RANKING the CONTINUATION BOND
NOVELS by RAYMOND BENSON
From 1997 to 2002, Raymond Benson wrote 9 James Bond novels: 6 originals and 3 novelizations (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day, not covered here) plus 3 short stories. His 6 originals were anthologized into the 2 volumes shown above; these are the ones I picked up. I'd meant to read them in order of publication, but I started with The Union Trilogy as it was the first to arrive from Amazon. That means I read the 3rd, 4th, and 5th book of Benson's Bond series before the 1st, 2nd, and 6th.
Did reading them this way affect my impression of them? In a way, yes. Benson had hit his stride by the time of High Time to Kill, the first book of The Union Trilogy, so when I went back to read Zero Minus Ten and The Facts of Death, the first two books of Choice of Weapons and not just Benson's first Bond books but his first two original novels altogether, I had to re-adjust a bit. I still enjoyed them, but I felt he'd grown into the role more by the three Union novels. Would I feel that way had Choice of Weapons arrived first? Perhaps Zero and Facts would be favorites simply for having been read first. Ultimately it's not important, but it's the kind of question I enjoy mulling over.
Benson got started in the Bondverse as the author of the highly regarded The James Bond Bedside Companion, the Bond Bible before the internet diversified such things. "The book afforded me a different kind of respect back then that I get today from young fans that populate Bond websites," he told CommanderBond in the interview at the first link below. I can believe that. Just one example: when he describes the early years gathering material for the Bedside Companion, he describes catching as many Bond films as he could in repertory theaters, "since only really rich people had VCRs back then." Try and get the kid who grew up with all Bond movies on his iPhone who's calling you a fascist hack at one of the "fan" sites to understand that. The past is a different country, Mister Bond.
He goes into great detail about his experience with Bond here - that's the 1st of 4 parts, all worth reading - and about his overall career here, also very much worth reading. (I hope Black Stiletto gets picked up.) Some things I learned:
- Benson was given carte blanche to use or ignore anything from the Amis and Gardner Bonds. He accommodated both quite well, referencing them in the appropriate places and ignoring the more problematic ones like Cedar Leiter. (Though I'd have liked to see Ariadne from Colonel Sun name-checked in the Aegean part of The Facts of Death.)
- I described Gardner's series as an appropriate middle age for Bond. Benson - while not overtly jettisoning any of the Gardner continuity - rolls back the clock instead of continuing it. Bond's age is left vague while the character is updated for Y2K concerns, much the same way the Brosnan-Bonds did. In other words, Benson's Bond is Fleming's Bond, transposed on turn-of-the-century UK.
- The gig is not as financially lucrative as you might think. "I made the same amount of money as I would have made at a nine-to-five job." The reasons for this are equally disillusioning to those of us who dream of getting the one coveted break and then royalty checks for the rest of our lives:
"There is apathy towards Bond novels on the retail side of the publishing business. (...) Reviewers tend to ignore them, as they are thought of as inferior imitations of Ian Fleming. Make no mistake - Gardner's Bond books and my Bond books made money for the publishers. (They) had it down a science as to how many copies to print. Zero Minus Ten's first printing in America was something like 30,000. In Britain, there were only 5000 printed. That's not a tremendous amount, but they all sold (and) the book was reprinted in both countries. But in order to be a New York Times bestseller, a book has to sell at least 100,000. It's been a long time since a Bond novel sold that many copies.
The problem is that very few non-Bond fans seek out the books and buy them. They serve a niche market. (...) Another reason could be that people are so indoctrinated by the films that the books may seem like footnotes. Since the filmmakers don't bother to film John Gardner's or my books, book retailers can't expect them to move in great numbers."
It's a shame there's no interest in adapting some of the continuation novels into films or mini-series. Not only would some of them be great fun to watch, you'd figure it would be a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation. But until the Ian Fleming people and the EON people intermarry to produce an heir to unite them, Bond will continue to be a creature of two kingdoms.
Without further ado and presented least-to-most favorite:
"The tableau of pain and suffering might have been a freeze-frame from a macabre dance of death."
Original title: The World Is Not Enough. Neither Glidrose nor the publishers felt it was "Bond"y enough. Funny, eh?
