The Hero: James Bond; The Villain: Sir Max Tarn; The Bond Girl: Flicka von Grusse;
Supporting Characters (friends): Felix Leiter; Trish Nuzzi; Pete Natkowitz
Supporting Characters (enemies): Beth; Cathy and Anna (aka Cuthbert and Archibald); Maurice Goodwin; Connie Spicer; Kurt Rollen; Heidi; Pixie & Dixie
Locations covered: Caribbean; England; Spain; Israel; Germany; Puerto Rico
“SeaFire” is possibly John Gardner`s most creative and extravagant Bond novel – much of it went into the Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”. Unfortunately it`s also one of his most uneven and frustrating.
The story is horribly constructed. There`s no real forward movement, no proper story spine. The story peters out and there are serious pacing problems. Various aspects of the plot, such as the Neo-Nazi uprising, or the AAOPS device (a foam device meant to stop sea fires) don`t integrate.
The first quarter is padded and ultimately pointless. Bond is meant to worm his way into Max Tarn`s confidences, but the reasons the British want Tarn to go to ground are unbelievable. Tarn fakes his own death, but it goes nowhere and he`s soon considered alive. Would anything in the story have been different if Tarn hadn`t faked his death? (It would have been difficult to maintain since Trish isn`t a party to his deeds.)
Why doesn`t Tarn kill Bond in Chapter 7? Bond`s reasons, given in Chapter 17, are ridiculous – apparently Tarn wants to make an example of Bond and Flicka and show the world that he`s not “the diabolical agent we would like people to believe.” So why is Bond angry at him? Throughout the book Bond reflects on how evil Tarn is, and others mention Bond`s personal vendetta against Tarn, but there`s nothing to suggest this. Tarn let him live.
The second quarter deteriorates. The Spain and Israel sequences (Chapters 9 through 11) are badly shoe-horned into the story. The Israel sojourn is particularly pointless (he goes there to meet Trish Nuzzi, Tarn`s wife). Progression must have some cohesion, some sense that the incidents are integral to the story and not there to pad the book out to novel size length. There`s no compelling reason for the change of location. (Worse, the story feels like a zig-zag pattern, with no discernable spine.)
In Chapters 12 and 13, Bond goes back to Hall`s Manor (he and Flicka were spared there earlier) – something about checking the supposedly deserted mansion in case Tarn should show up; Bond believes that Tarn will leave an unpleasant message there for them – but it`s meaningless action and slightly confusing. Why does Tarn go to all this trouble to come back to England with his entourage, only to leave for Germany? (Gardner isn`t even trying to put the story pieces together.) Gardner`s reasons – that Tarn wants to lead Bond et al on a merry dance – are nonsense. That`s the best way to get caught.
Chapters 17 to 18 probably have the sloppiest, shoddiest bit of plotting in the novel. Not sure the Americans will let them in, Bond and Flicka sneak off to Puerto Rico, but are apprehended by British agents, brought back to England, told that the Americans will give them permission, and head right back. This sloppiness is noticeable precisely because it`s a false start, wasted effort.
There are numerous other loose ends. Why does Tarn question Bond when one of the MicroGlobe people is a double-agent? (The double agent plot device is nice, as is the bit about being in the same house at school; the unmasking scene is tense.) Are Cathy and Anna pro Trish or anti-Trish? (If they are anti, the way they nod in agreement like they`re on Trish`s side in Chapter 11 is a terrible touch. Cathy also shakes her head as though male chauvinists are an endangered species, which is terrible writing.) The inconsistencies baffle – whose side were they on? If they`re really on Tarn`s side, why do they let Trish spill the beans to Bond (Chapter 11). Why don`t they try killing Bond? The reasons Anna gives in Chapter 11 for not killing Bond and Flicka earlier at Hall`s Manor are ridiculous – especially since Bond broke her arm earlier – would you trust them? (Note Anna`s “obscene” gesture in Chapter 11.) Cathy and Anna are also transvestites (Cuthbert and Archie) – they`re meant to sound like Kidd & Wint from the Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever”, but it`s overdone leering and doesn`t work since Gardner`s approach is already what Kingsley Amis called a “furtive taking of the piss”.
There are virtues, though: Beth, a black drug addicted killer who sprouts scriptures, is a great character – she`s as alive as Cuthbert and Archie are stale. Unfortunately she only properly appears in two chapters. Beth`s religious quotes in Chapter 22 and whatever scenes she`s in give the novel some life, some energy; compare the Samuel Jackson character in the film “Pulp Fiction” which was released at same time.
There are other nice touches: Bond is more elegant and sophisticated here than in Gardner`s other Bond novels. Gardner never had much sense of location but the German scenes (Chapters 14-16) have much flavour. Chapters 14-17 are great but given where they`re situated in the ramshackle story, the reader might not appreciate them. Chapter 14 has nice details about the law firm, and the idiot Kurt, but these are underused. Gardner writes, ” I think I once read a book about you, Heidi” which is glib but actually works. Chapter 15 ends with a great exchange:
“He`s gone over the edge. Careful, Kurt…” as Rollen walked toward the sheer drop and looked down.
“He`s burning,” Kurt said in a slow, unbelieving voice. “We`ve failed. Oh my God, we`ve failed.”
“Kurt,” Maurice Goodwin said. “We haven`t failed. He`s dead. Nobody could have survived in that wreck.”
“Then we`ve not failed.” Slow. “We`ve won, eh, Mo. We`ve won.”
“Please, Kurt, don`t call me Mo. My name`s Maurice.”
Though a throwaway bit, it has more feeling, more reality than just about anything else he wrote.
Gardner is also a much brisker, readable and livelier writer than Fleming. He`s certainly more stylish; Fleming`s writing could be childish, wooden, some might say tin-eared (though Fleming`s writing is much tauter. Compare “Diamonds Are Forever”, arguably one of Fleming`s best; the writing is technically near-perfect). Gardner also has the slickest writing style of all the Bond novelists, which is crucial: it helps propel the reader past the stylistic dowdiness.
His writing is sloppy; he loves cliches, and gets bogged down in dead language. (Chapter 16 also features a funny grammatical error: Bond says, “As the Fuhrer elect, I am certain[.]”
Chapter 11: “replied with single oath” is verbose. Just let Bond say the following word. Chapter 12: “it would serve no purpose” should be “it would be pointless”. Chapter 13: “tiny touch of irritation” should be “slightly irritated”. Chapter 15: “it was not so much the message” can be cut altogether. Consider these other examples: Chapter 18: “managed to infiltrate” should be “infiltrated”. Chapter 20: “the really amusing thing” is glib; just cut to the point (his penchant for overwriting also makes his writing more glib than it already is). Chapter 22: “especially if it were placed in the right spot” should be, “especially if it were strategically placed”. Chapter 22, “feeling an enormous pleasure” should be “feeling enormously pleased.” Chapter 23: “he even considered the possibility of climbing down” should be “he even considered climbing down.” Chapter 23: “making an escape” should be “escaping”.
He relies too much on empty rhetoric in the mistaken belief that it`s more dramatic. If the story and the incidents can`t convey the emotion, then rhetoric won`t. It`ll just flatten everything.
Chapter 24`s first three paragraphs sledgehammer their point home: “It was not often that he allowed problems to so besiege his mind, but this was Fredericka, the woman he loved. The woman he intended to marry. […] In his mind a terrible ghost from the past appeared: a blurred picture of his first of only a few hours, Tracy di Vicenzo, lying dead, her face buried in the ruins of the steering wheel of his Lancia, which had been raked with bullets fired by his old enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.” Enough: we get the idea. “The picture returned, and with it a kind of certainty that there was something wrong. […] Now there was true anger, a fury that seemed to rend him apart.” Or from Chapter 26: “setting the clock back to the days of insanity.”
In Chapter 16 we read, “Without doubt, Max Tarn is the most evil man I have ever known. He`s moved through the world like a plague, sowing germs of death disguised as arms and military equipment to anyone willing to pay.” Or, in Chapter 20: “I`ve never been so certain of anything in my life. These are truly perilous people.” Yes, we get the idea, but it once again raises the question: why is Bond angry with Tarn?
In Chapter 25, just before Tarn is killed (a playful and visual scene as the powerchutes chase him into a tighter circle), “There was no particular feeling of guilt or elation. This man had killed thousands by ferrying and smuggling weapons, placing them into the hands of unprincipled people. His future plans were untenable, so he deserved to die the worst possible of deaths.” Compare Fleming in “You Only Live Twice”, Chapter 6: “I have met many bad men in my time, Tiger, and generally they have been slightly mad.” Notice how effective “slightly mad” is. Consider how less effective the sentence would have been had Fleming written like Gardner.
The dialogue is terrible – too much of it is “on the nose”, that is, the characters talk about the situation; his slick writing style helps disguise it, but only so far. In Chapter 18, The Minister (whom Gardner never bothers to give a last name) asks, “can we get on with this” – an indirect comment on the book`s many laborious conversations. There`s too much expository dialogue which suggests that Gardner didn`t figure the story out in advance.
This quote from Chapter 25 is terrible and an example of Gardner trying to create emotion with words: “That`s how you repay loyalty, is it, Max?” he yelled, knowing that Tarn would not hear a word he was shouting.” Why is Bond angry? Why should he care? Shouldn`t he think that it looks good on Cathy and Anna, whom Bond has reason to hate?
The “human moments” between Bond and Flicka are poor. In Chapter 17, they discuss Bond`s intentions: “I truly mean this. I`ll be honest with you” are redundant. Chapter 22`s opening paragraphs are meaningless, dead language. In Chapter 13, Bond and Flicka tell each other, “I love you.” The proposal scene (in Chapter 13) is weak, and, of course, features silly Gardner-style dialogue, such as the “scorch a feather” bit. Would someone really bother to explain the expression right then?
He`s glib in other ways. He often writes that a character laughed, no matter how incongruous, a strange defense-mechanism, and also a cliche (compare Fleming in “The Spy Who Loved Me”; Fleming often describes Bond as smiling – there it`s subtle, integral and enhances the novel). In Chapter 4, “She mimicked a witch`s cackle.” Or, “her head thrown back as she laughed”. In Chapter 10, also an example of terrible writing, “Anna gave a tinkling little giggle.” From Chapter 11, “She gave a bitter little laugh”. From Chapter 18, “Goodwin gave a bray of laughter”. Chapter 19, “Flicka laughed.” “Leiter`s laugh followed Bond”. From Chapter 20: “his infectious laugh splitting the air” – ugh. “He turned and laughed again […] Bond was finding his laughter a little hard to bear” – which sums up Gardner`s annoying tic. “Rexinus had given up laughing for a long time.” From Chapter 21: “Tarn laughed unpleasantly”. Gardner can`t even resist “Anna gave a sound that lay somewhere between a cough and a laugh.”
Gardner also trashes the series: Bond now works for “MicroGlobe One” in the “Two Zeroes” department. He`s not even Commander Bond – he`s now Captain Bond. These errors, though trivial, are symptomatic of how wrongheaded Gardner could be (compare Vivienne Michel in Fleming`s “The Spy Who Loved Me”, Chapter 15: “So he was a commander. It was the only rank I liked the name of.”)
This passage from Chapter 24 is typical of Gardner (Bond has just learned that his fiance Flicka was abducted):
“Bond, stretching and trying to get his circulation going, had listened to the exchange with the kind of horror most people had when they faced a cobra, or even something less deadly, like a scorpion.”
Chapter 11 has some extraordinarily awful writing. Paragraphs 3 through 6 are typical of his carelessness. Much of it is empty, dead language. The details are terrible: Trish`s jaw appears to be wired. She puts her hands to her face and all I could think was, wouldn`t that be painful? Trish seems so matter-of-fact, which is unbelievable (such as when she discusses Hitler`s gravediggers, an incongruous touch). Her motives for marrying Tarn are terrible and blase. The bit where Flicka and Trish commiserate (“A thousand and one, actually.” “Make that two thousand.” “Good”) is terrible, childish writing. At the end of the chapter, Flicka states, “Even with that bashed-up face, Trish was drooling, and the two terrors would have kept you busy for hours.” Would one woman really say this about another? Would Flicka really be that jealous? Or is this Gardner`s misconceived idea of women?
Flicka barely comes off better, even though she`s one of his stronger female characters – Gardner was terrible writing about women. In Chapter 8, Flicka is in a state of nervous exhaustion and has to be taken to the nearest hospital for several hours, even though Bond is blase about the experience at Hall`s Manor which they`d been through together. Such chauvinism weakens her (compare how Fleming wrote about women – the women are sometimes stronger than Bond, which makes them more appealing). In Chapter 22, Flicka considers how she feels about Bond and decides that she`s never loved a man with this kind of intensity, which is empty rhetoric. Elsewhere she`s hysterical, unprofessional, not a spy, but somebody`s girlfriend or mother. She screams, hyper-ventilates, lugs luggage around with her, packs too many clothes. She`s childish, the weaker partner; she clings to Bond and hangs on to his gun arm.
Glidrose and Gardner`s publishers/editors also deserve blame. So many needless errors (which any literate adult should have spotted a mile away) could have been weeded out with careful editing (don`t publishers edit nowadays?). It could have been one of the great Bond novels, but the brilliant ideas, the creativity and extravagance still make it worth a read.