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.
by Daniel Dykes
I | II
I suppose that I must have subjected myself to it once or twice, probably during a moment of weakness when the darts wasn’t on. Given that I’m married, have no hatred of fresh air and have never masturbated into a sock, I have always assumed that it’s not meant to appeal to me. From what I’ve dared watch of it, it seems to involve either T.J. Hooker (very wig/weave) or Yorkshire’s finest Frenchman (very no wig/weave) being put on trial by people with lumpy gravy stapled to their foreheads (habitually non-Caucasian character actors—what’s all that about then?) and forced to answer for humanity’s sins, usually because the uniformly humanoid gravyheaded people have just intercepted a broadcast of a Nuremburg Rally or International Speedway live from Wolverhampton or that episode of “Columbo” with George Hamilton in it that always seems to be on. Which sets one thinking about how they’re going to react when they’re subjected to The World is not Enough; they’ll probably come down and massacre us. Justifiably so, too.
But, in truth, everything that I could tell you about this Star Trek you could drunkenly carve with a rattly jackhammer into a pinhead (the item, not the person, although your confusion is understandable because I did start with the words “Star Trek”). There’s some corporate-sponsor pleasing pontificating about being lovely to everyone—because they’re all potential consumers—some things that go “wooshhhh” and “fizzzz” and “slapacockledoodah”, probably, and I’m pretty sure (unless it’s yet another brie-dream) there’s something about Klingon dictionaries and that something disturbs me: if it was worth doing, the Klingons would have done it, surely? And if the reason for not so doing is because they do not exist, then this comes full circle to why bother? Y’know, I read the other day that the potato has more chromosomes than a human. And whilst it must be true of all of us, there are some people whose selfish oxygen-gobbling can only serve to remind us of the fact. Why they don’t do themselves in defeats me (and if anyone considers this a call to suicide upon which the impressionable may act, consider this: it’s one thing to commit suicide because of illness or inescapable personal trauma or reading Deception Point and realising that a world that allows it to happen must be really horrid and it’s better to leave. Committing suicide because something one read on the internet or saw on TV made it look like a good idea—that’s natural selection).
Yet, this stated, given that the white chocolate-wonderful interweb has exposed me to many, many delights—dwarf porn, goat porn, dwarf goat porn, probably other things apart from porn, dwarves and goats but substantially less than half as much fun—amongst the information eruption screenburnt into my skull has been the vital knowledge that the Star Trek films follow a pattern in terms of quality.
Odd numbered films (for those educated by the British state, that’s 1, 3, 5, 7 and… um… 9 (note to self: check))—bad. Not “bad” in the sense that Hitler, Pol Pot and Sesame Street were “bad”; considerably more evil than that—Scrappy Doo bad. Yoko Ono’s films bad.
Jamie Cullum bad.
Even numbered films—better. Better in the way that finding a maggot in one’s peach is better than finding half a maggot; why am I suddenly reminded of Jamie Cullum? Doubtless someone out there will squander some of the only life they will ever have on telling me that this doesn’t strictly hold true, and doubtless I really won’t care when it’s pointed out to me that—actually—Star Trek part III: Cack-A-Rama-Spocky-Wah-Wah contains—actually—scenes that are—actually—worthy of Shakespeare (Craig Shakespeare, erstwhile West Brom midfielder). This may well be so, but then a hell of a lot of Shakespeare isn’t—actually—worthy of Shakespeare either (especially the ill-advised move to Grimsby Town). Putting aside the rumour that most of his stuff was actually written by Christopher Marlowe (or was it Gerhard Berger?—one of the two, anyway), have you seen Timon of Athens? Don’t—it’s crap. Cymbeline? I’ve vomited—and celebrated vomiting—more substantial things than Cymbeline. Two Noble Kinsmen? Jamie. Cullum.
