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  1. The Impossible Job: DoubleShot

    I | II

    The Villains

    The Union seems to be teetering on the lip of the pit of doom into which the film SPECTRE fell—that from being an executive facilitator of other people’s terrorism (the start of Thunderball the novel, what one could make of High Time to Kill), it sought to become some sort of independent world power (everything else). Perhaps it hasn’t yet got that far—for it does seek to support Espada’s utterly crackpot scheme—but there are some selfish motives creeping in. I have to admit I don’t quite follow those ideals; the organisation seems to believe that regardless of the success or failure of the Espada operation, their standing will improve. Hmm… well, we’ll never know because, of course, James Bond’s plums are so very sweet.

    The Union’s plot to send Bond absolutely carpark is more interesting than the ostensible Espada scheme, but even so I have a couple of stylistic reservations about it. The first manifestation of things not being utterly oojah-cum-spiff in Bond’s life is the appearance of a double of Tracy Bond just after he’s had a Chinese meal. The effects of monosodium glutamate aside, I have a couple of problems with this; although it does just follow on from a passage where, given Bond’s poor state of physical and mental health we’ve had the statutory reference to You Only Live Twice, most of the reason behind Bond’s poor mood (a bump on the head aside) has been in re: Helena Marksbury. You remember, that twit. Reads oddly—grumpy about Helena Marksbury, grumpy about Helena Marksbury, grumpy about Helena Marksbury, he’s been ill before—surely you remember? Let me remind you—grumpy about Helena Marksbury, oh there’s Tracy.

    Why not a double of flippin’ Helena Marksbury? Wouldn’t that have made more sense—particularly given the way the plot develops with the Soho shoot-out? Given that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is specifically placed at the Christmas / New Year period of 1961 to 1962 and events and references and brand-names point to DoubleShot being set over thirty-five years later, credibly did we really have to be subjected to this in-reference? It disturbs the flow of Bond’s misery. Adds to mine.

    The other thing that bothers me about this Tracy reappearance is, admittedly, a retrospective one: given what we are told about the real mastermind behind The Union in Never Dream of Dying, isn’t The Union’s use of a double of Draco’s daughter a little… unlikely? Unless, perish the thought, Never Dream of Dying wasn’t especially well thought through.

    Le Gerant’s still blind, by the way, which means he got away without having to read High Time to Kill, so it has its advantages, although he must have received a pretty good description of the opening scene of Thunderball because he’s managed to do out The Union’s HQ in much the same way and holds a meeting at which the financial report is discussed and everyone gets a bit angry. He really is jolly clever, isn’t he? We learn a bit more about him due to Bond’s expositionist pal Latif “Obvious Dead Meat” Reggab who—swallow hard—went to university with him (although I accept that this must, in a work of fiction, be as likely as it is unlikely—although “oh, come on!” is a natural reaction) and he snarls a bit and doesn’t really do much else.

    The problem with The Union stating that it has no confidence in the Espada scheme tends to undermine that scheme in the eyes of the reader; it also tends to undermine such effort Mr Benson puts into clearly explaining what Espada really hopes to achieve beyond the instant result of taking Gibraltar, if only for a few hours. Just as well he appears to have expended absolutely no effort on that at all, then.

    Yet again, four in a row, we have a major villain whose ultimate goals are rampagingly unclear. And yet again, to get around bothering to explain this (although undermining the scheme from the off is novel), Espada is—of course—absolutely frickin’ barking. However, whereas Whassface in the first one was a drunk and Thingy in the second one thought he was a god and Kenneth Branagh had altitude sickness, unless he’s spent just too much time in the sun it’s not clear from whence this mania derives. Perhaps driven mad by popular adulation (there is this idea, and it’s a really unusual and creative one—not a baddie because people hate him but because people have loved him—but it’s not drawn out sufficiently to make it anything other than guesswork on my part). And, of course, he has the charisma of a Hitler or Mussolini (well, of course), and describing him as such is terribly lazy shorthand for bothering to establish how that manifests itself. Still, there you go—a sort-of-bullfighting-Hitler. From Spain.

