Jacques Stewart (better known around the CBn Forums as Jim) has graced us with his review of Raymond Benson's The Man with the Red Tattoo. The review does include spoilers and readers who don't want to read spoilers may want to avoid it.
There's a comment in Raymond Benson's The James Bond Bedside Companion that, in comparing the Fleming and Gardner books, Fleming's would be savoured at Sardi's and Gardner's munched at McDonalds. The metaphor, albeit a crassly alliterative one, begs the query: where into this grand scheme of comestibles fall Mr Benson's own delicacies?
With The Man with the Red Tattoo Raymond Benson has produced a competent book, which may or may not be as successful or unsuccessful as his other five original James Bond stories. The plot, the usual hysterical twaddle about a terrorist event at a world event, fast becoming a Benson tattoo itself, is neither here nor there. It services 290-odd pages of an entertainment, which rumble along pleasantly and then end. Requisite shoot-outs happen along the way and the girls are respectively a secret service agent and a well-spoken and naturally charming prostitute, both again recognisably indelible in Mr Benson's output. The eponymous villain is suitably dastardly, with the requisite cohort of crazed killers and physical freaks at his disposal. All present and correct, all well and good.
The decision to set this book in Japan is a revealing, and ultimately exposing, one. It will inevitably draw comparison with You Only Live Twice, perhaps Fleming's most thematically rich novel, if not his most narratively arresting. Mr Benson seems to intend to invite the comparison. Rather than avoid the ghosts of the past, he beckons them enter, making central to the early parts of the book Fleming's character of Tiger Tanaka, and inviting the casual reader to cast their mind back to Vesper Lynd, Tracy Bond and Kissy Suzuki, and the fight in Blofeld's garden of death. At which point, the casual reader may well wonder whether (s)he's been invited to this party at all.
For this adoration of the dead characters of a dead man is the rotten core at the soul of this exercise in futile necrophilia. It is a gutless performance to rely on another's characters to flesh out a tale. It is also extremely risky, and counter-productive. "Bond fans", we happy few, will recognise the character from the earlier work, and thus the character is fully formed and needs no further backstory. How pleased we are to see them return. How easy that must be to write. How horrifically that exposes the one-dimensional nature of the writer's own new characters. Propping up new characters no thicker than a paper wall with old hands only serves to undermine them. A problem: Fleming's character will still outshine all. Where is the confidence to ditch the past? Where is the confidence to create something new? Where is the confidence in one's own creation?
Where are the memorable Benson characters? The easiest answer is to remind the writer of Le Gerant, erstwhile head of The Union in the preceding three books. A point noted, but not taken, for Le Gerant was thrown away in his final appearance in favour of the resuscitation of a Fleming character, whose appearance can have meant little or nothing to those whose first Bond book by any writer Never Dream Of Dying will have been. Blown away was Le Gerant, for an in-reference.
And this is why it is so counter-productive. If one writes for the "fans", one is in danger of disappearing down an ever decreasing circle straight to hell. Who will read a book that alienates them by chucking in a reference every few pages, and not just a reference, but a reference the author wishes to invest with some significance? One wonders how ruthlessly commercial that is. One wonders if it is simply playing to a core captive audience, but never breaking out to the wider mainstream, because of never changing the material.
It's just to easy to hang onto the past. Another Benson tattoo. One wonders, if Mr Benson delivers unto us a "Jamaica" book, it will be revealed to us that Quarrel was only mildly singed, or Strangways and Mary Trueblood did have that affair after all, or Ross just went for a swim, or Mary Goodnight is still out there, spending weekends at the Thunderbird Hotel? Wouldn't that just give all us "fans" a warm tickly feeling inside, that the author is showing off his Bond knowledge (an entirely justifiable way to spend one's life, I'm sure) rather than telling us something new? If you don't get all the above references, you may appreciate my point.
Or would it, should it, make us fear that this relentless pursuit of Bond lore will be left on the shelves, ignored by the wider public and dismissed into fandom? Too much introspection will lead to destruction.
And The Man with the Red Tattoo is ringing that death knell loud. Having read it twice in forty-eight hours, I remain mystified to whom this will appeal apart from those "in the know", those whose "knowledge" of this utterly trivial thing, can be taken for granted, those who simply will accept a new Bond book, because it is a new Bond book. Where it appeals to those who may just want to give Bond " a look", may just want to see what it's like in print rather than on screen, I do not know. I think this route commercially unsound. I think it is potentially suicidal and, unlike the Japanese methods, entirely without honour.
I could not dismiss this concern if the writing was better, but it might be dulled. However, once more, Raymond Benson has produced a story, and an engaging story while it's there, but without a text. The narrative is incredibly bland. There is no craft at work here, no attempt to explore the written art. It is narrative. It is reportage. It gets the job done, although his fondness for the redundant phrase still needs to be tempered by his editor. The overwhleming stench of "will this do?" pervades the book, and engenders the impression that it is written without love for, or interest in, the skill of writing.