Anyway, the reason I really don’t care whether this so-called Star so-called Trek so-called theory holds true is because I’ve still not seen any of these so-called films; they are the sort of thing the existence of which one is vaguely aware and has to accept will happen but will ideally rarely witness first-hand, like 3.15 a.m. or one’s parents wiping themselves clean post-copulation, or Northamptonshire. Intelligence gathered suggests these films are something to do with spaceships and David Warner is in one or more or all of them; more news once received. But the reason I raise it is that the same utterly-trivial-once-the-bomb-drops odd-numbers bad, evens marginally better notion could apply to the Raymond Benson James Bond books, to whit:
Number 1: worthy, bit dull, overpadded, finding its way, sort of gets there;
Number 2: zips along merrily, much more confident;
Number 3: terrible. Catastrophic. No, worse; probably illegal;
Number 4: …er…um… pretty OK…
Yep, sorry to break it to you gang, especially those weighed down with the expectation that I’m just going for the throat mercilessly with these ephemera, but DoubleShot is, in essence, really decent stuff. Surprisingly so.
On its own merits.
Well, obviously. What a traumatically stupid, redundant statement that is. It’s not as if it’s going to be the same sort of thing that Fleming wrote and (sharp intake of breath) it’s not as if it needs to be if one ignores any pretence that it’s meant to be similar. On that basis, all that it needs to be is competent and entertaining, something (even at that undemanding level) still defeating its immediate predecessor in an upsettingly baffling way, so as far as those criteria go, it succeeds. In comparison to the spectacularly tragic High Time To Kill, DoubleShot is light from dark, a (relative) leap in quality. By way of contextual comparison (and no, I don’t quite believe I used that expression either), it is what we saw with The Living Daylights being produced by the same folks who considered it a job well done to hurl A View to a Kill at an innocent and fluffpuppy world only a handful of months beforehand.
It almost does enough to wipe the memory clean of its immediate predecessor; Hercules and the Augean stables spring to mind. In other words, one can walk away from this one undefiled; the sun will not have dimmed, mighty rivers will still flow, unwiped genitalia will remain unwiped by it and life will plod along in its usual shambling way. Please don’t misunderstand me: it is by no means a great work of fiction—a more accurate description would be “unutterably colossal piffle that will probably only be read by eleven people”—but given that it cannot seriously (surely?) have been intended to be anything other than complete and utter tosh, that it succeeds in being diverting (as opposed to wretched) renders it… a success. Or put it this way—unlike its immediate predecessor I have no desire to ram this one straight back up him.
And if it’s time to stop raising futile comparisons with Fleming’s stuff, then so be it. Time to compare Mr Benson to himself. DoubleShot is his best one so far. Leave to one side how magnificent an achievement that actually is given its patchy competition and believe me. But can I make the comparison more than in a backhanded manner; and more than out of kindness? Can I go further, can I really go further and suggest that as a “fourth book” and as a piece of straightforward entertainment it’s the superior of the directionless and podgy Role of Honour and the exquisitely written if Norfolk-flat Diamonds are Forever?
Yes I can.
“Make it so.”
I feel so ashamed. Anyone got a sock?
A bit about the Style and a bit about the Plot; this part has a dual identity. A magnificently appropriate approach and not just me being lazy.
Let me—go on, let me—tell you a story. A criminal organisation, maniacally vengeful and peeved to the point of frowning really quite hard indeed, seeks to destroy the credibility of the British government by humiliating its best agent, framing this agent for a crime of lustpassion, and being generally mischievous and, oh I forget, something about a typewriter oder? This story is (the film of) From Russia with Love.
Let me tell you another story. A criminal organisation, maniacally vengeful and peeved to the point of frowning really quite hard indeed, seeks to rescue its own wounded reputation and destroy the credibility of the British government by (ostensibly) supporting a mad nationalist bullfighting absurdly over-priapic gangster “type” in a siege in Gibraltar. As a little bonus, it also seeks the destruction of the mind of Britain’s best agent, not in the best state of health to begin with, by framing this agent for the graphic blood-soaked slaughter of a young woman, a kill-frenzy on a passenger ferry and, eventually, multiple murders of several politicians. This gets to the point that the agent’s own people order him to be eliminated. This story is DoubleShot (who said there were no original plots?). Interested?
Let me tell you another story, before you come up with an excuse to edge away and make polite conversation elsewhere. A criminal organisation, maniacally vengeful and blahblahblah bibbledy bobbledy boo pookily mookily, is thwarted in its scheme because James Bond’s willy is a very good willy. This story is also DoubleShot. Squirming?