    Personally, I think Hitler would have looked smashing in that gold brocade stuff bullfighters wear… beginning to need that sock quite urgently now, please.
    So, mad as a dog in a hot car, Espada is. The lunacy takes admittedly interesting forms—his murder of Carlos is an entertaining incident, the idea of unlimited concubines on tap suggests a (marginally more appealing) Hugh Hefner figure—but as a result of all the undermining of his scheme / never really bothering with it, although ostensibly quite a colourful character, Espada becomes a bit-part player in his own story; the writer is much more interested in The Union vs. James Bond and, although I may be alone in this, I get a genuine vibe in the book where Mr Benson is giving us some Espada that he’d much rather get back to Bond being chased around an arrestingly described North Africa and performing—or not—shocking acts of terrorism. Even the obligatory Bond-and-villain-snarl-at-each-other-over-local-produce-and-dodgy-sounding-wine scene isn’t up to much, as if it isn’t terribly important that the two actually meet. And y’know something? It isn’t.

    The doppelganger. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, this isn’t quite as jaw-to-floor stupid as it may appear. It does, however, rather write Mr Benson into a corner by requiring him to pull a structural cheat towards the end of the book which, if you’re with him on trying new stuff out (and I am) you’ll let pass with only minor wincing and if you’re not, you’ll probably issue some sort of fatwa. Without wishing to spoil it utterly, if you made it through The Man from Barbarossa and the big plot twist towards the end of that mess, you’ll survive this. Promise. Put it this way—the writer’s intention seems to be that if you were to stop reading at various points in the book and go back to the prologue, depending on where you had left off you would either think it could be Bond in that prologue, or it couldn’t possibly be. Hmm, sort of works… some benefit of the doubt needed, perhaps, but it’s another sound concept.

    Can’t see how the doppelganger—and his place in the plot—would translate to film but I rather suspect that it’s a deliberately anti-filmability move. It also leads to the magnificence of the whole underwhelming Gibraltar scheme being foiled because Bond has a memorable cock (although, interestingly, Margareta Piel doesn’t reminisce about its size: is it memorable because it has the dimensions of a terrapin’s head? Or because it’s green? Or he has three? I think we should have been told).
    Far more interesting about this doppelganger is that, under that dark, cruel mouth and all that other stuff that Bond has, lurks a Welsh football hooligan (presumably as a contrast between the real Bond—such panache—and the fake one. Although there is a school of thought that Bond is largely a hooligan anyway; can’t make my mind up whether this is a joke or not). I once went to this “Wales”—I still don’t know why; it appeared to be shut—and given my experiences there, it’s entirely credible that Mr Benson decided to make this book’s resident psychopathic bruiser Welsh. I seem to remember having to pay £5 to get in so it’s probably some sort of zoo.

    A suggestion, I think made on the fora of this website, was that this could be another in-joke, the Welsh James Bond fighting the incumbent to be James Bond, comment upon the transition of the film role between Mr Dalton and Mr Brosnan. Whilst that’s a fun notion (and it may be credible—I’m not sure what other reason Mr Benson has for making the doppelganger Welsh as opposed to any other Caucasian, other than his having the same intensely pleasurably time in Wales as I did), it’s probably not tenable because, obviously, the real Bond and the fake Bond are meant to be completely identical—apart from their penises (I’m really not joking about this; the “climax” (yeah, yeah) does depend on the majesty of James Bond’s custard chucker).

    Now, their respective purple-headed womb-brooms aside, of which I have only a passing knowledge (he claimed he was Pierce Brosnan anyway, the bitch. Doesn’t write, doesn’t call, just sends injunctions and multiple unsold DVDs of Laws of Attraction), Mr Dalton looks like a distempered Thundercat masticating a hot potato and whatever it is that Mr Brosnan is meant to look like, it isn’t one of those. Still, sticking with the theory for hell of filling up some space, perhaps it’s a sight more credible, some would doubtless say, than trying to convince us that Mr Brosnan and Mr Craig could be the same person. Quite what, the same delusionists will splutter, Mr Craig is meant to look like at all is another issue entirely. Personally I think he’s utterly butterly but I’m aware there’s a school of thought that would liken him to a boss-eyed day-glo yellow Viktor Yushchenko staring into the back of a melting spoon. Or Skeletor. Or roadkill.