This may be in 6th place, but it's still a book I very much enjoyed. It feels like a Moore-era movie to me, and it'd have made a damn good one, I bet, although the setting would have been seen as derivative of For Your Eyes Only had it actually materialized back then.
The old M (i.e. Sir Miles) makes a couple of appearances here: when Bond attends a party (also with his soon-to-be-Roger-Moore'd secretary Helena Marksbury, Bill Tanner, and the new M, Barbara Mawdsley, whose date to the shindig, Britain's "Goodwill ambassador to the world," Alfred Hutchinson, is a key player in the plot) at Quarterdeck (M's home) and when Bond speaks to him later over the phone. Given the center of action in Facts, I was surprised there wasn't a moment between them about the events of Colonel Sun.
|No snort from M about it being a "bad holiday," no clink-of-glasses about the Hammonds.|
Perhaps it was felt it would be one callback too many. (Felix Leiter - who leads a memorable wheelchair charge - and Stefan Tempo, son of Bond's old ally from From Russia With Love Darko Kerim, also make appearances.) Sir Miles and B do reminisce, though, about the events of Moonraker (novel not film) while discussing new-M's boyfriend.
Part of the Decada's plan involves smuggling chemical weapons around the world in vials of frozen human sperm, an approach Pythagoras would likely have approved of. This leads Bond to a sperm clinic in Austin, TX where to amuse himself he agrees to fill out the questionnaire for potential donors. This leads to a pretty great unofficial overview of the many injuries Bond has sustained over the years. ("'What's this here about trauma to your testicles?'") After seducing one of the other doctors (Ashley Anderson) who turns out to be a Decada nutjob, the place is blown sky high. Make of that what you will.
"Bond walked outside into the broad daylight of the courtyard. He didn't care that his clothes were wet and bloody. He didn't care if the entire Chinese army was waiting for him. He was quite prepared to blast his way out of Guangzhou until he had no more ammunition or he was dead, whichever came first."
Plot: All James Bond wants to do is relax at Shamelady, his Jamaican estate named after one of the island's indigenous flowers. Instead he is sent to Hong Kong to sort out a bombing at EurAsia Enterprises, one of the crown colony's oldest and most successful companies, also linked to Triad heroin smuggling. With only ten days until the colony's administration is handed over from Britain to China, Bond pursues the mystery through Macao, Guangzhou, and the Australian outback, where someone has detonated a renegade nuclear device.
Original Title: No Tears for Hong Kong. (Meh.)
The first of Benson's Bonds is perhaps the most Fleming-esque. Not only are there numerous nods to Bond's original characterization (such as his anger with communism) there's also the ever-present colonial/colony theme (which also looms over the aborigines/Australia scene) and an in-depth exploration of Hong-Kong-style Mah-Jonh.
There's also an extended sequence that details a Triad ritual. This went on a tad too long for me, but I appreciate the detail and the glimpse-unto-the-forbidden-ceremony aspect of it all. Bond ends up allying himself with one of the Triads, the Dragon Wing, whose leader Li Xu Nan comes to the same end as so many of Bond's temporary allies.
The villains (Guy Thackeray and General Wong) are fine, but something of a casserole of Bond villain leftovers. That's hardly a situation unique to Zero Minus Ten, of course. I give it the nod over Facts only because of the Hong Kong handover thing, which is a unique setting in the Bondverse and was appreciated. I wish Gardner had done one in Berlin on his watch (not counting Death Is Forever, which failed to exploit that historical moment to my satisfaction).
"It was a symbolic strike, to be sure, but one that could possibly bring the wrath of foreign nations and the Japanese government down upon their heads. It had no further purpose than to make a statement. There was no profit to be made from it, it was extremely dangerous and the yakuza had no business waging a war of terrorism on the rest of the world. It was total, utter madness. But it's what the man with the red tattoo wanted and that was what he was going to get."
Plot: Goro Yoshida, the Yami Shogun of his own private militia and disciple of the late Yukio Mishima, has a rather-ingenious plan to bring both the West and the Japanese government that collaborates with it to their knees. When Bond arrives in Japan, ostensibly to provide security for the upcoming G8 conference but with orders to investigate the murder of a British-Japanese national and his family, he slowly unravels Goro's plan, leading to a memorable showdown and ritualistic beheading.
