Written by Jord Schaap
London, May 1959…
James Bond stood at the open window of the seventh-floor office of the tall building in Regent’s Park that is the headquarters of the Secret Service. London lay asleep under a full moon that rode swiftly over the town through a shoal of herring-bone clouds. Big Ben sounded three.
Bond was half way through his first week of night duty and so far it had just been a question of common sense or passing routine problems on down to the sections. He rather liked the peaceful room and knowing everybody’s secrets and being occassionaly fed coffee and sandwiches by one of the pretty girls of the canteen. On the first night the girl had brought him tea. Bond had looked at her severely.
“I don’t drink tea. I hate it. It’s mud. Moreover, it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire. Be a good girl and make me some coffee.”
From then on he had got his coffee. The expression ‘a cup of mud’ was seeping through the building.
London, June 1997…
James Bond felt refreshed and alert when the office car pulled into the high-security SIS parking garage by the Thames.
He stopped at his private office on the fourth floor before going up to see M. His Personal Assistant, Miss Helena Marksbury, was busy holding the fort. Bond asked her how things were.
“I was called in the middle of the night. Again,” she said with a sigh.
“It happens to the best of us,” Bond replied.
“I imagine you have no problem rising in the middle of the night,” Helena said with a twinkle in her eye. Bond smiled and said, “Don’t believe everything you hear, Ms Marksbury.”
“Well, if you ever find that you are up and can’t sleep, Mr. Bond, I have a very nice herbal tea that is very relaxing”, Helena Marksbury said.
“I avoid tea at all costs,” Bond said. “You should know that by now.”
“As a matter of fact, I have noticed. You don’t drink tea at all, James? How un-English of you!”
“I’d as soon drink a cup of mud.”
Cup of Mud
According to Ian Fleming James Bond doesn’t drink tea. The upper fragment, coming from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger, bears witness to this. The ‘cup of mud’-incident shows us the refinement of the literary Bond character, created by Fleming.
According to Raymond Benson also loathes tea. From his hand is the second fragment, coming from his 1997 debut novel, Zero Minus Ten. Since six years, Benson is the official author of the Bond novels, succeeding the British thriller-author John Gardner, who wrote his last novel, COLD, in 1996.
Bond, tea, and Benson. This instalment of “The Facts of Bond” focuses on the literary Bond-phenomenon and its varying success. Almost fifty years after Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, the newest creation of Benson, The Man with the Red Tattoo, will appear in stores. Time to see how a comparison between the two authors turns out.
Fleming himself would have probably laughed himself to death when he heard that his most recent successor is a designer of computer games, born and raised in Texas, USA. Felix Leiter writes James Bond.
For who was Ian Fleming? An adventurer, shaped in British upper class, who stroke in his books an arrogant and sophisticated tone to such an extent that his readers, well, just had to believe him. A member of the international jet-set, reporter and author of travel-stories. A stiff upper lip, liquor and women made him almost into the blue-print of his literary creation.
And who is Raymond Benson? A computer programmer, born in Texas and currently living in Chicago. A composer and a director of plays. Dark Seed II instead of Dr. No. It’s as if Bill Gates takes over the work of Ernest Hemingway.
Thus, when Glidrose Productions – the literary heirs of Ian Fleming – announced that Raymond Benson would be the successor of John Gardner, the literary world raised its eyebrows collectively. For who was Raymond Benson? And the ones who noticed that they had never seen a book of him before were right – for he hadn’t written one yet.
However, Benson did write The James Bond Bedside Companion, an encyclopaedic work on the Bond-phenomenon. The book appeared in 1984 and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Best Biographical Work”. The book – currently reprinted – is by many Bond fans considered as the ultimate Bond encyclopaedia. Benson was a new-comer in the literary world, but wasn’t exactly a freshman in the world of Bond. For his Bedside Companion he did extensive research on the life and work of Fleming, and in addition he is since long involved in the Ian Fleming Foundation.
So, when Glidrose introduced Benson as the new Bond author, Bond fans welcomed their decision – in spite of his relatively inexperience on the literary level. Peter Janson-Smith, Fleming’s agent, declared: “Raymond understands Bond. He knows the Fleming books so well.”
Was there then any reason for doubt about the success of the new Bond author?
Yes. Because the continuation of Ian Fleming’s literary heritage turned out to be harder than people thought. After the release of Fleming’s final Bond-novel, the bundle Octopussy and the Living Daylights in 1966, both Kingsley Amis (one time, with Colonel Sun) and John Gardner (fourteen times) delivered original Bond stories: and especially the varying success of these stories was something that caught eye. Apparently, it wasn’t that easy to follow in the track of Fleming.
Therefore, we’ll first find out why it is so hard to continue Fleming’s heritage, before we draw up the balance of Raymond Benson.
The Facts of Fleming
First of all, it was only Ian Fleming who mastered the so-called “Fleming Sweep” into perfection. He cleverly applied various literary tricks. Telling his stories in such a rush that his readers wouldn’t have time to notice any hiatus was one of them. Making his crazy plots believable by flooding them with detail and refinement was another. Through all this, his readers were ruthlessly carried away from the first page to the last, in such an extent that they were cleverly diverted from the gaps in his plots and the weak points of his stories.
