WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
While there was always an important element of continuity between James Bond's adventures in Ian Fleming's novels (the Soviet revenge for prior battles in From Russia with Love, the aftermath of those events in Dr. No, etc.), Fleming got more ambitious in his later books. His last five novels--Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun--can be read as a single saga of a run-down 007 struggling against accumulated damage and repeated personal disaster through and after his battle with Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Likewise, John Gardner's last books--specifically his final three novels, Never Send Flowers, SeaFire and Cold Fall--form a more thoroughly interconnected story. Bond's decay is not an issue, and the novels do not have him fighting a single great villain. Instead it is M's aging that is more prominent, the Old Man on his way out, amid a larger reorganization of the Service for the post-Cold War--changes which see Bond become an administrator entangled with government committees in SeaFire, and Cold Fall closing with Bond on his way to meet Sir Miles Messervy's replacement for the first time.
However, he again copes with love and loss, albeit in a different fashion. In the first of the three books, Never, Bond ends up cooperating with a Swiss government agent, Flicka von Grusse, and while it is predictable enough that the two become romantically involved. What is less predictable is that she gets booted from her old job, and taking a new one with SIS, while cohabiting with Bond in a relationship that continues with them partners on and off the job into the next book, SeaFire. The result is that Bond is seen not just getting involved with a woman, but having a "normal" relationship (or at any rate, as normal as relationships between wisecracking, crime-fighting duos get)--before, again, she is taken from him.
Just as is the case with those last Fleming novels, the Gardner books represent the most radical break with the familiar "Bond formula." Bond and Flicka trading one-liners; Bond chasing a theater-obsessed serial killer through Disneyland; Bond coping with bureaucratic headaches galore; Bond playing bit roles in an FBI battle with militia-type loons spanning years; did not feel much like a Bond novel at all. Had the results been satisfying I might have taken the break with precedent in stride--as indeed, I was able to enjoy Role of Honor. However, the tales were on the whole derivative, Never Send Flowers a clear response to the popularity of serial killer stories after the success of Silence of the Lambs; SeaFire rehashes earlier Gardner novels (the half-baked pseudo-environmentalism of Licence Renewed, the neo-Nazism of Icebreaker, etc.); and Cold Fall brought back the Tempestas of Nobody Lives Forever and Beatrice Maria da Ricci from Win, Lose or Die. They also tended toward the very small-scale (Never Send Flowers and Cold Fall in particular). And the narrative knack that carried such an awkwardly structured, action-light tale as Brokenclaw was not in evidence.
The result is that while those last Fleming novels put me off with their particularly strong divergence from my expectations, on revisiting them I appreciated their quirks, and their ambition. Even where they were not altogether successful, I had a sense of an artist at work. Considering Gardner's last novels, however, I find myself thinking of the pure and simple fact that (by his own admission) he'd spent sixteen years working on a series he'd never much liked, and had probably stuck with for longer than he should have.
It is not the note on which I would have liked to conclude. For all his reservations about the character, at his best Gardner could be very good (as in the deft blend of Bond book and Bond film that was Licence Renewed)--and even when not so good, at least interesting (as in Win, Lose or Die). Still, it is a reminder that novel-writing is not a thing done well for very long when taken up unenthusiastically; and a reminder, too, that by the '80s, let alone the '90s, updating the adventures of the '50s-era hero was an increasingly difficult task, one reason why Gardner's successors so often took different paths.
My Posts on John Gardner and the James Bond Series
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)