Original Title: Red Widow Dawn. (I like that one better than The Man with the Red Tattoo, myself, but Red Tattoo is certainly Bondian enough.)
This is a great one. The scenery of Japan is brought to life very well, particularly the islands of Hokkaido and Naoshima, where they even opened a museum based on this novel, as are the island's varied traditions. And Bond's allies are particular fun in this one, whether it's the welcome return of Tiger Tanaka, semi-retired but still in charge of the Koan Chosa Cho (Japan's "Public Peace Investigation Agency"), or Ikro Yamamaru, Bond's Ainu contact in Hokkaido.
There's a running gag I enjoyed where Bond keeps losing his Walther PPK and Tiger and Ikro keep replacing it.
The villains are also effectively drawn. Both Goro and his Kaishakunin Tsukamoto are equally compelling, as are the various yakuza thugs and bōsōzoku, and the main henchman, Junji Kon, aka "Kappa," named after one of Japan's mythical river-beasts. (I particularly enjoyed Tiger's teasing Bond about this.) Kappa even gets the better of Bond at one point, leaving him unconscious and suspended a few feet above the train tracks in Seiken Tunnel. (Bond finds another reason to be grateful for Q Branch for his escape.) Benson had this to say (again from that CommanderBond interview) about his research for this sequence:
"It's the longest train tunnel in the world. Civilians aren't allowed to go down there but the Japanese National Tourist Organization helped me arrange it with Japan Rail. They took us down (in hardhats) so that I could map out a chase route. (We) were on our way to Sapporo, in Hokkaido, so the Japan Rail people arranged for the train to stop in the tunnel, unscheduled, so that we could get on. You should have seen the faces of all those passengers when the train stopped unexpectedly in the tunnel and in walked these two gaijin! What the heck are these two guys doing here??"
I didn't like the way Kappa surrendered and offered up information to save his neck. Any time I have an objection like this I try to keep Jaws's arc in Moonraker in mind and shrug it off, but it undermined the character's bad-ass-ness a tad, I felt.
I particularly loved the ending at Benesse House with the art exhibit and the "100 Live and Die" sculpture blinking randomly as Bond hunts him. ("Speak and Die... Kill and Live... Stand and Die... Sick and Live... Yellow and Die... Smell and Live...") as well as the seppuku stuff. Very Bond-cinematic, all around.
"His mind was racing with thoughts of Steven Harding, the Union, the dangerous mission they were undertaking... and Hope Kendall's magnificent breasts."
Plot: A microdot containing the specs for top-secret military technology (Skin 17, which allows jets to achieve Mach 7) has been stolen and smuggled out of England in a pacemaker inserted in the chest of a soon-to-be-dead man. A mysterious crime syndicate known as the Union claims responsibility. But when the plane carrying the courier crashes on Kangchenjunga, one of the world's most treacherous mountains, Bond joins with an expert team of international climbers to ascend the Himalayan peak to retrieve it before the Russians, Chinese, or Union can get it first.
Original Title: A Better Way to Die. (Not a fave, but it is one of the Royal Gurkha mottoes, so that's a nice tie-in.)
Is this the most Fleming-esque of all Benson's Bonds? It might be. The quote I opened with, adolescent though it may be, could easily sit beside any sentence in the original Bond books, and the plot maguffin recalls Moonraker (novel not film; did I mention I have a tendency to compare everything to Moonraker?) but with the added bonus of the mountain-climbing: a natural setting for a Bond adventure, that.
Let's break this one down via the traditional Bond components:
Locations: Belgium, Morocco, India, and Nepal. Also, a return to Royal St. George's (in Sandwich, Kent, England,) the golf course of choice for MI6 personnel.
Villains: I won't discuss one of them, as there's an element of surprise to the reveal, but (he/she) was brought to life (and put to death) pretty well. All the Union guys are well-handled, but we'll see more of them next time. The main baddie is Bond's life-long nemesis, RAF Captain Roland Maquis. Their rivalry and ultimate showdown was quite satisfying. Interestingly, Benson pictured Maquis being played by Kenneth Branagh. I didn't see that at all, myself; I pictured someone more like Tom Hardy.
