported that he collapsed near his home and died in a hospital. A report on his Web site said he had been in ill health and apparently had a mild stroke last year.

Bond, celebrated as Agent 007, was created by Ian Fleming, who died in 1964. Sixteen years later, Mr. Gardner accepted the assignment of resurrecting the man who, on the printed page and on the movie screen, had become a worldwide symbol of spying, sophistication and derring-do.

Mr. Gardner's efforts began with "Licence Renewed" (1981) and resulted in 14 titles, which exceeded Fleming's output and appeared to be among the most successful examples of one writer devising additional exploits for another's character.

The books were published at the rate of about one a year, and about half were released between 1989 and 1997, when Mr. Gardner was living in Charlottesville. Several books featured scenes in the Washington region.

Regarded as serious and thoughtful, Mr. Gardner was said to lack sympathy for Bond's obsession with high-end brand names and luxury products or for Bond's restrictive view of the role of women.

But Mr. Gardner said he viewed writing the new Bond series as a challenge, and "once I got the bit between my teeth, I wasn't going to let go."

He said that he had hoped to add depth and dimension to the character, to make him grow and to bring him out of the world of fantasy into reality. Mr. Gardner's approach was reflected in matters such as giving Bond a concern for gas mileage and putting him behind the wheel of a sturdy and sensible Saab.

If not sacrilege, it was close, Mr. Gardner said, and "the die-hard fans wouldn't have any of it." Recognizing himself as an entertainer above all else, Mr. Gardner bowed to marketplace demands. Although critics sometimes looked askance, a number of his Bond books made the New York Times bestseller list.

John Edmund Gardner was born Nov. 20, 1926, in Seaton Delaval in Northumberland, England.

His father was a priest in the Church of England, and Mr. Gardner was ordained in 1953. He soon recognized his error, telling an interviewer that during a sermon one Sunday, "I didn't believe a word I was saying."

He was released from clerical obligations in 1958 and said later that he had recovered his faith. At one point, he drank heavily, writing about it in a 1964 book called "Spin the Bottle."

From boyhood, Mr. Gardner was interested in magic and became an adept performer, working with an American Red Cross unit as a teenager in 1944. Later that year, he entered the Royal Navy and subsequently became an officer in the Royal Marines.

"I had been a small-arms expert and also knew a lot about explosives," he said, but he was "the worst commando in the world."

His educational credentials, which were acquired, he once said, "without my cooperation," included a degree from Cambridge University. He spent several years covering the arts for a British newspaper before embarking on fiction.

Among the earliest of Mr. Gardner's 50 books were novels that parodied the original Bond stories. They featured Boysie Oakes, a blundering intelligence agent. Later came series about another agent, Big Herbie Kruger, and Sherlock Holmes's archenemy, Professor Moriarty.

Cancer of the esophagus was diagnosed while Mr. Gardner was living in Charlottesville. His treatment and the death in 1997 of his wife, the former Margaret Mercer, kept him from working for several years.

Upon returning to England and in financial straits, he resumed writing. "What else would I do?" he said. In his 70s, he published a series of crime novels set in Britain during World War II about a female police detective.

He had two children with his wife and a daughter from another relationship.

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