A dual identity tale of dual identities—the Union trying to establish and recover its reputation, a psychopathic doppelganger wandering about and causing “trouble”, identical twin agents, the main villains having distinctly different public and private personae (the latter not being that unusual in a Bond story but it fits the mood)—DoubleShot appears, oddly, to be the least “discussed” (cough) of the Union trilogy, almost a forgotten Bond. Certainly it’s not as flashy in its concept as High Time To Kill, which is not a problem as this is a considerably more even book, rather than a succession of feculent incidents waiting for a damn big mountain to turn up. Nor is it as rampagingly over-the-top (and flat-out inexcusable) as Never Dream of Dying (again, greatly to DoubleShot’s credit). As a “middle” story it may, I suppose, suffer the undeserved perception that it’s simply a bridge; undeserved because even if a bridge it be, it’s a damned solid one. Given what’s either side of it, it’s one stuck in the middle of a particularly scrubby desert—the London Bridge that twerp bought and shipped to whatever hellhole it was in Arizona springs to mind.
It’s far from perfect and doubtless as you read through this pus, you’ll probably think I don’t like it that much. Well, I’ve liked other books more, which is not a terribly challenging feat, but then I’ve liked more less (the computer has just underlined “more less” in green; who or what do “they” get to program these things? Nor does it recognise the word “saveloy”, the wretch). But the potency of cheap shots may overwhelm me so I’ll bung the core of my review here: me like. Me like a lot.
It’s difficult to express why unless one stands back from it for a moment and thinks a little. It’s the stronger for what it does not contain than for what it does; this tends to show a greater confidence on Mr Benson’s part in divesting himself of the expectations of his norm; without apparently having to include as many of the trappings (an appropriate word—fact) of “Bond”, the book’s more enjoyable for it.
The usual problems are evident; it’s not so much of an improvement that it could be by a different author. You must know these by now…
…the stultifyingly leaden dialogue, a particularly chortlesome example being “She is well known in Spain as an equestrian instructor and performer, but she has quite a dark side. She’s a vicious homicidal maniac.” Mmm, handy. That is quite a dark side, isn’t it?…
…the—provocatively?—underwritten descriptives? Somewhat present in having to trawl through guff like “M was a bit shaken by this news” (a “bit”? Which age group is this stuff aimed at?) although he does somewhat appear to have a new favourite—“virtually”—which crops up somewhat too frequently for somewhat comfortable reading. Somewhat…
…careless proofreading (some curious Americanisms, the UK first edition has several typos in it and there’s a very odd bit when referring to Orson Welles which should be followed by a comma but is instead sporting an apostrophe). I appreciate that these remaining in are not the fault of the writer but they add to the air of wanton slapdashery about the enterprise…
…but this much we knew anyway and, given that one hardly read the book at gunpoint—I didn’t have to plough through it, nor do I have to subject it to this petty abuse—it would be repetition to keep harping on about them, and capable of being misinterpreted as personal rather than critical. By now, these key features are oddly reassuring; this I cannot explain but there would be much missing from the Benson-reading experience if one was deprived of the frustration / smackage du gob endemic in the exercise. Things haven’t actively worsened, so that’s something and probably the most one can hope for, realistically. So, enough. If you want a full dissection, see the previous review. Enough to say it’s the traditional problem—can create a decent enough story but writing one is more of an issue. No real progress; query whether it’s all just a big tease by Mr Benson and his editor(s?) to keep on doing it like this, but we’ll put that to one side.
The distinctiveness—contributory to the book working—is in the missing elements; no Boothroyd scene (those to date have been apocalyptically poor, so this is an improvement); no tricked-up car and therefore no Flying Scout (undoubted improvement number two) and little, if any, Eon. Arguably, given the pivotal plot device of the double, the timesplitting structure and that it all boils down to our hero’s knobelisk, it’s practically unfilmable. It would be very difficult to pull it off convincingly—and that’s not a willy joke, however fine a one it may be. The danger in this divesting itself of the traps and trappings of the film formula is one is less inclined to watch it hurtle past the eyes in its unchallenging way as a film, than to approach it as… well, a book. Of some description.