Allies: I liked both of these guys a lot - Zakir Bedi from Station I and Bond's Royal Gurkha minder Chandra Gurung - but I had a feeling they were doomed the moment they were introduced. Seriously, if you work for MI6 and get the message that James Bond is coming to town and are asked to lend him a hand, defect. You'll live a lot longer.
Ladies: Bond's main squeeze here is Hope Kendall, Kiwi nymphomaniac medic and mountaineer extraordinaire. (Benson pictured Nicole Kidman playing her. As with Branagh above, that's not how I pictured her at all; I had more of a Rosamund Pike / Hayley Atwell type in mind. But all this casting stuff is more of a reflection of when I read it vs. when he wrote it.) He also enjoys dalliances with Gina Hollander, one of his Belgian secret service counterparts, and aforementioned secretary Helena Marksbury, who regrettably gets in bed with the Union.
Randoms: a) Bond tells Gina he likes The Ink Spots. Nice recall to The Spy Who Loved Me, and I like picturing Bond singing along to "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" as he speeds down the A201. b) The Himalayan scenery is vividly brought to life. I know it's discouraged these days to describe any non-Western scenery as "exotic," but if Nepal isn't a land of exotic landscapes, I don't know what is. And c) The Union's signatures - a tattooed retina to denote membership and ear-to-ear slit throats of their enemies - are perfect.
Extra points for Bond's cutting out the pacemaker himself from the courier's thawing corpse in a tent during a Himalayan snowstorm.
"The doctor flipped a switch and the laser shot into Bond's pupil. The sensation was bizarre and unnerving; it felt like a tiny needle had just entered his eyeball and was jabbing the back of it. He couldn't help screaming, especially when he smelled his own eye burning."
Plot: After a botched raid on a French film studio owned by shadowy producer Leon Essinger but believed to be a hub of Union arms smuggling, Bond and his old friend René Mathis are ordered to stop their investigation. Instead, René traces the Union first to Monte Carlo - where a blind man believed to be its almost-mythical leader Le Garrant is cleaning house at the casino every Thursday night - then to Corsica, where he is captured. Bond infiltrates the latest Essinger film production and enjoys an affair with Tylyn Mignonne, supermodel, rising film star, and the shady producer's soon-to-be-ex. He follows the trail of clues all the way to Corsica, where he rescues a blinded René and has a mano-y-mano with Le Garrant as well as a familiar face from his past.
Original Title: Same.
The last of the Union trilogy is one hell of a ride. Pretty much 7-of-007s across the board:
Locations: Paris (Bond is back to not thinking much of Paris after claiming to love it in the Gardner books), Monte Carlo, Corsica, and Cannes. We've seen Bond go to some of these places before, but the Corsican section is particularly great, especially the way the town of Sartene comes across: "It was a shadowy, severe town where even the stone buildings seemed to look upon strangers with suspicion. The atmosphere was oddly oppressive for no tangible reason."
Villains: Of all the Benson Bonds, this one has probably the greatest cross-section of baddies. Le Garrant is the main one of course. His Matt-Murdock-radar-sense and dream-visions might be a bit much for some - not me, though. All of his henchmen - particularly Julius Wilcox and the other ones Benson built up over the course of three books - are very satisfying, as are the Essinger film people.
If you don't know who the other villain of the story is, I'd save the surprise for you, but as Benson himself remarks upon it in the intro to The Union Trilogy and elsewhere, and as it is a 15-year-old book, I feel fine telling you that it's Bond's ex-father-in-law, Marc-Ange Draco. Some people really had a problem with Benson's bringing Draco back as a villain. I agree with the author, though - he was a villain in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as well, just written so the reader would give him a pass, just as Bond does. And he's as likeable here as he was in that one, despite the circumstances. Overruled.
Allies: I cringed when I saw René was in this one, as I was sure this meant he was going to die. But nope, he's only blinded. Good to see him again either way, no pun intended. There's also Bond's new secretary, a former Navy man - I guess M finally had enough of the potential for another Helena Marksbury round the office - and MI6's man in Paris, Collette. I had similar fears for his mortality, but he's only put in the hospital.