    I digress.

    Most arresting of all these villains is Margareta Piel, the Praying Mantis; problems he may have—real problems—with creating convincing, or even remotely interesting, “good” women but Mr Benson can’t half give us a bitch now and then. Everything she does is of interest although because she is such an unutterably competent villainess—both in concept and in deed—one wonders why she’s kicking about with a loser like Espada (so does she, although this only works to further weaken him in the eyes of the reader). And it’s true, she is a “vicious homicidal maniac”; neck-slicing and base-jumping and Bond-knobbing, just as with Whatsit in The Facts of Death (you remember, the one who at the start was the male Number Killer and has her face burned off), on a narrative level she’s the most successful thing here and albeit largely the same character as Whatsit, just as much fun and downright Bondian entertainment. Despite the fact that she is the best character this will be a short paragraph, because I find little to fault her. I’m really not entering into these things with the right spirit, am I? Um… she has a Precision Dynamics Super Raven 4 canopy. Um… good character.

    The Girls

    Margareta aside (and she’s only interesting because she’s a baddie) the women are the book’s most significant letdown, and predictably so. Mr Benson’s women are… feeble, really (or, put another way, really feeble). Sunni Pei the kung-fu turbo-whore with an American College Education, then Can’t Remember Her Name but She Likes Helicopters and is Greek and Very Boring and (worst of all) Dr Hopeless Plotdevice are, to a woman, cataclysmically anaemic so although it’s another spin on the book’s themes of identity and duality, and something new for James Bond stories as a whole to have a prospective ménage a trois (the research must have been a killer, and I accept that it must be a hard task coming up with new stuff), having the Bond girl as a pair of identical twins doesn’t double the characterisation; it halves what little there was going to be in the first place.

    As a result, the twins Taunt, Hedy and Heidi, come across as even sketchier than the norm; one is more grumpy than the other, Bond knobs them both in the end (not physically in the “end”, although… no… that’s a very bad thought and not even Mr Benson has dared go that far; not yet, anyway) and that’s pretty much it. Oh yeah, they’re secret agents (well, of course they are) who turn up incredibly fortuitously. Yawn. They seem to be light relief for the hell of it, in what is a largely humourless book (not a bad thing; some of the jokes to date have been awe-inspiringly crummy). Basically, they get in the way. Just when the momentum of the story was building up, the inclusion of these halfwits does its best to derail it. The meal Bond shares with the twins is the one genuine structural misjudgement; an unnecessary pause. Take them out of the story and one loses very little. Actually, what one loses is the slightly dodgy concept of a female CIA agent hiding in a burqa.

    Oh, for the days of one of Fleming’s hopeless big thicky cretins who needed saving—Solitaire, Honeychile, Tracy, Mary Goodnight… I did promise to stop the Fleming comparisons, didn’t I?

    Right.

    Well—the Taunt twins are as good and as bad as any of the others so far and therefore Mr Benson has maintained his standards. At least he’s consistent, but these characters are the least happy aspect of the book and, whilst this is a book that has some fun concepts that largely succeed, this one comes across as a gimmicky and, at the point the curtain falls, of questionable taste and wisdom. A fine ambition to shake the system up a bit—and if DoubleShot is evidence of anything, it’s evidence of the author’s awareness of both his and a Bond story’s limitations—but it doesn’t come off. And, reading the book now, albeit that its publication preceded Goldmember by a couple of years or so, there’s something unnervingly Fuk Mi and Fuk Yu about them—“twins, Basil, twins…”

    Dr Kimberley Feare doesn’t cut it either; she is more effective as a (critical) plot point than as a character—the image of Bond slippering and slappering around in lakes of her blood, unsure of his culpability, is a Benson highlight. Even though she proves to have a most welcoming bedside manner and lets Percy into the playpen, it’s just another oddly unerotic sex scene. She’s much more value to the book dead. I feel nothing for her; feel quite a bit for Bond—if that was the intention then she’s a success.