On the surface, for the usual stylistic reasons, it’s as good or terrible as the commercial norm. But, but… there’s more to this one than meets the proverbial.
Let me walk you gently through this. Part of my initial problem on reading the book whenever it was way back when was a nagging doubt—which is true of so many of the films—about why The Union doesn’t just kill Bond and replace him with the double. It has plenty of opportunity as the book progresses, and it would also mean that its plan is not thwarted for it is precisely because it hasn’t killed him before he infiltrates the villain’s lair that the whole scheme collapses. At first blush, this looks like careless plotting (although no better or worse than countless other opportunities in other films and books)…
…at second blush, however, the cleverness behind the scheme becomes apparent. Bond is kept alive precisely because The Union is having its kicks destroying him. They could just swat him off the face of the Earth and choose not to, for fun. A long, drawn-out death, weakening him at every stage, and destroying his reputation (query the wisdom of a secret agent having a reputation to destroy, though). In this “humiliate Bond and SIS but keep Bond alive until the critical point” plot, as noted there’s patent overtones of From Russia with Love but Mr Benson dares—and in me view, for whatever that’s worth, succeeds—in taking the plot a stage further. It’s not simply a case of killing Bond in as humiliating and discrediting a way as possible, but to destroy his mind first—and then killing him in as humiliating and discrediting a way as possible. That’s a sadistic little twist to the expectation of what could be a run-of-the-mill “Kill Bond now!” plot, and it pretty much pays off. We’ve had Bond injured before, many a time. We’ve had Bond psychologically fragile before but that was largely his own self-destructive persona taking control. However, Bond deliberately being sent over the edge by the enemy into self-doubt is new. The book is one long torture scene. Interpret that as you will; I mean it positively.
There are some problems to overcome. The expression of this self-doubt is a bit curious in that frequent fecund ejaculations (fnarr) such as My God, what the hell happened here? Was he losing his mind? shift from first to third person in an eyeblink and look most odd—who is doing the thinking here, Bond or the author? This curious way of expressing the inner trauma aside, having Bond relentlessly under-par works for the most part and helps a key idea: everyone including Bond (this is critical) thinks he may have done these things. Not that there are many from instant recollection, but on previous occasions when Bond has been framed, he (and therefore, the reader in no doubt as to the purity of the hero) has been certain of his innocence; whilst it may take a stronger writer to have pulled this off utterly convincingly, the idea that the reader (for a bit, anyway) may doubt as much as Bond does whether he did murder various bods is one worth raising; the reaction to the death of Dr Feare is a highlight of the book, and probably the most narratively arresting in all of the Bensons, and arguably in all of the Continuation Bonds.
It’s only if one recalls when reading that passage how, in the flashforward prologue, the writer refers to “…the man identified…as James Bond…” that the idea crumbles—but how many people will do that?
I only wonder whether the writer missed a trick by, whatever the face-shifty running around firing guns finale achieves, it still came out as a horrid little sting in the tail that Bond did murder Dr Feare but SIS will cover it up; perhaps that’s a little too bleak in what is only intended as a throwaway (read this one before throwing it away, though).
This internalised plot (the external plot about Gibraltar is a wan half-baked frippery disguising what this book tries to do) does make Bond more interesting as a character; until now, Benson’s Bond has been a passenger in the events, or in the back of a remote-controlled car, reacting rather than acting, and possessing approximately half the charisma of an abandoned shoe. Here, he doubts. Here, he’s called John Cork (no point complaining, it’s been published now). Here, he is abandoned by his own people and (albeit half-heartedly) chased by them. Here he is on the run and… yep, it’s Licence to Kill. Without the excremental Q. Which makes it worth experiencing. Finally, we have from Mr Benson a story about James Bond rather than just another James Bond story.
You might not trust me—you might not like me and I doubt if I need you to—but all I ask of you is this—DoubleShot has more finesse than its presentation immediately suggests.
But there’s more. And that more is where the book moves from being just solid Bondy fun into being potentially great.
I assure you that I have not lost my mind.
