Saturday, October 10, 2015

Death is Forever, by John Gardner

New York: Putnam, 1992, pp. 303.

Cabal, a hugely successful Anglo-American spy ring run in East Germany during the Cold War completely ceased to operate within the week of German reunification--without orders from its British and American controllers. In 1992, SIS and the CIA send the case officers who had run Cabal—Briton Fred Puxley (code name, "Vanya") and American Elizabeth Caerns (code name, "Eagle")—back to Germany to investigate. Both die within a week of each other, and under unusual circumstances, suggesting murder by Cold War-era methods long out of date, Vanya "flyswatted" by a driver in Frankfurt, while Eagle was killed by a cyanide gun. The two agencies assign James Bond, and his American colleague, Elizabeth Zara ("Easy") St. John to become the new Vanya and Eagle, go to Germany and find out what became of their predecessors . . .

In the placement of a German spy ring at the center of the plot, Death is Forever recalls the earlier No Deals, Mr. Bond (1987). This book, however, places an even greater emphasis placed on the bread and butter of human intelligence, and its associated apparatus (dead drops, safe houses, secret signaling methods, etc.) and skills (the mechanics of tailing and evading tails). Along with the classically Cold War setting, the relatively grounded nature of the characterizations and action (a few Fleming-like extravagances like the use of Fiddlestick spiders as a murder weapon apart), and the more than usually oblique narration, this makes the book much more evocative of le Carré than Fleming.

The result is that while this is in a sense the first truly post-Cold War Bond novel, it is also the most backward looking entry in the series to date. The book constantly refers to past periods, starting with the outmoded killing methods used against Cabal's case officers. The shadows of Markus Wolf, Bogdan Stashinsky, Lavrenti Beria and Joseph Stalin loom large over the events, every one of these names repeatedly cropping up in the story. Bond himself makes an explicit comparison between the post-Cold War and the post-World War II era in which the Cold War was born, thinking of the way "the various secret agencies had their work cut out sniffing around for Nazis hiding in the woodpile of freedom."

This is evident, too, in the more than usually pronounced metafictional aspect of the novels. At one point Easy is described as "dressed right out of a '60s spy movie." Preparing to ride the Ost-West Express, Bond remarks "Night train to Paris. Sounds like a 1930s movie title," a line which does not seem a mere throwaway under the circumstances. Later, Gardner writes, Bond
had not travelled on a continental railway train for years, and the noises, sights and smells came back like a once-loved song, reminding him of earlier, probably more dangerous, days when he had criss-crossed Europe on the great network of express trains while on operations at the height of the Cold War.
Indeed, there are numerous, specific references to earlier Bond books—an epigram from Diamonds Are Forever the first words after the title page (which clearly inspired the title), while Bond casually mentions that his looks had once been compared to Hoagy Carmichael's (as Fleming had done in his books).

Interestingly, the book's grasp of the past is much firmer than its grasp of the present, not least in Gardner's choice of villains: a collection of Stalinist die-hards intent on the revival and victory of international Communism. Their plans are, if anything, less convincing: assassinating the leaders of the European Union's member countries as they ride aboard a train through the newly opened Chunnel. The idea that, circa 1992, this will produce a power vacuum the Communists can fill is so unconvincing that one may wonder if this, too, is not a bit of parody.

Still, there are elements of more contemporary interest, as with Bond's relationship with Easy. Where earlier novels tended to present the skillful but cash-strapped British working with the inexperienced but flush Americans, the latter were no longer so flush as they once were, and apparently inexperienced as ever. Easy, whose career back at Langley had her working as analyst and desk jockey, is utterly unprepared for the field—but after this becomes worrisomely apparent to all concerned, what drives her to tears is her fear of firing amid a time of service cuts and economic recession. Not merely British decline seems an issue, but so does American decline, the horse to which Britain had hitched its cart after the passing of empire rather less certain than before. Additionally, even if the conception is uneven, the novel boasts Gardner's most complex and most tightly constructed plot.

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