Know the Rules Before You Break Any


I learned the value of Picasso’s advice before I became a serious writer, though I didn’t know it as sound advice.  I just thought it was good sense.

I learned the value of this reading John Gardner’s 007 novels.  As a James Bond 007 fan, I not only go to the movies but I also buy the books.

The third author of the series, John Gardner, wrote 13 original Bond novels.  The first novel, License Renewed, follows Picasso’s advice.

License Renewed is standard Bond fare.  The characters that appear in every Bond movie are here:

  • Villain: Anton Murik, Laird of a Scottish castle and deposed nuclear engineer
  • Sidekick: Caber, a superstrong, ridiculously tough muscle man who is (as a Bond sidekick ought to be) immune to pain and can easily best Bond in any physical confrontation (and in fact does twice before being beaten by Bond)
  • Girl Who Knows Too Much: Mary Jane Mashkin, who reveals key plot points after sex, then dies the next day
  • Bond Girl: Lavender Peacock, rightful heiress of the castle that Murik owns

It also has a plot that could destroy civilization as we know it: Murik has designed a safe nuclear reactor that no one will back.  So he recruits an army of fanatics that will hold 5 nuclear power stations hostage and if his demands for $50 billion dollars are not met within 24 hours, the terrorists will put all 5 power stations into meltdown.  This will kill millions of people and render over 95% of the world uninhabitable.

Liberally throughout the book we find car chases, high-tech gadgets (that Gardner assures us in the prologue actually exist), exotic locations, and narrow escapes.  Naturally, the usual Bad Guy Monologue that enables Bond to stop the proceedings after defeating his nemesis appears just when all hope seems lost.

It’s no different than any James Bond movie prior to Casino Royale.  It’s not quite the pastiche that Die Another Day was, but it still hits the high notes.  Nothing new, nothing too memorable, and nothing original save the characters, their personalities, and the method and motivation for the destruction of modern civilization.

Gardner’s second novel, For Special Services, Bond conventions get played with.  The pimple-faced main villain is really the sidekick, and the girl who knows too much is really the main villain!  And that was seventeen years before the same plot twist debuted on the big screen in The World is Not Enough.

The Bond Girl in For Special Services is the only Bond Girl that 007 doesn’t have sex with — more playing with the standard Bond formula.  Most Bond Girls are standoffish at first, and only jump “undercover” reluctantly.  This one, however, knew Bond’s reputation for sex with his female companions and was looking forward to being the next notch on his bedpost.  But Bond had a really good reason for not hitting the sheets with her, and wanted to stay true even when his reason melted away at the end.

And Gardner experiments further in subsequent books.  His gradual tweaking of the standard Bond formula makes for a fresh perspective on the character in each new outing.

But at the outset, he stuck to the traditional formula that made Bond great.  He didn’t change it up or tweak it the way he did in subsequent books.  He learned the rules before he endeavored to break them.  I’d like to think that Gardner had this quote tacked up somewhere in his writing studio as he began work on License Renewed, even as he had the embryonic ideas for the new ground he’d break in For Special Services and beyond.