Thirty years after the first James Bond adventure was written--he made his debut in "Casino Royale" in 1954--Agent 007 still is hanging on by his fingernails to the sheer cliff of Popular Culture.
But this particular cliff only resembles the Reichenbach Falls, from whence Conan Doyle, tiring of him, tossed Sherlock Holmes and then, due to overwhelming demand, was forced to haul him back up. The difference, of course, is that Bond's progenitor, Ian Fleming, didn't heave his hero into the void on purpose: Fleming died in 1964, having finished 12 Bond novels and some short stories, proving once again that while characters can be immortal, authors are not.
Fleming had made no provision for Bond without him. However, Fleming's estate turned out to be unwilling to let sleeping Bonds lie; thus, in 1968, Kingsley Amis, writing as Robert Markham, was allowed to bring out the unmemorable "Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure." Since that was a non-starter, Bond languished in paperback reprints of the originals for more than a decade, and a sign of the times was that by the mid-'70s they had started to become a staple of yard sales.
Enter John Gardner, a British thriller writer best known for his semi-sendups of the 007 mystique, the Boysie Oakes series, with Oakes lecherous where Bond was seductive, inept where Bond was accomplished. Though none of Gardner's accomplishments especially qualified him to be the next fellow to resurrect James Bond, they didn't rule him out either. He had, after all, demonstrated a reactive interest in Fleming and a taste for revenants.
Which brings us to "Icebreaker," which follows upon the bestselling heels of the earlier Gardner Bonds, "License Renewed" (1981) and "For Special Services" (1982). The jackets of these books are, by the way, of some interest: they're a triumph of billing, reading from top to bottom, for example "Ian Fleming's master spy James Bond in Icebreaker by John Gardner." The only difference between this and the movie deals cut over the listing of names is that it doesn't say "starring," although it might as well.
Bond is It, the matinee idol, the main attraction, and Gardner merely the scriptwriter, servicing the star with a plot. But the problem is that Gardner, in "Icebreaker" even more than the previous two, puts Bond through the expected, near-ludicrous derring-do paces, all the while seeming not to have a clue as to what gave 007 the potential for an enduring audience in the first place.
It's not the snob element, per se, but rather the aura that encompasses it; in other words, clothes don't make the man, and here we have a polyester Bond wearing a "Sea Island cotton shirt." How well those of us who used to be in Bond-age remember those vodka martinis, shaken not stirred! In "Icebreaker" what could be duller than to see 007's preferred cocktail rendered like this? "She went off into the kitchen and mixed a jug of his favorite martinis. It was over three years ago, in London, that he had taught her the recipe--one which, because of certain publications, had become a standard with many people." Certain publications! It's one thing to be coy and another to sound like a cautious attorney.
When Fleming wrote Bond, it seemed as if the author was having fun; with Gardner writing Bond, it seems as if the author's making money. "Icebreaker" is all ice and no drink; there's nothing really to swallow: Gardner's given us a corkscrew of a plot (the good guys are really the bad guys are really the good guys are really the bad guys) that doesn't really keep us in any kind of suspense, just a bit unpleasantly off-balance, waiting for something actually to happen that will engage our attention.
"Icebreaker," in fact, is a pretty bad book. Unlike "License Renewed," Gardner's first Bond novel, it doesn't appear to make any effort to recapture the special flavor of Fleming's fantasy. Worse, even if you read "Smith" for "Bond" and "N" for "M" (Bond's superior in the British secret service) and try to forget Fleming, it remains a lame enterprise. The premise--Bond, along with reps from Israeli, American and Soviet intelligence, is sent to Arctic Finland to look into the activities of a neo-Nazi operation engaging in global terrorism--is simply hackneyed. And the execution is just that--an execution. Only the victim turns out to be poor old 007, who's being slain by the pen, Gardner's, and not by any fancy weaponry or fanatical enemies.
It's in the sense that, as I said before, Bond is hanging by his fingernails, and it might almost be a mercy were SMERSH to get him. Better that than to become the Nick Carter of the '80s. Rereading the Fleming Bonds is, I think, a magical experience; they're fairy tales of the '50s and yet have a timeless air about them, the same way that Holmes and Baker Street are quintessentially gaslit Victorian London but hold us spellbound today. Both Conan Doyle and Fleming also had a tremendous gift for imagining eccentric villains; one could even propose that with Fleming, the marvelous monstrousness of his mad criminals carried the books as much as did the suave, coolly sensual Bond. "Icebreaker's" Count von Gloda, however, is just another plastic Fu hrer.
If it seems like I'm being too hard on John Gardner--who, mind you, isn't cynical, only opportunistic, and who can blame him?--I have a suggestion. For him, that is, and it's this: switch climates. James Bond is a creature made for swimming pools, not snowmobiles; sultry islands, not ice palaces. One of the better scenes in "Icebreaker" is a brief episode in a Madeira hotel, with bikini'd beauties and Bond in bathing trunks. For a moment, then, one forgets Gardner's diluted formula and remembers better days. Ian Fleming wrote "You Only Live Twice," but we have James Bond a third time around, anyway.