The following article is the opinion of one individual and may not represent the views of the owner or other team members of CommanderBond.net.
“ ‘Besides,’ she continued, ‘I was convinced you were screwing that woman and was a little pissed off at you. Well, I’m glad you’re OK. You’re like a tomcat, you have nine lives.’
Bond grinned but didn’t address Niki’s concerns.
The chief of police stepped in and said something in Greek to Niki.
‘I have a fax coming in, I’ll be right back,’ she told Bond as she left the room.
Bond sighed heavily, then took a sip of coffee. He was feeling better. The lack of food or sleep for so long, and his ordeals on the boat and in the sea, had taken their toll. Niki’s comment about Hera had irritated him too. It was yet another example of why Bond usually hated to be paired with a partner, especially a female one.”
“Secrets of the Dead”, The Facts of Death
© Glidrose Productions
The paradigm exposed. In illustrating the nature of The Facts of Death, indeed the entire Benson-Bond enterprise, the few words above provide more comment than any review can aspire to.
In these lines, consider the juxtaposition of film Bond to literary Bond, the smirking smoothness of the films in that first exchange, and then, forced into the text at the end, a reference to the bleak desolation of literary Bond’s ultimately futile and solitary existence. Does it work? As an overall concept, I still can’t decide. What doesn’t work here, with this specific illustrative passage is the clumsiness of the clash of the two concepts (the prose style aside). Why should literary Bond have “grinned” in the manner that he did, if the latter passage records his true feeling? But why should film Bond descend into the torpor at the end? It comes across as two different people reacting to one event.
This is the core struggle in The Facts of Death; the concept of merging the natures of the film Bond and the literary Bond. If delivery of some sort of casserole of the film Bond and literary Bond was the demand, was this just overambitious? Oil and water?
An example, the end of chapter 3. We have literary Bond reflecting on his “lonely, wretched life” in an extremely effective and engagingly written passage which – unfortunately – is only effective if one knows the literary Bond. The essential problem is this: where throughout the rest of the tale, Bond quipping away in Eonese with every other character, sci-fi supercars whizzing about and Istanbul about to get it in the neck (again) do we see the loneliness and wretchedness exemplified? The reason the end of chapter three stands out, even though in a positive way it does come across as writing and not merely recording events, is that it does exactly that: it stands out. Taken at a distance, if I were reading this book not having seen a James Bond film and not having read a James Bond book, I fear that I would lose track of that core concept: James Bond himself. Accordingly, is it only because I know the two ideas exist – a “fan” – that I can understand what is going on here? If I were to be just a fan of the films, what could such a passage speak to me? Or if solely the books, what of the rest of it? I’m reminded of first watching Goldfinger and then popping along to a local library to borrow Goldfinger and encountering angry confusion; these are separate concepts, and kept well apart.
Until now, it would appear. Did Glidrose take a look at the Eon billions and decide they wanted some of that, please? Well, who wouldn’t?
Given the divergent path the films took, and sensibly took unless the films were to be marketed only to middle-aged alcoholic chirrotic snobs, it’s difficult to reconcile these two ideas, film Bond and literary Bond, and throughout The Facts of Death, we have them side by side but, I fear, never really meeting. I just wonder whether, on the evidence of this book, the task is not only beyond Mr Benson but beyond anyone. (Here comes the comparison, sorry) Fleming didn’t have to do it, Amis certainly didn’t do it and Gardner appears to have disliked the films with a passion and, arguably, wasn’t much fonder of the books. My concern is that it is in Mr Benson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the whole literary and cinematic Bond – the exhilarating Bedside Companion is testament to the enthralling devotion – that he took an unwise (detrimental?) opportunity to try to combine the two things. In other words, this series of books reflects and is another example of the adoring, all-encompassing flavour of the Bedside Companion, the enthusiasm at being comprehensive in both Bond media, this time in fictional form. Whether that’s the intention, it’s definitely the impression. Is there any momentum in the theory that a more confident, more established writer would have refused the task because of its inherent difficulty?
Let me put something as a rhetorical proposition: Mr Gardner tends to give off signals that he wasn’t that taken with James Bond; Mr Benson the precise opposite. The question I want to float here: whereas Mr Gardner appears to have gone out of his way not to know things about James Bond, and there are downfalls in detachment which led to evident lack of interest and could be summed up as “Brokenclaw onwards”, did Mr Benson know too much, and is that the downfall of his work?
