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Licence Renewed and For Special Services read by Jeremy Northam: review

15 Jul

Thirty years after they were first published, Orion have released a hardback reprint of five of John Gardner’s James Bond novels. Mr Gardner wrote fourteen in total (more than any other Bond author, including the originator of the series, Ian Fleming).

From Orion:
Swordfish, the new imprint from The Orion Publishing Group, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Gardner’s first James Bond novel with the publication of his first five Bond titles in a highly collectable hardback edition. Featuring the original cover art, the first three titles – Licence Renewed, For Special Services and Icebreaker – will all be published in a distinctive new livery on 23 June 2011 (hardback, £16.99 each/eBook at £8.99). Nobody Lives For Ever and Role Of Honour will follow suit on 7 July 2011 (hardback, £16.99 each/eBook at £8.99). All of John Gardner’s Bond novels will be released in paperback in 2012.

If you’d like to find out more about John Gardner, I recommend a visit to the official website: JohnGardner.com

Jeremy Northam has recorded the first two novels in the series as audiobooks: Licence Renewed and For Special Services. Naturally, yours truly has been having a listen …

Written and set in the 1980’s, in Licence Renewed James Bond is older and times have changed. M is still his boss, but ’00’ status no longer officially exists (though M refuses to acknowledge this), and Bond’s duties are far more mundane. That is, until he is required to return to his old role and save the world, yet again, from a mad genius intent on world domination.

I always think of Bond stories as adult fairy tales, with Bond as our invincible handsome prince on the side of good and all that is right, saving damsels in distress from the big bad wolf. It helps me to accept the casual sexism, xenophobia and general lack of political correctness that are an inescapable part of the best James Bond stories (a reflection of the time they were written). Jeremy plays it straight when it would be easy to colour it with a 2011 perspective, and this helps to create an authenticity and connection with Fleming’s originals, something I never really felt with Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care (also read by Jeremy). By doing so, Jeremy also avoids all comparisons with Mike Myers’ extremely successful Bond pastiche, Austin Powers. (Yeah baby!)

Despite being older, James Bond has lost none of his skill, nerve, and prowess with the ladies, though he drinks less and smokes low tar cigarettes (especially made for him, of course).

Bond’s gadgets come from Q branch, as before, but this time via a woman, nicknamed Q’ute. John Gardner was careful to make all of Bond’s gadgets realistic, and he maintained that a Saab with the modifications Bond has installed would have been an option for anyone with the money to afford it.

Bond must stop Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy (aided by international terrorist Franco) from taking over six nuclear plants and holding the world to ransom. Needless to say, there is a glamorous Bond girl with an appropriately ludicrous name (Lavender Peacock, known as ‘Dilly’, pronounced with great relish by Jeremy as Bond) and an enormous villain (reminiscent of Jaws) named Caber.

Some of the novel is set in Scotland, and though Jeremy’s ability to create believable, consistent and appropriate voices for his characters is nothing short of amazing, his Scottish accent is a little shaky (I’d be prepared to offer lessons, being from that country myself …), but I am being needlessly picky, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Mel Gibson’s!

It’s a typically tense, fast-paced romp, punctuated by testosterone-fuelled battles, car chases and romantic interludes. Anton Murik is a Bond mad scientist villain who sounds like he could have been played by Charles Gray (I particularly loved Gardner’s description of the mad and dangerous gleam in his eyes resembling lava). Dilly squeals, simpers and looks gorgeous, and of course Bond was always going to come out on top (ahem).

The second novel, For Special Services, picks up where the first left off and is more filmic, thanks to Gardner doing a better job with setting the scene, and, of the two, this was by far my favourite. James Bond is on secret loan to the US government and, teamed with his old friend Felix Leiter’s daughter Cedar (a CIA agent), he must stop legendary secret organisation SPECTRE and their evil leader ‘Blofeld’ who are, of course, up to no good on a grand scale. Blofeld was responsible for killing Bond’s wife Tracy (in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and was later killed by Bond. Who is the new ‘Blofeld’? We don’t find out for sure until the very end of the book.

Cedar Leiter is a match for Bond, and a forerunner of Halle Berry’s character in Die Another Day. Naturally, she is also very beautiful.

This audiobook really is a Bond film performed entirely by one man and can only be described as a tour de force. There are many plot twists and turns (some of which you’ll see coming), some great set-piece scenes worthy of the best Bond movies, and a large cast of vivid characters, all of which are created with verve and gusto. The New York gangsters, Texan millionaire Markus Bismaquer and skull-faced Walter Luxor (who will make your flesh creep) are characters you’d never believe could possibly spring from Jeremy’s lips, and yet they do, brilliantly. Jeremy has proved, in several audiobooks, that he can successfully perform female characters, but you have never heard anything like the steamy love scene he creates in this book. Much as I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall in the recording studio, perhaps you need to be alone in such circumstances … !

The relationship between Bond and M is rather touching, and Bond and Moneypenny continue to have a little flirt (a scene without which any Bond film is incomplete). This book has everything you could want from a Bond novel, and Orion absolutely picked the right man for the job in Jeremy, with his success as a leading man and his gifts as a character actor.

If you enjoy James Bond (novels or films), you will adore these audiobooks. Laura has written about Jeremy being her ‘intellectualizer‘, introducing her to books, periods of history and other subjects she might not otherwise have felt inspired to explore. In this case, I haven’t been ‘intellectualized’ in the slightest. I’ve had a good, healthy dose of pure entertainment. And why not? After listening to every last syllable of Homage to Catalonia, I think I deserve it!

For Special Services and Licence Renewed, read by Jeremy Northam, are available as CDs and digital downloads (digital download not available in USA) from Orion and a range of audiobook retailers. It is possible that more of John Gardner’s James Bond novels may be released as audiobooks. Orion’s Audio Editor Pandora White told me:

“He did such a good job with the Faulks book and he’s a fantastic reader and the right age and tone of voice.  If these work then yes, we will do more and with Jeremy.”

Let’s hope so!

Many thanks to Louise Court at Orion.

by Gill

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