Ladies: "Bond's date with a movie star!" could come off really badly. But it doesn't. She's an interesting character, and it's easy to go along with their whirlwind romance. Overall, I like the ladies in Benson's Bond much more than I did Gardner's, possibly even Fleming's. It's tougher for me to evaluate Fleming's Bond girls, though, even if they're literally the prototypes, as my Bond fandom grew out of the movies. Let's just say the Bond ladies from Benson's run are an easier fit for the 21st century, even if he occasionally lapses into adolescent reverie. Speaking of which:
Randoms: a) Upon learning Tylyn's horse is named Commander he muses that he "knew a certain commander who would like a ride." Oh James. b) Again, I guess some folks really had a problem with the surprise-villain angle. Benson devotes considerable space to it in interviews. These folks are wrong; it was a great idea. And c) Bond's escape from the film set and use of "Ariel," the K-10 Hydrospeeder stashed underwater, is lots of fun.
Extra, extra points for Bond's tearing open a rat with his teeth to fashion a weapon from its leg-bone.
Plot: Bond is suffering from sporadic blackouts as a result of the head wound sustained in the Himalayas. He's eager to pursue the Union, but he must wait to be cleared for return to service. He begins to doubt his sanity when he sees his double walking about London. When he wakes up to find his doctor murdered after a night of romance - her throat cut ear-to-ear - and the crime scene staged to frame him, he follows a carefully-arranged trail of clues to lure him first to Morocco, where he meets twins who work for the CIA, Heidi and Hedy Taunt, and then to Spain. The Union is bankrolling Neo-Falange agitator Domingo Espanada as he tries to rally the Spanish people to re-take Gibraltar from the British. Believed to have defected to the other side or gone mad, Bond must stay one step ahead of everyone, including M and Tanner, as events converge on a high-profile meeting between the British and Spanish prime ministers, Domingo, and the Union.
Original Titles: Doppelganger, then Refelections in a Broken Glass. (I like both of those better than the one they chose.)
This one is a hell of a lot of fun. The conceit of Bond questioning his sanity and his world falling in on him is handled well, and all the matador stuff seems pitch-perfect to me. (I'm not an aficionado or anything, but I know my Hemingway pretty well.)
Doubleshot opens with its last scene, then goes back in time to convey all the events leading up to it before resuming. Very effective technique for a Bond story, and I can't think of a single other one that does this. I'm probably missing an obvious example. If you come back to this post and this section is edited or even erased, I apologize in advance.
Not too much to say about this one, despite its taking the top spot in my Benson's Bond list. The villains and locales are great, the prose sweeps along like a fast-moving stream, and I loved the ending, particularly some of the twists involving the twins. (Not those kind of twists! You'll be unsurprised, I'm sure, to hear there are some of those, too.) Margarita Piel was a lot of fun, as well as Yassasin, Le Garrant's master planner.
Poor Latif, though. Again, who in their right mind would not call in sick when they get the message from London that "a Mr. Bond will be arriving in your Station..."? These guys must not talk to one another.
"The small streets were full of donkeys and cats, beggars and children, hawkers and tourists. It was the smell of the place, in particular, that seemed to be a common trait with all of the medinas in Morocco. The fresh fish, meats, and spices combined with the surrounding humanity to create a confusion of odors that to Bond smelled of rotten eggs mixed with incense and urine."
But wait there's more!
THE SHORT STORIES
"Blast from the Past"
|Published January, 1997.|
The Plot: Bond receives a letter from his estranged son, Jimmy Suzuki, the product of his amnesia-marriage to Kissy Suzuki from You Only Live Twice. He travels to New York and discovers he's been murdered. With the help of one of MI6's New York agents, Cheryl Haven, he tracks down her killer: Irma Bunt, Blofeld's ex-wife, whom he presumed to be dead after the events of YOLT.
"EON had bought all the rights to any offspring so that they could do James Bond, Jr. That's why John Gardner never used Kissy Suzuki's son. However, I'd been dying to have a story explaining what happened to the son since I first read YOLT. John Pearson mentioned him in his fictional biography, which is where I got the name "James Suzuki." I kept it (and) after consulting with (Ian Fleming's former literary agent at Glidrose) we figured out that the only way I could write about the character was if he was dead. I never got any flack from EON; I don't think they really cared."