Even if you don’t agree, humour me with that. There’s another influence of the Bedside Companion which is potentially less laudable; I’ll come to that.
I recognise that in the last review / destruction masquerading as critical review that one key aspect of Zero Minus Ten I did not comment upon was Mr Benson’s handling of Bond himself. One might consider that to have been a curious omission. It was deliberate (he writes, hastily covering up for forgetting in a manner notable only for its abject shoddiness); Zero Minus Ten was largely a tick box exercise of a Bond book, in much the same way as GoldenEye was largely a tick box exercise of a Bond film; both executed finely as far as they went, and there’s a pervading sense of “this is what the audience expects of this”, rather than “here’s something very new” but with Mr Benson, as with Mr Brosnan/Ms Broccoli, yet to develop “their” Bonds. Note the plural.
So just as Tomorrow Never Dies, whatever its faults, was an attempt to extend the concept (even if one disagrees with how it dealt with 007, it comes across as considerably more self-assured than GoldenEye, which is only (and irritatingly) self-aware, a key difference), what The Facts of Death will be taken to stand for is development, evolution, confidence and…
Note: Inevitably, this will contain substantial spoilers.
The Facts of Death
Strengths: In using the tension between Greece and Turkey as the background, this appeals to the vogue that has pervaded Eon since (but not including) Moonraker, being that, apparently concerned (with some justification) that Bond is a shocking anachronism, they play the James Bond series as hyper-reality. Each film from For Your Eyes Only onwards has overtly used a contemporary situation (usually political) against which an exaggerated Bond adventure can be played out – plot driven, ignore essential flaw in using a psychopathic homophobic racist bigot as the lead character, let’s just play at fantasy with the real world, stretch it to allow our formula to fit. That’s what is happening here. The Facts of Death very much fits the Eon model of grand scale and wide threat, as for that matter did Zero Minus Ten. In the nature of the plot, then, this is very “film” and its great advantage over Zero Minus Ten is that it is maintained throughout without awkward digression into a self-conscious exercise in what a Bond book must contain (which comes across anyway only as an accident of whatever Fleming felt like writing about rather than design).
Accordingly, to an extent freed from the perceived structures of a Bond book, the plot sings along merrily and sticks around rather than wandering off into distracting and unhelpful narrative that is in constant need of rescue (compare its immediate predecessor). It also happens to come across as classic Eon formula Bond, with whizzbang car chases, a villainous organisation killing their own for betraying it (the Decada being “SPECTRE goes Super Size on the maths”), super luxury yachts, suitably cringingly inane Boothroyd scene, absurd gadgetry, the capture and near torture of Bond (more PG13 than the General Wong incident in the preceding book), weirdo mad sect doing weirdo mad things, underwater stuff, comedy deaths, interesting – and again, extremely vividly realised – locations (although I have my reservations about Texas), the usual adolescent quippery when it comes to the sperm subplot and mad cackly villain spilling the beans. And the obligatory Istanbul. There’s a hell of a film in here; how far it departs from the Eon formula really is moot, but it would still be a hell of an archetypal James Bond film. It’s easier to be generous to the exercise as a film than as a book.
As a small point, using the Markov assassination, perhaps the most Bond thing to have ever happened in “real” life, as the inspiration for a killing is, itself, inspired and extremely amusing.
Weaknesses: Is it meant to be a book? The freedom from the perceived structure of a Bond book only serves to expose those moments where it has been designed as a Bond book, but this is more a stylistic comment than a plot one. In short, its strengths are when succumbing to being a film and not prose (and those moments are entertaining).
Major weakness of the plot is the (ostensible) villain’s attitude to it; it’s a bit difficult quite what the Decada intends to achieve with its ten-point plan of destruction; a series of little incidents of violence and then…then what? The films, they often aren’t clear either – I mean, what is it that Carver is going to do with his fifty years of broadcast rights? – but they tend to paper over these sort of cracks by hurrying along to the next bout of blowing things up; on immediate reading, and then instant re-reading of the exposition in this book, it’s too easy to query, as is queried in chapter two – “What were these people after?”. Not too sure that question receives a terribly straight answer. Seems to be suggested that war between Greece and Turkey and accordant disruption in NATO will ensue but this is vague – as is why the latter is any sort of objective – and the villain’s attitude seems to be “Yeah, well, life eh? What a bummer. Tsk! Never mind.” Additionally, the background story about the germ warfare being waged against major cities seems to pass by unnoticed (probably because we’d spot too great a similarity to the scheme in the film of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service); whilst a toll of the dead is kept, it’s a bit too offhand to suggest any real panic going on. Maybe that’s just me, but that could have been far more explicit, especially as that plot device becomes particularly important towards the end.
“In the end of the book there is a rather maudlin plea for peace, and I guess that’s the viewpoint I wanted—and needed—to take.”
The CBn Interview
Agreed. It is maudlin and seems unnecessary but it does cohere with the Eon view of international politics (always rogue elements of respective governments, James Bond savey Worldy and it never, ever rains) rather than the literary Bond despair at how futile everything turns out to be. But, given the depth of research that Mr Benson again patently undertook, it was probably sensible not to offend either host. One moment in the historical fact-dump does grate; there is a description in chapter 11 of Britain as an “objective party”, which is curious considering that Cyprus is largely Britain’s fault, and given the (considerably more accurate) note earlier in the tale that it does not recognise the Northern Cypriot Republic.
I’ve suggested above that I have issues with “Texas”. Plot-wise rather than stylistically, the major problem is this: in the first briefing M reveals that SIS know that the frozen sperm is carrying toxins and that it is getting to Athens, so does Bond really need to go to Texas at all? There’s no genuine mystery that is solved whilst out there, and it just seems to be a bit of a digression for the hell of having Felix Leiter turn up for a bit. The connections between Hutchinson and Romanos could as easily have been made in Greece (and, indeed, are). Whilst the Texan interlude is a pleasant enough read, and gives Mr Benson the opportunity to write about what he knows (a good idea? See below), as a pure plot device, on reflection it looks extraneous. Not too sure what the raid on the Suppliers’ HQ adds either, except for some swearing and Felix Leiter doing wheelies in his wheelchair (hmm).
Strengths: Cohesion is its key; it is far less interrupted by what its author believes it should be (the major defect in Zero Minus Ten, the attempts to cram in “James Bond novel” elements, which are to its detriment because the absence of authorial style cannot disguise this).
The prose doesn’t appear to have advanced very far beyond necessary to tell a story, and quite what one is to make of the editing when something like “…at the end of a winding mountainous road that leads to nowhere, is a quiet, forsaken village called Anavatos” appears – patently, the road does lead somewhere, then (one can see what is trying to be conveyed but it is a bit of a struggle and one has to be quite forgiving), but what The Facts of Death displays is that Mr Benson is trying out his own stuff, going where he wants his Bond story to go rather than where it is “right” that it should go, rather than ensuring all boxes are ticked. Therefore, regardless of whether it is successful, it is evolution and it is interesting to stand back and watch a writer try to develop. Particularly by referencing the writer’s own background in Texas, there is an attempt to infuse the narrative with what he knows about, rather than what he ought to know. Accordingly, whilst Zero Minus Ten is a James Bond story, The Facts of Death is far more successfully a Raymond Benson James Bond story, and as far as that goes, there’s a level of attachment which the Gardner books, with their annoying standoffishness, never really achieved. The personal element arrives and although I query Texas as a necessary plot move, that’s only on reflection; whilst it’s onscreen, it seems to chug along merrily. Again, whether for good or bad, far more of the writer emerges here. Anyone could have written Zero Minus Ten; only Raymond Benson could have written The Facts of Death. That must be regarded as progress; whether for good or evil depends on one’s perspective, but objectively the progression can be recognised.
Accordingly, it’s presumably a reflection of this investment of the personal that makes this story work to the final point of the last page; Mr Benson clearly could care less what happens here (again, this level of interest in the product stands in definite contrast to Mr Gardner who, although substantially a better prose stylist given his experience, seemed to drift off… a bit… then came back… traitor… um how do I end this?)
As minor points, whilst the narrative style remains resolutely unexceptional and unthreateningly functional, at its best, and there’s still way too much dialogue (Bond and M still trying to outdo each other with historical knowledge; last time around it was the Opium wars, now it’s Cyprus), there is some greater attempt to use narrative and it’s less nakedly “film dialogue” than Zero Minus Ten, even if it’s more nakedly “a film”. It is when the style is reportage of onscreen incident rather than (still) self-aware with “having to shoehorn a bit of literature in at this point” that the style whizzes along, the read with it.
Weaknesses: Stefan Tempo. If it’s some time since you read The Facts of Death, I’m willing to wager that you don’t remember Stefan Tempo. That, of itself, reveals much. In brief, the plot is engineered so that Bond, to defeat a Decada attack, has to enter Northern Cyprus with some Greek commandos; on landing, all are surrounded by naturally suspicious Northern Cypriot soldiers. Forward steps Stefan Tempo from Istanbul and everything is rendered ooja-cum-spiff. Stefan Tempo is Kerim Bey’s son.
The issue with Stefan Tempo is not, however, just as a plot device (however much this disrupts any sort of attempt one could make at fixing Bond’s age). It is this: Tempo is a Fleming character. So, rather than relying on any other characters he himself has invented, the writer engineers a situation where the only apparent way out is to fall back on Fleming (and as asserted in the initial piece about ZMT, how can this not avoid unsought-for comparison with Fleming?). Nods to the past, OK, fine, fair enough, have to accept that I suppose… but this is more than an incidental nod, beyond the echoes that littered Zero Minus Ten. This is the direct progression of the plot because of this character.
There are two ways of looking at this. Either the writer found no way out of it but this, which – to be blunt – is cheating on an Agatha Christie scale (ie the character never to appear is the murderer/here, a rabbit pulled out of a hat); bit lazy, frankly, and a curious lack of confidence in his burgeoning ability to devise interesting plots – or this part of the plot was deliberately designed to build up to this moment and…and…and what? Establish Bond knowledge? Is there some insecurity on the part of the author that we don’t think he knows his stuff, and he needs to keep pressing his “Bond knowledge” credentials? How can he sensibly think that, after the Bedside Companion? This is the less laudatory influence of “too much knowledge” I mentioned earlier; who is he trying to convince with this? Convince whom, and about what? If he was uncertain why there might be negative reaction to his hiring as Bond author, did he mistake suspicion that he did not know what he was doing (an untried writer must experience that, surely?) for suspicion that he did not know what he was writing about? Who on earth could doubt the latter, but the perception created by Stefan Tempo is that he has shoved him in there as a misconceived (paranoid?) reaction to cure the non-existent mischief in the latter perception; trouble is, it just exacerbates the damage to him on the (very real) former.
The exercise is a flawed one, because there’s absolutely no explanation how Stefan Tempo – the son of a British agent – gets to be high up within Turkish intelligence. None. At all. Surely that undermines the credibility of what is happening, for the sake of an in-reference which the audience will be left scratching their heads at? It wouldn’t happen in a film – they wouldn’t let it happen in a film. So what do we have? Bond in a fix; along comes a Fleming character because the writer knows that a Fleming character is available, and, somehow, gets him out of fix, plot moves on. And if, in considering whether you do remember Stefan Tempo appearing, you can’t, and wonder why I’m banging on about it, then that exposes it at the other end; the appearance isn’t sufficiently memorable to be of any importance whatsoever. Nothing is done with the character to make it a remotely valuable moment. Up he pops, back he goes. Query the insecurity in the writer’s own ability that, to the detriment of his tale, he felt compelled to do this.
As for “knowing too much” being potentially detrimental– if he had forgotten that Stefan Tempo existed, or not known, could there have been a more plausible way out of it? Clearly – a message passed via SIS to Istanbul in some way, via M to her counterpart and A.N. Other agent turns up, whose history to that point can be deserving of as little detail as Tempo received. Was the Tempo temptation too great? It looks that way; although it solves a narrative problem, it creates distinct difficulties stylistically. A monkey off the back, but replaced by a gorilla?
That’s not the only example. The stylistic problem with Texas: Bond reminds himself that he went to the Panhandle in the case involving “the last heir of Ernst Stavro Blofeld”. The reference gnaws, for differing reasons depending on one’s perspective. If one accepts that the book is a film, and one need no knowledge of the literary Bond to read it (indeed, my ultimate conclusion – have a preview – is that it’s better not to have such knowledge to get the most out of this), then it’s likely that one would know about Blofeld as the most famous film villain but…is there any actual point in this reference to a Gardner Bond if all one has seen is the film series? On the other hand, if one does know the literary Bond, there’s a flaw here in referring so overtly to For Special Services and then, in the passages with Leiter, not making any reference to Cedar Leiter. The Bedside Companion suggests that Mr Benson isn’t sold on Cedar Leiter – he’s not alone in that – but this looks like picking and choosing between what is used and what isn’t, and the attempt to create “Bond consistency” in making the reference is damaged by not following it through to its natural conclusion – which must be a reference to Leiter’s daughter, like it or not. Not having the reference to the Panhandle at all, and it is extraneous, would solve this.
Perhaps , if setting a book in Texas, he felt he would be damned if he didn’t refer somehow to For Special Services; but given that this is best seen as a cinematic exercise, would anybody really care? It’s in trying to merge the two things that they actually start to fall apart…
The other stylistic problem with the Texas bit is what the Tex-Mex meal represents.
Bond was never literature, it was a disappointed man using a fantasy persona to sound off about stuff he did and didn’t like; there was (dread phrase) attitude (sorry about that). It is a character created out of reaction, and practically out of frustration at what the world could not give him. And he was writing both what he knew and what he wanted to know, what he wanted to be, creating aspirational fiction – in the women, the label fetishism, the food…- not only for his audience but (absolutely critical, this) for himself – Ian Fleming wasn’t James Bond; he strove to be James Bond too. Accordingly, there appears to be some misconception about what Fleming was doing; he wasn’t writing just what he knew; he was writing what he wished to be. That’s the key error here; this writer has interpreted Fleming as writing only what he did know and therefore – quite legitimately as far as that goes – taking that as the model; he, Mr Benson will write what he, Mr Benson, knows. But he stops at that. Has he misunderstood the nature of what Fleming was doing? Does he actually think that Fleming was living like Bond?
And yet consider Fleming, raging against the dourness of the post-war Labour government welfare state (just read that chapter in Casino Royale when Bond and Vesper share the meal; the comparative luxury of that to what – Fleming included – the British audience were being subjected to at the time….) As fiction disguising domestic political commentary on the twenty years after the end of WW2, there’s little to compare to Bond. It is British post-war sensibility of the despair of a once-elite deprived of their lifestyle, it is written out of deprivation and disillusionment and decay.
None of which, I daresay, were factors in the upbringing of Mr Benson. This is why the shoehorning in of Bond’s despair dotted sporadically around his books rings hollow and comes across as mechanical; to write it, one has to have been there, and it will permeate the whole approach to a story, not just be brought in at appropriate junctures to jolt the reader about a bit. This is why no-one else can be Ian Fleming. No-one else is sufficiently angry and annoyed at how it’s all turned out to be so… pointless.
Accordingly, in the Tex-Mex, Mr Benson is doing the honest thing and writing about what he knows; but where’s the aspiration in this? Where’s the repressed craving for high living? This is comfortable middle-class American plentiful (and excessive) satisfaction rather than the demonstration to the reader of experiences just that extra inch out of their reach – and, through political frustration, the author’s reach – and rendering them into salivation not at the description of the meal itself, but at the prospect of actually having such a meal. Tex-Mex is too easy to acquire, there’s no need to strive for it; whilst it’s amusing to see blue collar Bond, it really isn’t Bond y’know. Whilst it brings Bond down and de-classes him, and puts him within our actual experience (and query how interesting that really is), in its non-challenging, non-aspirational way, all it exemplifies is the “turbo everyman” that Eon have turned Bond into, so that their films play in the suburbs and there is some (ugh) point of connection (good grief) between hero and spectator. It’s at a point behind where it should be headed to; what isn’t captured here is that even in its “reality”, Fleming’s Bond was staggeringly unreal. The Fleming Bond was a story of constantly chasing potential experience, predominantly things from the past, with the despair being the product of a realisation that it is futile. The food in Bond is, as a result, terribly important in reflecting this starting point of utter lack of pretence at reality; and Tex-Mex, because it is available, doesn’t achieve it, and puts the literary Bond at a point he has never been, and was never intended to go. In Zero Minus Ten, there was absurd food, teetering on the edge of beyond our grasp. At that point, I believed Mr Benson recognised what it stood for. Now, I’m not so sure. In short, the food displays no evident attitude, none of the significance it needs, and therefore comes across, however well intended, as a bit of a misfire.
There are other stylistic curiosities, to comment upon briefly. As one may observe from the opening quote, there’s a fair amount of cussin’ kicking around, and the odd F-word appears here and there. Ah well; maybe that’s veracity given their context (American mouths). What else? Well, there’s the frankly Scooby-Doo all the gang’s here dinner party at Quarterdeck and the baffling relationship between the Messervy M and Bond. My impression from the Flemings was that Bond and M tolerated each other on a professional level. The few occasions upon which M refers to Bond as “James” are those where M is attempting to encourage Bond to perform an act of unsanctioned murder or subterfuge, not some sort of social nicety. In short, I can’t see where and how M became Yoda or – worse – Bond’s dad and no convincing exposition is attempted. Given that the Fleming M notably despised Bond’s social activities and the effort Mr Benson exerts to try to convince us that his Bond is the literary Bond, honest, how M and Bond are therefore in the same social circle is unconvincing.
Nor is any genuine explanation attempted of how M became an actual father. On an artistic basis, I don’t think that works but I guess there’s nothing to contradict it in Fleming. But would Messervy, given who he is, really call his daughter Haley? Might as well call her Shazza or Chardonnay or something of equivalent gruesomeness.
Although the Quarterdeck party does appear to suggest a solution to the world’s most underwhelming mystery about whether Admirals Messervy and Hargreaves are different people by… no, that’d spoil things.
The thing that rings truest; the new, female M is as much of a cretin and a security risk here as she is portrayed in the current films. So far as that is a direct fusion of film and literary Bond, it’s absolutely bang on.
As far as the major action sequence is concerned, it’s a film car chase; Bond himself is never in peril and it comes across as a run through the gadgets his Jaguar is deemed to possess (including, in no less absurd a manoeuvre than “invisibility”, holographic projection). In that vein, it has the same structure as the chases in Goldfinger, The Living Daylights and Tomorrow Never Dies, the fun action sequence involving the souped up automobile, show the audience the technology, Bond protected by “pressing some buttons”. How this entire comic incident reconciles with the description at the end of chapter three defeats me. That’s the only reason I put it under “weakness”; as an incident in a film, it would be a monumentally enjoyable strength, and conforms to the film concept that when in peril, no fists, just press things and set off a few bangs and then knob a bird. There is something to get Bond out of what he needs to get out of. Taking a back seat, and with the end of the chapter in which this car chase appears, that is a literal back seat, to the technology. A car that drives itself. A car that heals its own bullet wounds. A car with paint that changes colour.
What’s absent from the sequence, indeed the book as a whole, and something that was present in Zero Minus Ten with the General Wong and Australia episodes, is a sense of Bond himself suffering. OK, Hera does threaten him with surgical knives aboard the yacht – villainous redhead threatens Bond with scalpels aboard boat; that’s You Only Live Twice, isn’t it? – but, as with the films, there’s only very rarely a palpable sense of (physical or psychological) threat. The fight in the pitch black with the thug is funny, the opening and the ending helicopter bits are exciting too – but, unlike walkabout in ZMT, there’s little to wonder at how he gets his way out of such scrapes.
Strengths: A far more vivid set of characters than the anaemic Guy Thackeray; Konstantine Romanos is fundamentally potty and (especially) Hera Volopoulos gratifyingly unpleasant, as is the manner of her death. There’s an inkling of Fleming in making vegetarians subject to suspicion, although this is treated as an offshoot of the villainy (and leads to tragic “eating meat” innuendo) rather than, as one would tend to suspect with Fleming, the cause of it, the silly old banana trying to be provocative again.
Weaknesses: A curious volte face from the previous book; whereas Thackeray was a weak character, his scheme (if not the motivation) was clear. Here, interesting villains do…some stuff which might bring about some other stuff. And there’s something else going on in the background and they might be involved in that too. There is, though, a common weakness in both principal Benson villains to date: as with Thackeray’s alcoholism, Romanos getting a bit of a bang on the head and believing himself to be reincarnated Pythagoras is a short-cut to presenting reasoned explanations for what it is he does. There’s a cursory reference to the Greeks “following [Romanos] to victory” but it’s all a bit offhand. Still, it is interesting to see the leader of the crazies getting usurped at the end. Shame the man has to drink gin and tonic though; what is he? Some kind of pretentious lunatic…oh. A wasted opportunity by not exploring further how this ostensibly respectable senior academic is poisoning the minds of his students (but it’s the same wasted opportunity with unexplored issues about the influence of the similarly “public” Elliot Carver); still, a notable improvement in character, if not purpose.
