James Bond is in Florida for his old friend Felix Leiter’s marriage. On the eve of the wedding Bond and Felix capture South America’s most ruthless drug lord, Franz Sanchez. But after a two million dollar bribe, Sanchez is a free man. To teach drug enforcement authorities a lesson, he brutally murders the new Mrs. Leiter, and feeds Felix to a shark, biting his leg off.
After he took revenge on CIA agent Ed Killifer who handed his best friend, Bond has lost his licence to kill. M revokes his 00 status and declares him a rogue agent. With MI6 trying to bring him in and only the support of Miss Moneypenny and Q behind him Bond goes after Sanchez. Boarding his ship, Bond tricks his way into Sanchez's inner circle and discovers the secret of his wealth. But Bond is walking a tightrope and it is surely only a matter of time before he slips.
Licence to Kill was the first James Bond film since Moonraker ten years before to be novelized. Then-current Bond novelist John Gardner was commissioned to write the novel based upon the screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson. Gardner was faced with a challenge because his books maintain the continuity of Ian Fleming's original novels (albeit updated), and, in Fleming's and Gardner's continuity, Felix Leiter lost his leg in a shark attack in Live and Let Die.
As a result, Gardner's book requires readers to suspend disbelief as James Bond comes to terms with his friend being maimed twice using the same method - complete with the same note ("He disagreed with something that ate him"). Gardner does not attempt to reconcile the return of Milton Krest, who, supposedly, was killed in Fleming's short story "The Hildebrand Rarity".
The novelisation takes place outside the timeline of Gardner's other Bond novels, as his next book, Brokenclaw, disregards the events of Licence to Kill. It also appears that the novelisation takes place sometime prior to Gardner's novel Win, Lose or Die in which Bond is promoted to Captain (in the novelization, as in the movie, Bond is still a Commander).
This was the first in a string of novelisations based upon the Bond films, with all of Pierce Brosnan's films being adapted by either Gardner or Raymond Benson; as Brosnan's films contained few if any elements from the Fleming novels, later books did not present the same continuity challenge as this one.
- Bond does not have his Walther PPK in this novelisation. Bond references that his PPK had been banned by the service years earlier and Bond istead uses a Walther P38k, which Bond acquires from his equipment that was originally meant to be taken to Istanbul, before he goes on his vendetta.
- The stringer missiles are absent in the novelisation, and the novel even goes to lengths to tell the reader that it isn't stringers, but an advanced hand-controlled missile launcher.