John Gardner's Win, Lose or Die

win lose or draw garner

Win, Lose or Die is the eighth James Bond continuation novel by the late John Gardner and was first published in 1989. The plot revolves around an international summit meeting to be held on the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible between George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. 
A communications intercept suggests though that a new terrorist organisation named BAST (Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism) has plans to sabotage the meeting and take the famous leaders hostage. James Bond is therefore transfered back to the Royal Navy, promoted to the rank of Captain and placed in charge of security for the summit. However, BAST seem to know who James Bond is and his attempts to flush out the terrorist group inevitably lead to much danger and some very big headaches. The most pressing immediate concern for the newly minted Captain is to identify the sleeper agents suspected to be at work and decide who can or cannot be trusted...

I'm not a huge fan of the Bond continuation novels and can take or leave most of them after Colonel Sun - which was written by Kingsley Amis and is as good as most of the Fleming books. Win, Lose or Die is probably one of the better ones of an often mediocre bunch though. The main reason for this I feel is that it puts James Bond back in the Royal Navy and therefore feels slightly different and relatively fresh compared to some of the other Gardner 007 adventures. Bond learns to fly a Sea Harrier as part of his training to go back in the Navy and while my eyes tend to glaze over if I'm subjected to too much techno waffle or technical detail (and they did indeed glaze over here once or twice) it's obvious that Gardner has done a lot of research and knows his stuff. He does use Bond's flying skills for an exciting escape too later in the book and BAST even attempt to strike during his Harrier training. On the whole though, I felt the book became more exciting when it moved onto the middle section and beyond.

Some of the strengths of Win, Lose or Die are the supporting characters and learning more about Bond himself, or Gardner's version of Bond at any rate. We discover here that James Bond was involved in the Falklands campaign, landing on a covert mission prior to the war starting for real. He drives a BMW now and recalls his last Christmas with his parents before they were killed. He also remembers his late wife Tracy and, amusingly, Bush, Thatcher and Gorbachev all seem to have heard of Bond. Bush even tells him that his CIA friend Felix Leiter says hello! There is more detail about M too, M now having a daughter and grandchildren. This tends to contradict the M of the Ian Fleming books but it's quite nice to see the character fleshed out a little anyway and there is a nice scene at M's country residence Quarterdeck. We see that M has acquired some new servants after the last ones were brutally killed by Kingsley Amis in the opening to Colonel Sun!

The story has a brisk pace and some of the violence and sadism of Ian Fleming - especially when Bond goes aboard the Invincible and deaths start to occur. It's actually quite a clever idea I think to have Bond's mission this time to protect these famous leaders. The book has a sort of 'pre-credit sequence' too like the films with an attack on a Japanese tanker in the Arabian Gulf by BAST. This attack looks suspiciously like a test run for a much bigger operation. The book takes place in Somerset, Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, Portugal and Italy and includes a pair of memorable female characters in Beatrice Maria da Ricci and Clover Pennington, two operatives who may or may not be all that they seem. Beatrice Maria da Ricci becomes close to Bond when he stays at a resort in Italy and he even suggests she could 'easily become the love of my life'. Pennington is a Wren working on the security operation. The presence of females onboard produces a couple of sexist lines in the vein of Fleming. 'I personally think of it as bad luck - women on a naval vessel.'

Although Gardner is capable of some clunky lines and doesn't have the polish and charm of Ian Fleming his James Bond books tend to be quite cinematic and sometimes read more like film scripts than novels. You could imagine Win, Lose or Die making quite an exciting film and it's certainly no worse than the actual scripts they've wheeled out for the last several Bond pictures, some of which were truly abysmal. While the contemporary elements here are obviously dated now you can see that Gardner was intent on making James Bond bang up to date at the time and his knowledge of technology and life onboard a naval ship is impressive. He has two central ideas here that work very well. The first is of course to put Bond back in the Royal Navy and the second is to make him a fighter pilot. There is a vague 007 meets Top Gun air to this at times but the whole it was a nice touch.

The new terrorist organisation are perhaps a tad anti-climatic (they are led by figures known as the Man, the Viper, the Snake, and the Cat but are no threat to SPECTRE when it comes to great literary villains) but despite the inclination to dispense slightly more techno detail than I could be arsed with I thought Win, Lose or Die was a solid Bond adventure on the whole and quite entertaining at times. It's not Ian Fleming or Kingsley Amis but judged alongside Gardner's other Bond books and Raymond Benson's later efforts this is not bad at all.

- Jake  


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