This intrinsic nothingness of style is heightened in this sixth book, structurally (and narratively) closest to The Facts of Death but more exposed in this book than its forebear. A second novel might be forgiven a fledgling style; a sixth, infused by the same empty phraseology and leaden, serviceable prose, is considerably harder to forgive. The effect is someone reporting something they have seen without much imagination, or interest. Consider the sound loops many cinemas have for their deaf or blind patrons.
We have seen Mr Benson be more structurally inventive than his new book: High Time To Kill and Doubleshot were new constructs, so far as the Bond novels go, and their flaw is not in that they were done that way, but in the manner of their execution. If the writing were stronger, more involving, if there were an authorial voice of any description, there would be much to enjoy in those books and their experimental natures. As they stand, the writing is too weak to hang onto those bones, and they are rendered skeltons of novels, rather than fleshed out.
In The Man with the Red Tattoo we proceed without a construct, we chug through in a linear manner that propels the book to its conclusion without engaging the reader sufficiently to admire the manner in which one reaches it. Although doubtless influenced by this latest work, it would still be immensely crass for me to throw in a You Only Live Twice reference here, so ignore the next comment if you want to avoid solid gold hypocrisy: it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Stylistically, Mr Benson is perfectly competent at arriving, but doesn't appear very interested in how he gets there.
And that's a surprise, because strengths of Raymond Benson's books are his travelogue, his research and his sense of place. This was effective in High Time To Kill and Never Dream
Of Dying and indeed so here. A far more wide-ranging (geographically, if not stylistically) book than You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Red Tattoo takes in several Japanese cities and islands, and the differences between them are competently presented to us. Regrettably, the absence of style unfortunately renders these descriptions as colossal info-dumps. The effort to weave the detail into the text is at best, clumsy, and at worst, distracting. However, any book that starts with two pages of thanks (including thanks to the two main actresses in You Only Live Twice) can't be dismissed as lazy in preparation, just in execution. The relentless pursuit of barraging the reader over the head with as much information as possible in one paragraph renders the book an effective guide book, but if it was a guide book I wanted, a guide book is what I would have bought. The overwhelming detail cannot compensate for the underwhelming presentation.
Comparisons are death; I am striving not to compare Mr Benson to Mr Fleming or Mr Gardner. All have their weaknesses. Fleming was patently a colossally egotistical bigot. It was always amusing to see how plainly John Gardner's boredom with the character of James Bond would shine through. But where Fleming was a self-made man in love with his own creator and creation, whose style was (at its least showy) extravagant, and Gardner was technically adept and intrigued in manipulating the Bond character out of his Fleming candyfloss world into something more espionagey (probably not a word), I fear that Mr Benson is in love with someone else's character. You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all. Comparisons are invidious; Mr Benson is coming up with basic plots that are the measure of Fleming and Gardner, even if he does retain Gardner's fondness for public events and including real people. Apparently James Bond is Tony Blair's best pal. On a plot for plot basis The Man with the Red Tattoo is the equal of Moonraker or Diamonds Are Forever or Thunderball. But it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, that's what gets results.
So where are we now, and where do we go from here? I cannot see what The Man with the Red Tattoo has added to James Bond. It is insufficiently dramatic to signal a new direction, it is thematically immature and obvious (the constant references to Mishima give away the ending) and it is navel-gazing in the extreme. Accordingly, we are where we were before it was published. Where do we go? On a commercial level, I want the book to be a success, and have wide public recognition, because otherwise the commercial future of the written Bond, if what is written is of this standard, is bleak. I fear it will not sell well in the UK. The branch of Waterstones in Oxford at which I bought it had only one copy. The chap on the till expressed surprise that "anyone was still writing those". On a practical level, I could live without a Bond book for more than a year if in that time, Raymond Benson has a really long think about his next book. Perhaps the structure of his contract will not let him do this, but that structure is a mistake. He needs to spend a great deal more time and attention to how he is writing, as much as to what he is writing. If a pause means he can refresh and generate something really enervating, that will be time well spent. On a faecetious level, buying a thesaurus would be an idea. If, however, it is a book a year for fourteen original books and there are eight more of these to sit through, I fear my interest waning. There is a danger of a dead horse being flogged here. There is also a danger of Mr Benson's talents being overfaced.
Which brings us back to the culinary analogies. Neither savoured at Sardi's nor munched at McDonalds (the latter's popular appeal is not to be mocked. surely?), The Man with the Red Tattoo is a glass of water. It is sustenance, but that alone, and no more memorable. Presently, the water is still relatively fresh, but as we're told throughout The Man with the Red Tattoo, don't let it go stagnant; that breeds death.