Review: No Deals, Mr. Bond, by John Gardner

Nader Elhefnawy
5 min readMay 17, 2024

The use of sex by the East Bloc to exploit Westerners with access to sensitive information during the Cold War era is notorious. One of the more famous such episodes was a KGB-Stasi operation systematically using East German “Romeos” to target “lonely secretaries” on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Rather less is said of the West employing such tactics. The premise of No Deals, Mr. Bond, however, is that stuffy old M authorized just such an operation in retaliation for the Romeos’ campaign, code named “Cream Cake” — with — the resulting mess front and center. When the personnel carrying on with the operation behind the Iron Curtain became endangered M had them evacuated, sending James Bond in a Royal Navy submarine to get them out, then resettle them in Britain, after which they begin to lead something like normal lives. However, five years later those agents start turning up dead and mutilated — murdered in what the British press sensationalizes as the work of a serial killer. M knows better, but is officially able to do nothing. Still, he knows that telling Bond what is going on he can count on his agent to “take some leave” and see to what needs doing — rounding up the Cream Cake operatives for their own protection, and for the sake of drawing out the Soviet hit team responsible for the killings, and indeed that is exactly the course that they follow. Naturally this turns out to be only part of something bigger . . .

The result is a game of genuine Cold War spy vs. spy of the kind that was actually far rarer for the Bond novels than those with just a casual knowledge of the franchise realize, though not so memorable in the result as might be hoped given the fact. Returning to the novel years after I first read it I recalled little between Bond’s getting his mission, and the last act in Hong Kong. The mechanics are competent enough, but not much more than that — a few bits of violence, a couple of plot twists. The course of events does get more colorful when 007 reaches the old Crown Colony, where events are enlivened by the reemergence of the old grudge really behind it all, and the over-the-top twistedness of the villain, not least in the bad-guy-makes-a-game-of-finishing-the-hero melodramatics (bound up in this case with risibly over-the-top Western fantasy of how insanely brutal, how spendthrift with human life, Soviet standard practice can be).

Still, even General Konstantin Chernov’s heavy and often theatrical presence did not suffice to make him an exception to the pattern of Gardner’s Soviet villains making little impression as characters, while as a tale of Bond on his own and on the run and surrounded by treachery, it is less striking than the similarly bounty-on-Bond’s-head-themed prior book, Nobody Lives Forever. (Moreover, if Tamil Rahani fell flat for me as a villain, there was at least something more in his determination to get Bond than, again, SMERSH’s longstanding institutional grudge against him here.)

Indeed, what stuck out in my memory were the more marginal touches, often interesting in a time capsule-like way. There was the element of Tom Clancy techno-thriller in the opening chapter depicting Bond’s evacuation of the Cream Cake operatives. (Interestingly Gardner’s book beat Tom Clancy to the punch by a year, that other author in 1988 writing a submarine evacuation from behind the Iron Curtain as his introduction of his true series field operative — John Clark — in The Cardinal of the Kremlin.)

There was Bond’s first visit to Blades since Moonraker, again to take a personal request from M, and the interest of the changes that had taken place there since the prior visit. If still thoroughly elite, it is somewhat more cosmopolitan than before, catering to a thoroughly internationalized guest list. (With Japanese businessmen to be seen at the gaming tables, not only the “un-English” but the un-Caucasian and un-Western no longer draw notice — in which can seem a hint of what was just getting underway then, the resurrection of London as a financial center-cum-haven for the global rich after Thatcher.)

There was the fact that M is seen countenancing an operation like Cream Cake, the old Victorian talking about it in front of us (if not without embarrassment), and the audience presumably accepting that it was not just the bad guys who did this stuff, but the good guys too. Ruthless as M could be this sort of seedy, dirty business is still not what we usually get from him, while I wonder if it was not also a slap at those who wanted more sex in the books by reminding them how sad and shabby the mix of espionage with sex has typically been in real life. (Indeed, Gardner had not been above mocking the portion of the audience that remembered the Bond novels being “dirty books” and complained that he had been less than up to snuff here — though, alas, Gardner keeps his satirical inclinations in check here, perhaps unfortunately.)

And there was the choice of setting for the final act of the story, Hong Kong, making for perhaps the most memorable travelogue to be found in any of the Gardner Bond novels, with his accounts of Bond’s airliner making the famously harrowing descent to the runway at Kai Tak, the ultramodernity of Hong Kong’s Connaught Road, and the lingering presences of the old city with which it was such a contrast, all against the backdrop of the looming return to China with its freight of end-of-Empire symbolism. (Virtually Britain’s last remaining piece of “the East,” this was now going too, and to “the Communists” at that, but looking at “the street hawkers . . . now selling green caps emblazoned with the red star” of the incoming government along with their other “tourist junk” Bond’s attitude is merely ironic, something it most certainly would not have been were Fleming, or Amis, writing it.)

Given that this book was the last to see Bond battling his original enemy SMERSH in the old way it seems natural to wonder if Gardner meant for it to be that. I do not know that he ever said anything about that, but I can say that nothing in the story rules out another battle, even with General Chernov, who clearly lives, perhaps to fight another day. And looking back at the book from later it is worth acknowledging that like most writers of espionage thrillers Gardner held onto the Soviet Union as a source of villainy to and even after its formal dissolution. (Gardner’s 1991 The Man From Barbarossa envisioned an attempt by Soviet hardliners to reverse the tide of reform, and even after the Soviet Union was gone, 1992’s Death is Forever saw Communist die-hards hoping to win the game for “their side” in the end.) Still, when No Deals came out the world was already well into Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure, and its policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika,” and while it was far from clear the geopolitical-ideological contest between East and West would be transformed as thoroughly and quickly as it was, one may imagine that Gardner suspected it was time to try out other subject matter — picking a very different enemy for Bond’s next battle in 1988’s Scorpius.

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.