How does one successfully review a novel? I’m not sure that one can. So I’ll tell you this. I am a person with an opinion; I am therefore a person with a bias. Please keep that in mind as you read anything opinionated from me. And a review is just that, pure opinion.
In his sixth James Bond novel Raymond Benson takes James Bond back to Japan, the first time Bond has been there since the events of You Only Live Twice. Now, those events aren’t to be confused with the film version but one must think of Fleming’s novel, which I must admit, sadly, I haven’t been able to lay my hands on a copy to date. That said, I do know most of the events of the novel.
Returning to Japan does present a problem on an emotional level for Bond. It was here that he finally killed Blofeld (at much peril to himself), spent several years in recuperation living like a Japanese fishing man as opposed to a debonair British Agent.
However, sadly, this emotional level doesn’t fully hit home in The Man With The Red Tattoo. Yes, Benson does present the emotional argument inside Bond, does make you understand just what the man went through but I kept finding myself forgetting these emotional perils for Bond. Why? The only thing I could really pin it down on is the fact that the novel is extremely fast paced. I have to admit, I tend to read novels and occasionally skip paragraphs thinking, “Could this scene be more droll?” I didn’t do that in The Man With The Red Tattoo. It’s too well structured. But as a I mentioned, it speed may be a little too fast to let the reader actually savor the emotional effects of the occurrences in Bond’s world.
But don’t let that statement fool you. Benson does manage to bring back Bond’s emotional peril. I found that the notion appeared three times, conveniently at the beginning, in the middle and towards the end. It is in the middle that it is most effective. While I can’t mention what happens here, it would after all spoil too much of the novel for you, I did find myself questioning Bond’s reaction to the event. Why exactly did Bond handle it that way? In my mind Bond would have handled it quite differently. Perhaps Benson didn’t flesh the scene out, or perhaps his definition of Bond in such an event is different from my own. Either way, it’s a question that I’d like to pose to him sometime in the future just to hear his view on the matter.
I mentioned earlier in this review that Benson turns in his novel to Fleming’s novel rather that the movie, and I feel I must comment on this. Don’t let the fact stop you from reading Benson’s work. While Benson does make such a decision, I’m sure it won’t alienate friends. The appearance of Tiger Tanaka, and I guess the evolution of that character, did not alienate me in anyway from the movie which I’m sure more Bond fans are familiar with. In every way Tanaka played in my head and melded perfectly with the definition of the character given to us by Tetsuro Tamba who played him in the 1967 film.
Moving away from smaller details Benson has managed to craft a clever plot. While he is using an age-old stratagem, terrorism, he’s managed to mold it in a clever way that keeps a reader entertained. On a personal level it also hit a deep nerve within me. It made me think of what is truly possible in a world of good and evil. While terrorism is not such a simple task, the way terrorism is conducted in The Man With The Red Tattoo is realistically scary. It’s real life possibility made me think twice, and I found myself worried about small tingles on my skin. You’ll understand what I mean once you’ve read the novel.
I feel I must congratulate both Benson and the publishers on not scrapping The Man With The Red Tattoo. Goro Yoshida, the book’s main villain, is a Japanese nationalist and hates the United States, which he makes his target for his act of terrorism. While this novel was written pre-September 11 it could have easily been scrapped with the events of that day in mind. Moreover, it is good to see that a the events of September 11 do have a mention in the novel, making the reader aware that Bond’s world is not that different from our own. To paraphrase producer Michael G Wilson, Bond’s world is just a step away from our own and slightly more surreal.
I could write hundreds of more words on the novel, but I’ll try and be brief from here on in to not give you to many preconceptions of the novel.
One thing that I must say surprised me was Benson’s choice of Bond girls. One of the Bond girls seems the most obvious choice and she’s crafted well. However, it’s the book’s other Bond Girl who made me think “What?” (I shant mention her name as she doesn’t develop as a Bond Girl for sometime). While it’s obvious that Bond will undoubtedly bed her it is the fact that she was working as a high-class prostitute, much as Zero Minus Ten‘s heroin was, that made me wonder why Benson returned to an older concept. It does add or subtract from the story, but its an interesting notion for fans to consider. Perhaps it’s the though of Bond sexually conquering a woman who is primarily sexual that is most interesting to the reader? Much in the same way Fleming’s Bond coverts Pussy Galore from lesbianism to heterosexuality.
Benson is by no means Fleming, only Fleming was Fleming and that’s how it shall remain for all of time. He’s crafted a good book with The Man With The Red Tattoo, with good references to the past. I just hope in time books such as The Man With The Red Tattoo will appeal to a wider audience rather than strictly Bond fans. However that said, The Man With The Red Tattoo would appeal to a wider audience of fans who do appreciate the Bond films. Benson gives the book an excellent sense of location (one can easily conjure the various Japanese locations in their mind), a good plot and a good tempo.
Mr Benson, a job well done.