14 April 2013

Benson’s Bond Begins: Zero Minus Ten

Zero Minus Ten (1977)
By Raymond Benson

Here is another Bond review I have dragged out of mothballs. I’ve never reviewed one of Benson’s novels—in fact, I’ve only read the first two and have stalled getting to work on my copy of High Time to Kill—but I found my thoughts on his inaugural outing…

After writing fourteen “continuation” James Bond novels, English writer John Gardner finally packed it in after COLD (U.S. title: Cold Fall) in 1996. Glidrose Ltd., the literary rights holder to James Bond, gave the task of writing new adventures of the master spy to Raymond Benson. The American Benson, a longtime Bond fan and author of the popular 1980s’ The James Bond Bedside Companion—an invaluable book for me in high school when there was little criticism of the movies and novels available—debuted with Zero Minus Ten, a thriller taking place around the historic handover of Hong Kong to the mainland Chinese government.

Benson’s work is immediately superior to the final few Gardner novels. Gardner had wearied of churning out a book a year about the character, and it shows in his last lackadaisical entries: Death Is Forever, SeaFire, and COLD are poor bordering on terrible. Benson rushed into the fray riding a wave of fannish exuberance that carries Zero Minus Ten along at a brisk pace toward a tense finale. Readers who are only seeking a fast-paced thriller won’t feel Benson wasted their time.

But despite all of Benson’s knowledge of the 007 of the printed page, he has none of the literary qualities to merit comparison to Ian Fleming—or even to John Gardner. Benson writes flat and straightforward prose; he can tell a story, but without much flair. The problem isn’t that Benson fails to copy the intoxicating journalistic style of Ian Fleming; that would be an impossible piece of artifice and would only aggravate fans. The problem is that Benson seems to lack a sense of his own style. His Bond is a lifeless manikin who exists as a tool for the story and a perceiver for the reader, and whose opinions are shallowly telegraphed from elsewhere.

Benson takes pains to imitate some of Fleming’s tropes, like placing Bond in a confrontation with the villain over a gambling table, and including lengthy travelogue sequences. Bond even starts the story in his familiar stomping grounds of Jamaica, where he has purchased a home that sounds suspiciously like Fleming’s estate of Goldeneye (the former owner, according to Bond, was a writer and journalist). Gardner conspicuously ignored Jamaica in his novels, but Benson tosses it right back into Bond’s world as if to declare his allegiance to the spirit of 007’s creator.

Hurling in the classic elements isn’t enough however, and the mahjong game between Bond and Guy Thackeray in Macau is emblematic of the trouble Benson faces when he tries to mirror Ian Fleming. The mahjong game is overwritten, suspenseless, and achieves nothing in the end because the sudden appearance of Triad killers negates any importance the game might have had. The sequence ostensibly exists so that Bond—and by extension, the reader—can get a sense of his adversary, but it achieves nothing of the kind and leaves Guy Thackeray more an enigma than he started. The writing drops into a rhythm of describing the wins and losses of each hand, which started to remind me of a mind-numbing history assignment from college that forced me to slog through pages and pages listing the levying of fines in a Medieval English village (“Mr. Tatterall walked his kine across Mrs. Amis’s land and is amerced five pence.”) Benson does not know exactly where to focus the reader’s attention in the game, and the lengthy explanation in an earlier chapter of the rules of mahjong doesn’t clarify matters. The scheme of Bond out-cheating a cheater is too similar to the classic bridge game in Moonraker, and Benson should never have opened himself up to such a direct comparison in which he would inevitably end up the loser.

The travelogues sections are turned out in rote fashion, without any interaction from Bond. This is a James Bond who has few feelings about anything. Where is the cynical and irritable Bond of Fleming, who has virile opinions on Camay soap, airline service, Japanese customs, tea and its effect on the British Empire, and beautiful female secretaries? If Benson wants to toss in references to the Fleming novels, why ignore so much of the genuine qualities of Fleming’s writing that make his work so powerful?