Let’s start with the obvious: the dialogue hasn’t improved much—the conversation Bond eavesdrops upon in the Soho is hilariously stilted in its lack of naturalness and, also, really pretty ridiculous given that the participants say exactly what Bond wants them to say at that precise moment. I have to accept that this has to a) move the plot forward and b) is a staple of any sort of detective/spy fiction but one is left a little disappointed when one of the conversers doesn’t pipe up with “I really hope no-one’s listening to this.” Likewise, the propensity of the same minor villains—a pair of pornographers (is he obsessed?)—to wander about with secret plans (the sort that appear to have “Secret Plans” stamped all over them) in their pockets is staggeringly unlikely.
Unless one considers this on two levels.
Firstly, as a pure plot point, this pair of incompetent stooges is being set up by The Union to have Bond kill them—so in a neat little twist, Bond does indeed end up working for The Union. Cast aside any thought about whether credible characters would really be so stupid as not to realise that they are—in an unusually violent way—being constructively dismissed, and watch the fun develop—especially when “Bond savagely sliced the man’s neck, then stabbed him in the heart.” Nice. Anyway, any instant irritation at the plausibility of such characters is diminished by considering their purpose in the story on this initial level. As a flipside to Bond laying thunderously unsubtle clues and getting the villain to do his dirty work in Licence to Kill, this is the villain using Bond in much the same way. Funny.
And yet there’s something even smarter. This is where you’re either with me or against me. And if you’re against me, expect me to invade your country soon.
It’s this: is Mr Benson having a joke with us? Is he exhibiting self-awareness that his dialogue and coincidences are not… um… amongst the strongest, so here they are deliberately stagey because they are meant to be deliberately staged? These aren’t actually the usual plot holes through which one could drive distempered cattle, but key plot devices Is Mr Benson being cleverly—and amazingly humbly—self-aware in his shortcomings as a writer—it is precisely these shortcomings that give Bond his clues and keep the plot moving. In short, is he recognising that if he were a better writer of incident and dialogue then there would be no plot here at all? If there were no such staggeringly unlikely conversations and happenings, this tale would not progress? Has he created a story that relies more on his frailties as an author—and the reader’s acknowledgement of his frailties as an author—than any capability? That’s at a more sophisticated level of deconstruction than any archly over-Eon references in any of the predecessors; actually, it verges on brilliance.
What he has achieved here—intentional or not—is to breach the barrier between reader and storyteller and welcome the superficially underwhelmed audience, about to shred the book, with “I know that this is crap; you know that this is crap; so I’m going to embrace the crapness and give you a story that has to rely on my output being crap because if this were any better, then it wouldn’t actually work.” Could a better writer have actually produced this? Is there challenge in the idea—no-one else could do it as badly so no-one else could have done this plot so much justice? The dialogue being deliberately rubbish and fortuitously overheard, minor villains acting in wildly unlikely ways (but consistent with his previous output) because they need to—splendid idea, wonderfully aware of his own strengths and weaknesses and so subtly executed that it’s hidden under what appears to be the standard moribund badinage and coincidence. The existence of the book entire has to rely on him being an unspecial writer. If this is intended—and if it was not, it’s truly the happiest of accidents—Mr Benson has delivered an immensely complicated idea here, and without shouting about it. This is why I like the book. This, this is fantastic.
If one accepts this proposition—that he is writing with an acceptance of himself and not just the usual lifewasting awareness of “Bond stuff”—then this book deserves to be read; not for the usual tiresome girls and guns and all that sort of silly rubbish, because it doesn’t really add or detract on that score, but for the extraordinarily interesting double-bluff, the wonderful trick in letting the reader think that he is witnessing one thing (yet another gruesomely poor book about as appealing a prospect as one minute in Las Vegas) when, in fact, quite the opposite is happening.
Just like the plot.
Compared to this, the notoriously tricky (well, relatively) The Man from Barbarossa has all the complexity of Pingu. This is the most sophisticated—and unexpectedly so—Bond book in a generation. Love it.
I’m not kidding.
Unless this is utterly fanciful and it is really as abject as it first appears. But don’t tell me that, for nah nah nah not listening. It’s almost worthy of Shakesp…
Self-hatred will now set in. Forever.