But the most important explanation of the success of the Bond of Fleming is something entirely different. Because in contrast with many other authors of thrillers and spy stories, Ian Fleming was the first one who managed to melt two extremes in the literary world: fact and fiction.
How did he do this? For that, we have to take a look at Fleming’s career. Ian Fleming was a fantast who pursued his dreams. At the same moment, he was continuously confronted with harsh reality. In the character of James Bond he found the ultimate way of expression: while he himself got married and started a family, his literary blue-print lived his dreams, and expressed his frustrations about life. It was the ultimate combination of utter fun and sober seriousness. Fleming wrote with the same objective as his readers read his novels: to escape the boredom of daily reality.
Critic Ann S. Boyd wrote in The Devil with James Bond, a critical essay on Fleming’s work:
Don’t try to read any of the Bond adventures seriously! Bond is meant for fun, for escape. But rather than casting pearls before swine, Fleming’s genius has cast swine as the personifications of the devil before a hero who is willing to sacrifice all for the great pearl of life and faith.
Ian Fleming offers his readers a world of fantasy, liberally filled with money, sex and violence, wherein they can escape. But the most important thing was that Fleming offers his readers a main character that is just like themselves: a character with emotions, frustrations, doubts and fears. James Bond isn’t a superhero, he is just an executioner on her Majesty’s secret service. It is the situation that forces him to be a superhero.
These facts, this combination of ultimate fantasy and raw reality, is the root of Ian Fleming’s success as an author. And I think it is clear that even a very professional author of thrillers will find it difficult, if not impossible to capture this unique atmosphere.
The Facts of Gardner
Also John Gardner experienced this, the British author who helmed the literary 007 series from 1981 to 1996. In theory, Gardner had all the luggage at his disposal to make his Bond series into a success. But reality didn’t turn out that well. In spite of Gardner’s merits as thriller-author he wasn’t able to give Bond the vitality that the character demands. His references to Fleming remained dutiful, and his manner of writing didn’t fit the blue-print of the Bond that was left by Fleming. Gardner never managed to raise his stories above the level of a ennobled film script. Of course you can’t reproach him for this personally, for Gardner isn’t Fleming. What you can reproach Gardner, is that he never learnt his Bond-lesson well… Bond turned out to be not his cup of tea:
By early evening Bond and Flicka both felt the fresh glow of good health which came from the exercise, and the mutual pleasure of each other’s company. It had just been warm enough for them to sit in the gardens at the Grantchester Arms and have tea with plates of triangular sandwiches and cream cakes before the trek back to the University Arms.
John Gardner’s SeaFire
The Facts of Benson
Now we know what the necessities are to make the literary Bond ‘work’, we can turn to Raymond Benson. We already learnt that Benson doesn’t make the mistake to give Bond tea. But what are his other credits?
Well, after five original novels (Zero Minus Ten, The Facts of Death, High Time to Kill, Doubleshot and Never Dream of Dying), two short stories (Blast from the Past and Midsummer Night’s Doom) and two novelizations of film scripts (Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is not Enough) one can easily state that Benson indeed understands Bond, to refer to the words of Peter Janson-Smith.
Earlier I said that the power of the literary Bond can be found in the combination of fantasy and reality: Bond is just a human being, only forced to superhuman acts by the situation. That Raymond Benson is of the same opinion is proved by the end of The Facts of Death, when James Bond has the following conversation with Niki Mirakos, about the essence of his profession:
“It’s the motto on my family crest. The world is not enough.”
She laughed gently. “It fits you perfectly.”
“It’s a curse, that’s what it is.”
“James, you’re entitled to feel that way. You are not like other men. You are human, but you have done superhuman things. All men know the facts of life, but you know just as much about the facts of death!”
One can wonder if we are allowed to demand from Fleming’s successors that they reach the same high level as he did. For every author is different, and a gratuitous copy of the “Fleming Sweep” would only have artificial effects.
No, the real conclusion should be that keeping the literary Bond alive does not depend on how professional or experienced an author is – as showed by Gardner’s dubious career as Bond author. Keeping the literary Bond alive depends on small things – more specific, it requires a certain attitude towards life. Raymond Benson understands that attitude. In this respect, some his work even equals the writing of Fleming; in his third novel, High Time to Kill, Benson begins to write stirring, well-considered, self-confident, sometimes even arrogant. Again, the facts prove that the literary Bond doesn’t give a damn about writing experience. It’s the feeling that counts.
The music filled the room as the orchestra on the radio reached an emotionally charged climax. As he took out a cigarette and lit it, Bond wondered what was colder – the cruel realm of espionage that had victimised and ultimately destroyed Helena Marksbury, the icy summit of Kangchenjunga, or his own hardened heart.
Fleming couldn’t have said it better. It seems that, thirty-five years after the death of Ian Fleming, James Bond finally found someone who understands him.
Jord Schaap © 2002