For example, Bond’s ruminations on the Asian art of feng shui is all info-dump, no attitude, and passes up a superb opportunity to inject a spark into the travelogue proceedings:
Bond knew that the concept of feng shui, the art and science of positioning man-made structures in harmony with the vital cosmic energy coursing through the earth, was taken seriously in the East. Sometimes entire buildings had to be adjusted slightly in accordance with instructions from professional feng shui masters. Fish tanks were in abundance in restaurants, and these improved the feng shui.
Fleming’s James Bond would note the feng shui, and then immediately scoff at it as “rubbish.” Remember Bond’s European disdain for the quirks of Japanese culture in You Only Live Twice? Even in this more politically correct culture, Bond remains a man of certain prejudices which that him an intriguing figure; Benson gives us precious little of that. The Fleming name-dropping aside (a sort of “greatest hits” of Bond’s most well-known character tags), the Bond of Zero Minus Ten is the EON Productions Bond of the day, the Pierce Brosnan version, not the one of the novels, and the book suffers because of it. Movie characters work best in movies, not on the page.

Some of the travelogue is gratuitous, particularly the Triad initiation scene. The play-by-play doesn’t serve any purpose except maybe to show that the author has done his research. (In speculative fiction-writing circles, this is known as “I’ve suffered for my art and now it’s your turn.”) In comparison, the sections in Australia have a freshness to them; it’s a place I always wanted Bond to visit. Unlike much of the descriptive dross afforded Bond’s time in Hong Kong and Southern China, here the information on the setting has a direct effect on the hero. Bond on a survival trek against the clock contains some of Benson’s better writing, and it’s a pleasant break from the Hong Kong setting.

The villain, Guy Thackeray, is a disappointment. Benson has stated that he visualized Jeremy Irons as Thackeray, and indeed it’s easy to see the famous English actor playing the part in one of his slummier, grab-the-paycheck-and-run moments (watch him in Dungeons & Dragons for an example). Bill Nighy might have more fun with the part, and would give Thackeray more of an idiosyncratic personality than he portrays on the page. Benson moves the character through the motions of a classic Fleming villain, but like so much of the novel, the motions simply aren’t enough. Even when he lays out his reasons for his diabolical scheme, Thackeray remains inscrutable and uninteresting. General Guangzhou, the red-herring villain who will fool nobody, works better than this incompetent drunk. At least Guangzhou gets to lay down vicious torture on Bond in one of the books better handled nods to Ian Fleming.

More successful is Bond’s Triad ally, Li Xu Nan. John Gardner’s stories tend to ignore the male friendships that Fleming’s Bond formed: men like Marc-Ange Draco, Kerim Bey, and Tiger Tanaka. Benson thankfully recognizes this, and serves up a sort of Eastern-tinged Marc-Ange Draco. The dialogue between the two men concerning their positions on different sides of the law is among the book’s most memorable. Consequently, the quick dispatch of Li in the assault on Thackeray’s yacht in the conclusion seems a shame. Bond’s other ally, the standard mid-plot victim, T. Y. Woo, comes across as too much of an Asian stereotype.

The Bond girl is one of the weakest elements of the book. Sunni Pei has little reason to be in the story aside from needing rescue and to give Bond a sidekick when he jets down to the Aussie Outback. Sunni’s martial arts skills seem like a bone tossed to her to keep her from turning into a generic trembling-Asian orchid in distress. The sex scenes have some kinkiness, which is a pleasing change from Gardner’s bland approach to erotic content, but they still come nowhere near the steaminess of Ian Fleming’s writing.

The ticking clock in the finale, especially when Bond finds himself on an unplanned walkabout in the Australian Outback, keeps the novel tense at the ending. Gardner frequently slacked off in his finales; Benson at least keeps the pressure on.

All the Fleming imitations and flourishes can’t cover up for the mechanical exercise of Zero Minus Ten. It works as an undemanding thriller, but the classic James Bond appears here only as a reflection in tin foil of the Ian Fleming original.