Tuesday, August 07, 2007

You Only Live Once

Following word last week about the passing of R.D. Wingfield, creator of the Jack Frost mysteries, we have still more sad news to impart: John Gardner, the English spy novelist who revived the James Bond series in the 1980s, died last Friday, August 3, of suspected heart failure. He was 80 years old.

Born in a mining village in Northumberland, Gardner attended St. John’s College, Cambridge, before volunteering to fight in World War II. After returning home, he followed his Anglican clergyman father’s example and was ordained, serving as a priest for seven years before he realized that the work wasn’t for him. Following brief dalliances then with careers as a Marine commando and a magician, Gardner commenced his life as a fiction writer in 1964 with the publication of The Liquidator, the first of his eight books featuring a rather comical British secret agent named Boysie Oakes. (The series continued through Killer for a Song, 1976.) Most people reading this, however, will likely remember Gardner best for his Bond contributions.

Following the demise of Bond creator Ian Fleming in 1964, fellow British writer Kingsley Amis, who’d previously composed a critical work on Agent 007, The James Bond Dossier (1965), penned a new Bond novel titled Colonel Sun (1968), using the nom de plume Robert Markham. The Bond torch was then passed to Gardner, who revived Fleming’s man in License Renewed (1981). Gardner went on to contribute 16 books to the canon (including two movie novelizations), the last of which was Cold (or Cold Fall, as it appeared in the States), published back in 1996. Later, the Bond mantle was passed to Raymond Benson. And more recently, as we’ve reported here, Brit Sebastian Faulks has written a new Bond adventure, Devil May Care, which is set to be published on May 28, 2008, the 100th anniversary of Fleming’s birth.

Britain’s Independent newspaper recalls a bit more of Gardner’s history in its obituary:
John Gardner, author of more than 50 thrillers, including 14 James Bond books, was a workaholic and recovered alcoholic who even in his 81st year was still writing at all hours. He worked every day--even a little on Christmas Day. “I work because I am scared stiff of losing the ability to put words together,” he said. “Touch wood, it’s never happened, but I have nightmares that it might.”

His fictional characters included the cowardly secret agent Boysie Oakes (introduced in The Liquidator in 1964, the first of a series of books Gardner described as “born in the hope of being an amusing counter-irritant to the excesses of the many imitators of 007”) and Big Herbie Kruger (who first appeared in The Nostradamus Traitor in 1979). He also expanded and developed Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty in The Return of Moriarty, 1974; The Revenge of Moriarty, 1975; and a third volume, provisionally titled The Redemption of Moriarty, which he had just completed before his death.

Gardner took over the Bond books in 1981 after being approached by the literary copyright owners, Glidrose. (Kingsley Amis had written just one Bond book after Ian Fleming’s death in 1964.) “What I wanted to do,” he said, “was take the character and bring Fleming’s Bond into the Eighties as the same man but with all he would have learned had he lived through the Sixties and Seventies.” The first new Bond was Licence Renewed (1981) in which M reminds Bond that the 00 section has been abolished; however, M retains Bond as a troubleshooter, telling him “You’ll always be 007 to me.” Other titles included Nobody Lives Forever (1986), Win, Lose, or Die (1989) and, the one Gardner considered his best, The Man from Barbarossa (1991).

Gardner was ambivalent about Bond, regarding the character as “one- dimensional”, and was at first reluctant to write about a character he had not devised himself. He said: “I’m used to putting a lot more flesh on my characters. And of course with Bond I can’t. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the way Fleming depicted him.” However, he refused to “dumb down” Bond. “What the Americans wanted,” he said, “was: ‘Bond goes to see M, flirts with Moneypenny, goes off, Bond loses the baddy, baddy gets Bond’ and then ‘Bond triumphs’. And I thought, ‘erm, no’”. But he enjoyed the trappings, including a Bentley (his second) and a silver Saab 900 Turbo, which his version of Bond switched to later.
Gardner died just weeks before the UK publication of his latest novel, a World War II-era story titled No Human Enemy, the fifth entry in a saga starring Detective Sergeant Suzie Mountford. And it will be interesting to see what becomes of that “just completed” Moriarty novel. But I can’t help thinking back as well to his first book--his only non-fiction book--called Spin the Bottle (1964). There’s a longstanding link between British writers and gin, and both Gardner and Fleming were partial to consuming that quintessential aperitif. In Spin the Bottle, Gardner, a self-confessed alcoholic, chronicled the agonies he once went through with his habit of two bottles of gin a day. “If I were still a magician,” he once said, “I’d be playing the northern clubs and I’d be down-at-heel, seedy and a chronic alcoholic.” Fortunately, he found a finer fortune in writing.

To learn more about John Gardner’s fascinating literary life, read this report at the James Bond fan site MI6 and this recollection at Mystery*File. Gardner’s official Web site can be found here.

No comments: