Review: Never Send Flowers, by John Gardner

Nader Elhefnawy
7 min readMay 17, 2024

While there was always an important element of continuity between James Bond’s adventures in Ian Fleming’s novels (the Soviets’ desire for revenge for prior battles in From Russia, with Love, the aftermath of those events in Dr. No, etc.), Fleming got more ambitious in his later books. His last five novels — Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun — can be read as a single saga of a run-down 007 struggling against previously accumulated damage, and a succession of personal disasters, through and after his battle with his most famous enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Likewise John Gardner’s last books — specifically his final three novels, Never Send Flowers, SeaFire and Cold Fall — form a more thoroughly interconnected story. This time around Bond’s real or alleged decay is not an issue, and the novels do not have him fighting a single great villain. Instead it is M’s aging that is more prominent, the Old Man on his way out, amid a larger reorganization of the Service for the post-Cold War — changes which see Bond, whose administrative role had previously been vague at best, become entangled with government committees in SeaFire, and Cold Fall closing with Bond on his way to meet Sir Miles Messervy’s replacement for the first time.

However, as in Fleming’s later novels Bond again copes with love and loss, albeit in a different fashion. One can even see hints of a political theme — just hints, less fully realized or worked out than Fleming’s, but worth mentioning all the same. Those last five books, and especially You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun, saw a declining, weary Bond sorely tested (not least, by his assignment to assassinate Dr. Shatterhand in Japan), and, after hitting what seems like rock bottom (Bond captured by the Soviets in an amnesiac state, brainwashed into an assassination attempt against M himself), redeeming himself (by taking down Francisco Scaramanga). Through him, Britain and its traditional elite were symbolically tested and redeemed as well (Tiger Tanaka making this quite explicit in Twice).

What happens here in the way of this is hinted at in the preceding book, Death is Forever. There the CIA that in the Bond novels conventionally provided the cash and technology and sheer muscle while the Brits provided the skills, was looking a good deal less flush than it used to do, while Bond comes to the rescue not of those less helpful Americans but the EU, such that it could seem as if Bond’s future, and Britain’s, lay in partnership not with the Cousins, but the Continentals. And certainly that is how it comes to look in Never Send Flowers. Fittingly Bond is, more than ever before (even in Scorpius), more local cop than international man of mystery in a story more than usually attentive to bureaucratic gamesmanship. Bond’s story proper actually begins with a visit to the Secret Service by a pair of senior functionaries from the “Security Service” responsible for domestic intelligence (MI 5) — specifically the Terrorist Intelligence section chief who informs M and Bond that the chief’s deputy, one Laura March, has turned up dead in Switzerland. And so they want Bond to go talk to the Swiss police, find out what they have learned in their investigation, and bring the body home. Bond does just that, and learns that Laura had skeletons in her closet, not least an unknown elder brother who just so happened to be a serial killer. It seemed he was dead — but of course “seemed” and “was” are two different things, and in fact big brother March was still very much alive, and still very much going about his gruesome business.

Of course, serial killers had in the past been henchmen within the Bond novels (Red Grant, certainly, was such), but hardly the stuff of the series’ primary villains, and it would seem that just as Win, Lose or Die was about capitalizing on the fashion for Top Gun and Tom Clancyesque military techno-thrillers, Never Send Flowers was about doing the same with the popularity of serial killers as villains after the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs, as so many others did in those years.

To his credit Gardner displays some originality (and some care to not simply give us a cookie-cutter cop-hunts-serial killer-story) as he tries riding the wave. Thus he blends together the figures of the serial killer and the political assassin in his image of an assassination-obsessed thrill-killer (who just so happens to be a celebrated actor much admired for having both a “thousand faces” and a “glass head” that lets the audience see right into the mind behind each and every one of those faces) who gets his high not from preying on society’s most vulnerable, but pursuing the most difficult of targets in some of the highest profile figures in the world — a celebrated treader of the boards giving his greatest performance on the world stage. In doing so Gardner blends the antiseptic world of the criminal profiler and the modern mental institution with Gothic horror, with its monstrous children and evil twins and madmen in the attic and incest and religious fanatacisms and even a Rhineland castle standing as a monument to its murderous owner’s insanity.

Still, clever as this all sounds the actual effect is disappointingly flat. Dragonpol is a far cry from even Gardner’s more memorable Bond villains (an Anton Murik, a Brokenclaw), never mind the villains he created outside this franchise (like his hugely entertaining take on that other James of thriller fiction, James Moriarty). All this is the more problematic given the scenario’s ruling out the usual Bondian mechanics (the large organizations and their grandiose agendas, the legions of heavily armed cannon fodder they put into the field, the big finale in the enemy fortress out of the question when the enemy is not a SPECTRE-type organization, but just a single thrill-killer).

It seems to me the execution (no pun intended) was to blame, with a sign of this the triteness toward which Gardner too often tended here. Considering this I find myself coming back to an early passage where he describes an Italian Air Force General who is one of Dragonpol’s first targets. Gardner refers to the man as, following his aerial heroics in the Gulf War, having become a household name by writing an international nonfiction bestseller about “the dust-dry stuff of strategy” as “a subtle cross between Tom Clancy and John le Carrè.” As one who has read, with very close attention, a very great deal of strategy, and of both Clancy and le Carrè, I find the description confusing rather than illuminating as I have literally no idea what such a piece of writing would look like; how all these prose forms would mix, subtly or in any other way. (Simply concerning ourselves with Clancy and le Carrè, the former is inclined to plain, straightforward, information-heavy writing oriented to the big picture, le Carrè toward a far more Literary, oblique, “Show-don’t-tell” approach centered on the characters — and for all its merits from the standpoint of storytelling, utterly unsuited toward a “strategic treatise.”) I suspect Gardner had no idea how all this could mix either, that in this instance he was simply stringing together words to produce something that would sound impressive to a reader who had heard of these things without actually knowing about them, or at least did not make a habit of actually thinking about what they actually read on the page.

Alas, it seemed such failings were not solely on the surface here, Gardner generally showing less concern for consistency than usual in his handling of his material. If Bond’s Gardner suddenly became an expert on the theater mainly for the reason that Gardner was, and was interested in bringing the element into the books, here he becomes a veritable encyclopedia on the subject — indeed, a “drama geek,” in the middle of a briefing at headquarters suddenly expounding tangentially on the satirical intent of a Cole Porter lyric and being reprimanded by M for it; and relying on minute recollection of a prior Dragonpol stage performance to advance the investigation. Similarly out of character is Bond’s relationship with the Swiss operative with whom he works, Fredericka “Flicka” Von Grusse, a far cry from Bond’s prior taste in women, physically and other ways. (Gardner tells us that her face is “long . . . nose slightly crooked . . . jaw a shade square. Not beautiful by any standard,” but “full of character,” while career-wise and in other ways, down to her Anglo-Swiss heritage, she seems to have been conceived as a female 007 — hardly the sort of thing that usually endeared women to Bond’s sense of romantic fantasy, even after Gardner’s long eliding of Bond’s once well-known attitudes in these matters.)

One might add that their time together was, unlike the sort of dramatic experience that made Bond decide to marry in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (or even his thoughts of a deeper involvement with Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever), far from life-changing. Yet Bond falls for her so hard that he becomes a one-woman man. Meanwhile M is happy to have a foreign operative no longer in good standing with her own agency come to work for him, while even nudging Bond toward marrying her. (I cannot but contrast it with M back in Diamonds Are Forever telling Bond that making it official with Tiffany Case would mean the kind of “mixed marriage” that the old Victorian was sure could never work — scarcely removed from Anthony Trollope’s Roger Carbury, likewise probably imagining “all American women as . . . loud, masculine and atheistical” in The Way We Live Now. To Gardner’s credit Bond himself is surprised, while less to Gardner’s credit M suggests that he is “really just a sentimental old matchmaker.”) Meanwhile Bond-the-man-who-couldn’t-stand-the-office became a player in the Service’s post-Cold War reorganization. (I might add that tonally the Security Service’s spying on Bond in Britain, and the final confrontation in EuroDisnyeland — a choice of setting for the climax that recalled the decision to make Markus Bismaquer an ice cream tycoon — also felt out of place, even by Gardner’s standards.)

Altogether the result means that the deviation from the usual Bondian expectations is uncompensated by what Gardner does differently. Still, the book has a particular relevance nonetheless as an apparent foundation for the series’ post-Cold War shape, with the changes in Bond’s personal life, and his professional life, very much at the heart of the next book, SeaFire.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.