    M’s still a cretin, though; at one point she proclaims of Bond “We think he’s missing…” Odd thing to think—either he is or he isn’t.

    Book or Film?

    Unfilmable. Not because it’s not worth it, but because it would a ) be tremendously difficult and confuse the hell out of an audience and b ) the strengths of the book are incapable of being replicated on film; it would be a film about someone trying to take over Gibraltar for the afternoon and that would seem a little low-rent for a Bond film, although it does tap the Eon vibe of using real international flashpoints and twisting them just so; whilst I’m digressing into that, why in Die Another Day was Kim Jong-Il never actually mentioned? Weird.

    So—unfilmable. And I suspect deliberately so; perhaps to counter (entirely fair, mind you) that much of his stuff to this point apes the Eon style, the international troublespot mining aside, this doesn’t. And I remain to be unconvinced of its cleverness, that rather than seeking to argue about the weaknesses of his writing, Mr Benson has embraced it and shoved it right back in all our oh-so-clever faces—the whole thing depends on it being rubbish—that it is so bad it’s good. Disagree all you want, but tread softly for you tread on my dreams. One day the truth may dawn and I may have to acknowledge that it’s so bad it’s bad (in a word: bad), but that day isn’t coming any time soon. You might think all this is the rambling of a loony and the book has no such depth and all this “cleverly terrible” incidents are just “stupidly terrible”. You might have something; I might be in denial at conceiving that anything so ostensibly banal could be created, a refusal to acknowledge that anything could be this awful (and bear in mind that I’ve seen Pay It Forward); but let me have some crumb of happiness, won’t you?

    Even if that house of sand and fog has to crumble and disperse, there’s still some of the best stuff he’s done in this book; Margareta Piel, Bond utterly losing it, a pretty-much-pulled-off “real time” shootout for the conclusion, convincing and illuminating research into bullfighting culture (a very Bond thing, surely) and a largely sustained momentum. Role of Honour? Nadgers to Role of Honour—hellishly slow and anticlimactic. Diamonds are Forever? What actually happens? Also hellishly slow and anticlimactic (I sense a theme). As a balls to the wall commercial espionage thriller story, with a twist, DoubleShot is the best fourth Bond book of any of them. (NB do read that correctly—it’s “best fourth Bond book” rather than “fourth best Bond book”—I haven’t gone completely mad—although it’s definitely in the medals when it comes to the continuations). It won’t let you down as much as the other two and there’s great potential in it for it to be considered actively subversive of the genre. I expected little. I gained a lot. This not only escapes the shadow of “Ian Fleming”; it escapes the shadow of “Raymond Benson”.

    Or put it this way; I seriously believe that had this been the only one he had produced, his stock as a continuation novelist would be far higher than it is. Immeasurably. Deservedly.

    Is it good or just relatively good? As a stand-alone piece of writing, it is—of course—for the casual reader pretty much impenetrable in both motive for The Union, the nature of Bond at the start of the book and the thickly ladled references. It’s also written in a manner which makes one sweat, and not in a pleasurable way. If you buy the theory, it’s a wonderful, knowing joke. If you don’t buy the theory, it’s more of the same and you’ll have made up your mind whether you like the Bensons or not. Even so, I would stress that you don’t let your prejudices derived from the others blind you to the merits of this one. Give it a go. Seriously. Shame that this is only really going to be picked up by the completists—it deserves a wider audience.

    Thought about for more than an atosecond, this is complicated and a rewarding read above and beyond the basic story, which is arguably neither here nor there. So, assuming (however recklessly, however uninterested) that the Star Trek theory is tenable, then if this RB JB IV is sound, that must make number five pretty terrible, yes?

    Jamie Cullum.

    Spock—chap with the ears, right?

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    Jim @ 2006-04-24
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