‘Double-low-tar 7, Licence to Underkill’ by Kingsley Amis

In 1982, Bond aficionado and the first Bond continuation author – Kingsley Amis – wrote a review of John Gardner’s ‘For Special Services’.

By Kingsley Amis

For Special ServicesIan Fleming’s last novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, appeared in 1965, a year after its author’s death. I published Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure under the pseudonym of Robert Markham in 1968. The next Bond novel, Licence Renewed, by John Gardner, did not come along till 1981. Here now is For Special Services, by the same author.

Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that, whereas its predecessor was bad enough by any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from its aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author-surely an unflattering likeness-on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill.

Over the last dozen years the Bond of the books must have been largely overlaid by the Bond of the films, a comic character with lots of gadgets and witty remarks at his disposal. The temptation to let this Bond go the same way must have been considerable, but it has been resisted. Only once is he called upon to round off an action sequence with a yobbo-tickling throwaway of the sort that Sean Connery used to be so good at dropping out of the side of his mouth. No ridiculous feats are required of him. His personal armament seems plausible, his car seems capable of neither flight nor underwater locomotion, his cigarettes in the gunmetal case have the three gold rings and M calls him 007.

Nobody else does, though. The designation is a pure honorific like Warden of the Cinque Ports; some ruling from Brussels or The Hague has put paid to the pristine Double-0 Section and its licence to kill long ago. Even the cigarettes are low-tar. But these and similar changes would hardly show if he had been allowed go keep some other interests and bits of himself, or find new ones. Does he still drink champagne with scrambled eggs and sausages? Wear a lightweight black-and-white dog-tooth check suit in the country? Do twenty slow press-ups each morning? Read Country Life? Ski, play baccarat and golf for high stakes, dive in scuba gear? What happened to that elegant international scene with its grand hotels and yachts? No information.

One thing Bond still does is have girls. There are three in this book, not counting a glimpse of Miss Moneypenny outside M’s door. The first is there just for local colour, around at the start, to be dropped as soon as the wheels start turning. She is called Q’ute because she comes from Q Branch. (Q himself is never mentioned, lives only in the films, belongs body and soul to Cubby Broccoli, the producer). Q’ute is liberated and a champion of feminism. Luckily she has only two lines, but one of these contains a jovial mild obscenity, and a moment later there comes a terrifically subtle reference to the famous moment in the film of Dr No when Bond said, “Something big’s coming up” [sic, actually TSWLM film] in ambiguous circumstances and got the hoped-for laugh from the first audiences, thus, legend says, turning the subsequent films on to their giggly course. When you consider how much the original Bond would have hated these small manifestations of what the world has become since 1960 or so, you might be led to suspect a furtive taking of the piss, but nothing like it occurs again, as if Gardner, not the most self-assured of writers, had repented of his daring.

Bond’s second girl has the cacophonous and uncertainly suggestive name of Cedar Leiter-yes, kin to that Felix Leiter of the CIA whom sharks deprived of an arm and half a leg in Live and Let Die (1954). Cedar is his daughter, a superfluous and unprofitable device that raises the thorniest of all questions, Bond’s age in 1982. Bond keeps his hands off her throughout, perhaps out of scruple but more likely because only a satyromaniac [sic] would find her appealing. She is described as short – a deadly word. An attractive girl may be small, tiny, petite, pocket-sized and such, but never short. Poor Cedar has no style of presence, no skills or accessories, no colour, no shape. And it is this wan creature whom Bond instantly accepts as his partner for the whole of the enterprise. In a Fleming novel – I nearly wrote “in real life” – Bond would have outrun sound getting away from her. To be accurate, of course, he would have done that even if she had been Pussy Galore or Domino Vitali all over again. He knew all about the way women “hang on to your gun-arm” and “fog things up with sex and hurt feelings”. But then that was 1953.

Bond scores all right with the third of the present trio, Nena Bismarquer, née Blofeld and the revengeful daughter of his old enemy, a detail meant to be a stunning revelation near the end but you guess it instantly. Nena-let me find the place-Nena looks fantastic and has incredible black eyes. Her voice is low and clear, with a tantalising trace of accent. She wears exceptionally well-cut jeans and has that special poise which combines all the attributes Bond most admires in a woman. When she sees him first she gives him a smile calculated to make even the most misogynistic male buckle at the knees. As she comes closer, he feels a charge, an unmistakeable chemistry passing between them. From expressions like these you can estimate the amount of trouble Gardner has taken with the figure of Nena and indeed the general level of his performance. It remains to be said about her that she has a long, slender nose and-by nature, not surgery-only one breast, an arresting combination of defects. Nobody really cares when she gets thrown among the pythons of the bayou. Well, there are pythons on this bayou.

