Friday, December 9, 2016

Brokenclaw, by John Gardner

New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990, pp. 304.

After an uneventful year of service has made Bond restless, M orders his top agent to take a vacation, which carries him to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where he sees and becomes curious about the wealthy and philanthropic "Brokenclaw" Lee Fu-Chu. As usual, what is supposed to be rest and relaxation is interrupted when M orders Bond to San Francisco, where he has run-ins with the FBI—apparently, building up a suitable cover for Bond's next assignment. As it happens, the rich philanthropist Bond saw in Canada is not a mere businessman, but a crime lord and an agent of Chinese intelligence, to which he is selling a new Anglo-American anti-submarine technology. British and American intelligence are undertaking a joint operation to stop the transfer and finally bring Brokenclaw down, with Bond, and his American counterpart CIA agent Sue Chi-Ho, going undercover as Chinese agents to help run Lee down . . .

Perhaps more than any other Gardner novel, Brokenclaw evokes the premise of a specific work of Ian Fleming's, namely Live and Let Die. Like Mr. Big, Lee is a very large, physically formidable and exceptionally articulate mixed-race, foreign gangster in control of the underworld of an ethnic enclave in a major American city who also happens to be working with a foreign intelligence service hostile to the U.S. government. Bond goes into said enclave, and quickly gets himself into trouble that causes him to run afoul of the American authorities.

However, unlike in Live and Let Die, and more like Gardner's earlier Icebreaker, Bond here is a comparatively passive actor, being maneuvered about by M and the villains until he sets off for a final showdown with the bad guy on his own initiative after the main threat has been quashed. And the novel's finale, like a crucial scene in that earlier Gardner novel, has Bond among tents in the wilderness, surrounded by an indigenous people living in the old ways.

Unfortunately in contrast with both Live and Icebreaker, Brokenclaw is awkwardly structured. Its early portion is exceptionally heavy on coincidence: Bond's spotting Lee in Vancouver and becoming vaguely curious about him; Bond going on to San Francisco, noticing an FBI man tailing him, seeing the tail attacked by gangsters. A fifth of the book in Bond meets up with M, who finally tells him what this is all about—in a briefing that lasts another fifth of the book, from Chapters Four to Eight (including a lengthy flashback sequence). The result is that Gardner is two-fifths of the way into the story before he sends Bond off on his mission, and it is some time after that before things pick up, as the mission entails a very roundabout trip to meet the villain, and the clutter of two underdeveloped subplots (besides selling American technology to China, Brokenclaw is plotting to engineer a financial crash, and building a private army in the Northwest). In fact there is very little action until the final quarter of the book, which is again rather drawn-out as Brokenclaw escapes his home and Bond and Ed have to hunt him down on his reservation, with Bond ultimately taking on Lee in an elaborate, ritualized confrontation, the "okeepah" contest.

The overall impression all this creates is of a limited idea extended into a full-length novel through the stretching of its material, helped by the cramming of still more material inside, not all of which fits together well. This is the case with, for example, Lee's sale of the technology to China for five million dollars—far less than what Karl Stromberg offered for just one of those technologies in the film version of The Spy Who Loved Me (twenty million, divided between the accounts of the two developers) thirteen inflationary years earlier, and even that had been a steal at the time.1

The extraordinary cheapness of the item aside, it is hard to believe that such a sum would mean very much to Brokenclaw, given the apparent vastness of his business empire, which affords him resources adequate to launch that attack on the American financial system, creating yet another implausibility. His massive investment in American assets makes such a crash not in his interests, an inconsistency so obvious that Bond himself makes the point in the novel. Lee brushes it off with the remark that Switzerland and Lichtenstein remain safe—unconvincingly. Lee does express some hostility to the United States within the story, but the book never affords a reason to think ideology or any other motivation trumps profit with him.

The implausibilities also extend to the mechanics of the plot, not least the visit by a very senior Chinese intelligence official to Brokenclaw's compound on American soil in person, when two of his operatives had just been subjected to a very elaborate procedure to collect the material he wanted to see anyway. There is, too, Bond's subjection to not one but two bouts of appalling torture. In the first the series' castration-themed tortures attain a new peak of indignity, with Bond stripped and his genitals smeared with fat so as to induce Brokenclaw's pet wolves to emasculate him (about which purpose the villain is very blunt). Adding to the indignity is Bond's failure to save himself; instead he is rescued by his American colleague Ed Rushia, and American special forces, with Bill Tanner tagging along (who all become well aware of what has been going on), and their code names adding yet another bad joke to a mix of questionable taste.

Indeed, where in Fleming's Bond novels Felix Leiter often seemed a nonentity, his successor Rushia often threatens to overshadow Bond. It is Rushia who locates Brokenclaw's base of operations, and narrowly saves Bond from a gruesome and humiliating death. After the subsequent raid fails to catch the villain, leaving him free to strike again, he helps Bond catch a flight north to his redoubt, and goes with him to arrest a pair of traitorous FBI agents, then save Bond's life again at the end of the o-kee-pah contest. In fact, one could make the case that his actions were more important to stopping Brokenclaw than anything Bond did this time around.

Of course, if the book has considerable flaws of structure and focus, it is also not without its strengths. Lee is a satisfactorily villainous presence (especially in comparison with a nonentity like Baradj in the preceding novel), complete with the requisite personal charisma, extravagant tastes and revolting sadism. He also has at least some of the trappings that go with the position, like a suitably high-tech lair, and freakish henchmen (like Bone Bender Ding). And on the whole Brokenclaw manages to be a smooth, brisk read. Still, it is not one of Gardner's stronger efforts.

1. Indeed, naval analyst Norman Friedman mentioned in the notes to his book Seapower and Space (2000) that watching the film at the time of its release, a colleague quipped to him that such a device would actually be worth orders of magnitude more.

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