And while it's not exactly out of the ordinary for the Bondverse, the ending, with Cheryl climbing into Bond's hospital bed ("If you're hungry, darling," she whispered, lifting her right breast to his mouth, "bon appetit.") is ridiculous. Now, if he'd added Q, M, and Tanner trying to establish visual contact over Bond's wristwatch or something, okay then.
"A Midsummer Night's Doom"
|Published January, 1999.|
The Plot: Bond is dispatched to the Playboy Mansion to determine who's been using the property as a drop to sell UK secrets to the Russian mafia.
I was prepared not to think too much of this one, as it was described disparagingly by its author and others as more of a Playboy story and not a proper Bond one. But I actually felt of the three short stories Benson published, this one was the best. The Playboy Mansion is a natural setting both for Bond and for the type of plot explored here. It's actually kind of a perfect little tale, even if it ends on the somewhat dubious note of Bond banging the future Mrs. Scott Podsednik (Mrs. July 1998) in the grotto. (Well, we can assume there's banging - the story ends with Bond "bringing his mouth down on hers ruthlessly.")
Should Bond be having sex with Playboy Playmates at the grotto? This seems too pedestrian a fantasy for someone like 007, no? Then again, a) who cares, and b) he's only human. I imagine it's got to be more or less impossible to be James Bond and escape the Playboy Mansion without hooking up with a Playmate, or several. I only wish he'd had occasion to use one of Jimmy Caan's or Jack Nicholson's secret tunnels to the property.
One thing that amused me greatly - Hugh Hefner gets to play the Q role. He gives Bond a Sheaffer-Levenger exclusive Mediterranean fountain pen with a microphone transmitter in it. There's also a nice callback to an earlier time where (Bond relays) he met Hefner while fishing with his "old Jamaican friend, Old Man Ramsey." I assume this is a reference to Ian Fleming's real-world gardener at Goldeneye. Nicely done.
"Live at Five"
|Published November, 1999.|
The Plot: Set in the present day, Chicago, Bond awaits the arrival of his date, a woman he hasn't seen in some time. He reflects back on when he first met her, in the mid-80s, before the break-up of the U.S.S.R., when he was in town to help a figure skater, Natalia Lustokov, defect. Most of the story is a flashback to the events of said defection, when Bond basically bum-rushes the ice and beats up on the security personnel to create a distraction. After she is successfully whisked away into one of the Fed's limos, Bond makes his escape. Back in the present, his date arrives: Chicago news personality Janet Davies.
Apparently, Davies is a friend of the author's. That's her up there on the right as you probably guessed. (I only know her from the New Year's Eve Chicago Countdowns she co-hosts, but I only moved to town in 2004.) As he told CB: "She had to get permission from her bosses at the station in order for me to portray her as having a romantic dalliance with James Bond, even though it was fiction."
It's a fun little story, reminded me a little of "007 in New York" in spirit or impact, just with some fisticuffs.
~I deliberately avoided looking around at anything outside of the two links provided towards the beginning of this post, but now that I'm done and doing so, I'm surprised that these books have such vocal detractors on some of the forums. I've yet to read the Bond authors subsequent to Benson (although I've jumped ahead to Trigger Mortis and am enjoying it immensely so far), but I personally found these all pretty damn enjoyable and admirably true to the character.
I see the charge "bad writing" thrown around a lot in relation them. Listen, folks - I know bad writing. This isn't it. The mechanics are sound. You might take exception to how he used some of the Bondverse characters or some of the sex-scorekeeping or va-va-voom sentiments. But a) Bond is pretty old-school hetero-normative - have people never seen Octopussy, for God's sake - so that makes no sense, b) That's an entirely different discussion than whether or not the writing is good or bad. It's well within genre norms, and more importantly, in keeping with the spirit of the franchise, and c) The plots and maguffins Benson created are as logical (relative to the Bondverse, of course) and compelling as his locales and characters.
There's an EON quality to the books not present in Gardner's, perhaps, but does that make them bad? If so, then that makes Moonraker bad, buddy, and good day to you, sir. All kidding aside, though, don't believe the naysayers; go and read them for yourself. I for one greatly appreciate Benson's run.