There are two other villains round the place about whose villainy no bones are made from the beginning, Nena’s husband Markus and his boyfriend Walter Luxor. One is fat and cherubic, the other of corpse-like appearance, but neither exudes a particle of menace or looks for a moment as if he would be any trouble to kill, and Nena casually knocks them off one after the other on a late page. The three had schemed to steal the computer tapes governing America’s space-satellites, having fed drugged ice-cream to the personnel in charge of them. Bond, brainwashed by other drugs into believing himself to be a US general, is at the head of the party of infiltrators, but a third set of drugs, administered by a suddenly renegade Bismarquer, brings him to himself just in time. This sounds, I know, like a renewed and more radical bid to take the piss, but seen in the context of the whole book and its genesis the absurdity, however gross, is contingent, mere blundering.

I have suggested that For Special Services has little to do with the Bond films. In one sense this is a misfortune. Those films cover up any old implausibility or inconsistency by piling one outrage on another. You start to stay to yourself. [sic] “But he wouldn’t”- or “But they couldn’t”– and before you can finish Bond is crossing the sunward side of the planet Mercury in a tropical suit or sinking a Soviet aircraft-carrier with his teeth. Hardly a page in the book would not have gone smoother for a diversion of this sort. Why, for instance, does the New York gang boss set his hoods on Bond when all he has to do is ask him nicely? The reader is offered no relief from this bafflement.

What makes Mr Gardner’s book so hard to read is not so much its endlessly silly story as its desolateness, its lack of the slightest human interest or warmth. Ian Fleming himself would have conceded that he was not the greatest delineator of character; even so his people have genuine life and substance and many of them both experience and inspire feeling. So far from being “the man who is only a silhouette” Bond is shown to be fully capable of indignation, compunction, remorse, tenderness and a protective instinct towards defenceless creatures. His girls have a liveliness, a tenacity and sometimes a claim on affection beyond the requirements of formula. Most of the Fleming books also have a more or less flamboyant figure assisting Bond and acting as a foil to him, such as Darko Kerim, the Turkish agent in From Russia, with Love, and Enrico Colombo, the virtuous black-marketeer and smuggler in ‘Risico’. By a kind of tradition, however, perhaps started by Buchan with Dominck Medina in The Three Hostages, the main character-interest in this type of novel attaches to the villain. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Dr No and their like are persons of some size and power. They are made to seem to exist in their own right, to have been operating since long before Bond crossed their paths, rather than to have been run up on the spot for him to practise on. But then to do anything like that the writer must be genuinely interested in his material.

Times Literary Supplement, 17 September 1982

3 thoughts on “‘Double-low-tar 7, Licence to Underkill’ by Kingsley Amis

  1. Pingback: Philip Larkin on Gardner, Amis, Fleming, and the “Batman from Blades” | Artistic License Renewed

  2. John later on mistakenly thought that this review was originally for ‘Licence Renewed’ but here is what he had to say: “Amis was in fact quite amusing. I met him at a lunch party Len Deighton gave at the Savoy for Eric Ambler’s birthday. Out of devilment I said to him, “Kingsley, you’re quite right: the Bond books are terrible hokum. No good at all. Dreadful,” – he had reviewed Licence Renewed for, I think, The Times Literary Supplement, and it was a review in which he set about me with a cat o’ nine tails, the Rack and the Chinese Water Torture. Kingsley looked at me in bewilderment, spluttering, “Oh no. my dear chap, no! No!” http://www.john-gardner.com/bond

    • Thanks for your comment Simon. I think Amis was being especially harsh but I think most people know that he was prone to arrogance.

      My favorite John Gardner Bond novel is ‘License Renewed’; very closely followed by ‘For Special Services’.

      All in all, they were both Bond fans and Amis should have been more forgiving.

      The most fascinating aspect to all this though is within your comment, where John was at a birthday bash for Eric Ambler with Amis and Len Deighton! Pray tell more on that!

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