It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, imitation, or something close to it, hasn't hurt Ireland-based John Gardner, 55, a mystery writer who in 10 years turned out eight spoofs of the James Bond novels. In 1964, the year 007's creator, Ian Fleming, died, he published The Liquidator, featuring a bumbling spy named Boysie Oakes who was so chicken he hired others to do his killing. But now Gardner has been asked to assume Fleming's mantle and turn out a new series of novels updating the glib, girl-chasing English secret agent.

Gardner's second effort, For Special Services (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, $9.95), has gone on sale in the U.S. with a huge first printing of 95,000 copies. His first Bond book, 1981's License Renewed, sold 130,000 in hardback and was released May 1 in paperback. Clearly, the Bond craze is not over. Says Gardner: "He's a household name. Fans know how he cuts his fingernails, so the writer is a target for nit-pickers. Mr. Fleming is a very difficult act to follow."

But follow it Gardner has, to the delight of the overseers of Glidrose, Fleming's literary estate, which holds rights to future Bond books. Glidrose hired Gardner over 11 others to continue the series. Says one of the estate's directors, Peter Janson-Smith, who was Fleming's agent, "We wanted someone with a respect for Fleming, not someone who'd start saying where Ian had gone wrong and threaten to walk out if we altered a word."

While scrutinizing Gardner's drafts closely, the men from Glidrose approved his efforts to transport the dashing Royal Navy commander from the '50s and '60s into the '80s. "The first thing I had to do was wipe right out of my head the faces of Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore," says Gardner of the three actors who have starred in the 12 Bond movies. "Then there's the matter of character. He's got to be the same man, but much more aware of women's position in society." In For Special Services, Bond teams up with the lovely Cedar, a U.S. agent who is the daughter of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter, to try to stop a plot by SPECTRE that may blow up the world. The new Bond dismantles this threat with the same ruthless efficiency, although British Intelligence's Double-O section, with its license to kill, has been disbanded—a bow, says Gardner, to "the current climate of the secret services."

Born in England's northern coal-mining region, Gardner says he was "a precocious reader from age 3, although I suffered for it when my classmates thumped me as a 'weedy' youngster." After a stint in the Royal Marines, he attended Cambridge and Oxford. Then he followed his father into the Anglican ministry, but soon realized it was a mistake. "It came to me the way some others have a conversion," he says, "only mine was in reverse. I was preaching one Sunday and realized I didn't believe a word I was saying." At 31, he was also drinking two quarts of gin a day. But with the help of hypnosis and aversion therapy, which induces nausea at the sight of alcohol, he kicked liquor and started. writing. In 1963, at 36, he turned out the first of his 26 books, Spin the Bottle, an account of his struggle with booze. The Liquidator followed, and a new life in fiction. Gardner was to meet Fleming—a Tory MP's son and old Etonian whose work he had always admired—on a TV talk show, but Fleming died of a heart attack before the taping.

Now living in Ireland to avoid high taxes on his writing income, Gardner and his wife, Margaret, 51, have a house outside Dublin. He writes seven days a week, often working to the music of sound tracks—"but not from Bond films," whose scores he finds distracting. Glidrose may hope to sell the new stories to U.S. producer Cubby Broccoli, who made the previous 007 movies and holds the rights to future Bond flicks. And though Gardner's contract with Glidrose (for "a very fair sum") is for three books, he may do more. For him, and for James Bond, the series represents a new lease on life. Or, as Fleming said in the title of one of his 12 Bond thrillers, You Only Live Twice.