I forget where I read it, and apologies if this is a half-hearted attribution, but I think it was a comment passed by someone who knew Ian and Ann Fleming, and that circle they mixed with; that in his fantasy world, Fleming wanted to dominate women in a manner he found himself frustratingly incapable of doing in reality, given the personalities involved. Bear that in mind and by jiminy, you can see it. He was writing inherently pliable women he could imagine exploiting.
There is some weakness in Fleming’s women that Bond constantly seeks, and finds; it’s the broken wing appealing to the predator, not to the Samaritan (which is where the fetid The World Is Not Enough goes so very wrong in its set-up of the Bond/Elektra relationship by having him trace the tear down the screen; he doesn’t want to sympathise, you clowns, he wants to manipulate to his own ends). OK, so the very first Bond girl may have been an agent, but she is a fundamentally useless agent, and Fleming revels in bringing the woman down; Gala Brand is more professional but frigid and a wet fish; others have imperfections in their bodies (Honeychile, Domino), are lesbian (Pussy, Tilly), aren’t too right in the head (Tiffany, Tracy – although this probably counts for Pussy and Tilly too) or are – in practical terms – spineless simpletons (Solitaire, Kissy, Liz Krest). None of these are the current Eon way – it’s always super agents and “real women who can hold their own, she’s like a female Bond (yawn).”
In Zero Minus Ten, Sunni Pei was chugging along nicely until it was revealed that she has kung-fu superpowers (hmm); here, Niki Mirakos appears to have no flaws and is doubtless a scion of modern Greek womanhood. Problem is, like many recent Eon girls, she is terribly boring precisely because of the reverence the creator has for her; lacking (I assume) Fleming’s personal overt contempt for women, and desire to see them sexually dominated, Mr Benson isn’t creating a literary Bond girl here because it would appear he has no fear of the sex, which is what drove Fleming to do what he did with them and create the characteristics he drew out. Accordingly, there’s nothing to play with and little to engage with other than that she is tall, has brown hair and can fly a helicopter (and does this on numerous occasions). She, like Sunni Pei, is lacking that key characteristic of – itself – being somehow lacking, somehow there to corrupt and exploit. I suppose one cannot alienate half of the cinema audience, though.
Hera is substantially more fascinating, and is by far Benson’s most interesting character to this point (including Bond who, even pre-Doubleshot, appears to have a split personality); a classic violent redhead in the Fiona Volpe / Helga Brandt mode – indeed, a direct copy of Helga Brandt in one extended sequence – and there’s a huge amount going on there; psychopathic bisexual treacherous vegetarian, none of these are particularly appealing. The only real weakness is in the dismal cheating that goes on by having the Number Killer referred to as “he” until revealed as Hera; oh come on, that’s just, well, a bit rubbish. But still, if you walk away with one thing from this film, it will be Hera Volopoulos.
Film or book?
Just go back to that top quote; the damaging Stefan Tempo issue aside, it does draw out the key stylistic issue about The Facts of Death (besides being an example of the liberated language): the compression of literary Bond and film Bond. This tries to be the bond between the two, ho de ho ho, but I can’t see it working. But, critically, that really is no fault of Mr Benson; there is genuine effort to try to make it work but ultimately, where it is strong, it is when it is film Bond and where it is weak – the literary Bond bits. I remain of the view that this is best considered a novelisation; damn good one, too.
Worth reading?: Certainly, but it would be worth seeing more. At its strongest when not struggling with its schizophrenia and finally giving in to its nature as the transcription of a very strong Eon film. It rattles along for the most part without the self-consciousness of Zero Minus Ten and it is precisely when it isn’t trying to be “a James Bond novel” that it’s at its most successful. There are serious problems which undermine it as a literary exercise, or as a continuation of the literary series, more in what isn’t done than what is. There are some splendid “visuals” throughout – the car that changes colour (amongst other things) would be a fun film highlight – but it’s hard to find much that comfortably sits as a novel. More overwhelmingly whole, and more overwhelmingly Benson than the previous go, and never less than interesting although that’s frequently more so because of what it tries to do than what it succeeds in. Still, well worth a summer read.
Stay tuned… Next up in this series: High Time To Kill.