The Finer Details: Gardner vs. Benson
CommanderBond.net is pleased to announce a new line of original content. The header ‘The Finer Details’ from now on will feature a selection of Bond themed articles by CBn-crew and guest writers. Expect new material of a 00-nature in this place monthly – if not more.
We begin this series with an article by Luke Freeman.
GARDNER VS. BENSON: RE-INTRODUCING JAMES BOND
The merits of the James Bond novels written after the death of creator Ian Fleming, the “Continuation novels”, in particular those of the two long-running continuation authors, John Gardner (who wrote 14 original Bond novels between 1981 and 1997), and Raymond Benson (who succeeded Gardner, writing 6 original novels from 1997 to 2002) have been discussed and debated with each successive new entry to the canon. But to compare and contrast the different takes on the Bond character and differing approaches to Bond story-telling employed by Gardner and later Benson, indeed, to even define them, to surmise their respective intents and their overall strengths and weaknesses, we perhaps need look no further than the way they each introduced the character right back in their respective debut Bond novels, Gardner’s ‘Licence Renewed’, and Benson’s ‘Zero Minus Ten’.
Greetings fellow Bond fans,
It’s admittedly hardly surprising that the new authors would have used the very first entrance of the Bond character in their respective canons to outline their mission statement for Bond and what it was that they would be attempting to do with him, but it perhaps is a surprise, when we look at what it was they were attempting, and the merits of their approaches, just how much these introductions would reveal about what each would go on to give us as James Bond continuation authors.
Gardner, of course, had been a successful spy and thriller novelist of long standing, but while he was certainly aware of James Bond, he wasn’t necessarily enamoured with him, whereas Benson, though not previously a novelist, had more than proven his credentials as a Bond authority par excellence with his seminal ‘The James Bond Bedside Companion’. In comparing the output of the two, and what they were each trying to do, we must also remember that Gardner was writing the first Bond novel in over a decade (John Pearson’s ‘007: The Authorised Biography’ aside), and had the task of relaunching the series and making readers accept and embrace the notion of a post-Fleming, 1980s James Bond, while Benson had a potential readership by now far more familiar with the films than the books to deal with.
It’s also an oft-forgotten fact that, even with the broad blessing they and their ideas received, they hardly had carte blanche to do what they pleased with Bond creatively, with restrictions and limitations placed on them by publishers and copyright holders, Gildrose, etc. Nonetheless, they would both go on to put their own personal stamp on the literary James Bond, something that, in the best sight of all, hindsight, was evident right from their respective beginnings:
John Gardner’s ‘Licence Renewed’: The Times They Are a-Changing
Upon taking up the Bond mantle, Gardner set out to tell modern, more grounded intelligence thrillers, with an emphasis on modern “gee-whiz” technology and hardware, and the accurate depiction of intelligence/espionage. He also took it upon himself to modernise the Bond character himself, to “bring him into the 1980s”. One of the most memorable and best passages of his tenure is Bonds first appearance in Licence Renewed, the opening paragraphs of Chapter 2: Thoughts in a Surrey Lane: It’s Friday afternoon and Bond is driving from work to a new weekend house, a “recently acquired and newly decorated country cottage”, and he’s driving there in a new car no less, the “old” Bentley giving way for the SAAB 900 Turbo, equipped with plenty of “gee whiz” features, which Gardner takes pleasure in detailing. As Bond makes his journey, Gardner clearly lays out his intent, outlining the very slight, but significant, changes that Bond has made in his drinking and smoking and exercise habits, including strict, rigorous exercise and training regimes, and specially made low tar cigarettes (though of course he still keeps some Dom Perignon ’55 on ice).
Naturally, not long after Bond arrives at his cottage, the red phone with a hotline connected directly to headquarters rings. Unusually though, “his heart sank” when it does so. We’re used to Bond being a little more enthusiastic about the possibility of a job than that! We discover that this is because there have been changes in Bond’s professional life too. Political restraints and cost-cutting has seen the Double-O Section disbanded.
However M assures Bond that he’ll simply remain it the Special Section, “and you’re it” (the Double-O section had more or less always consisted of at least three agents, but what happened to the others is never touched up, we assume they were either re-assigned, or more likely, quit, or were eased out, and moved on to other things, – a point I’ll touch on in a moment – even Bond has “seriously considered resigning”). “There are moments when this country needs a trouble-shooter – a blunt instrument – and by heaven it’s going to have one” M promises.
Regardless, it turns many “emergencies of late” have involved little more than “sitting in a control or communications room for days” or long briefings for missions that are eventually aborted. “Changing world, changing times, James” explains M. For once Bond is none too excited to be making the journey to the headquarters overlooking Regents Park. Not all readers in 1981 were enamoured with these changes. But re Bond’s lifestyle: Double-Os always had a short life expectancy (it’s mentioned in ‘Moonraker’ that very few make it to the (then) mandatory retirement age of 45), and Bond lived a life and enjoyed a lifestyle befitting someone in such a career, wishing to live while he could and die with as little money in the bank as possible. But perhaps into his 40s, approaching 50, and surprised to find himself still alive, Bond had an epiphany. “Hey! I might be alive for awhile yet”. That may not sound like Bond to some, but I don’t think letting himself go to seed sounds like Bond either. I think a case can be made for this.As for the retrenchment of the Double-O section, since ‘Goldfinger’ there have been occasional instances in the Fleming books where the future of the Double-O section and/or Bond’s place in it is made to sound in jeopardy.
But the more things a-change the more they a-stay the same. The headquarters is still located at the same building overlooking Regents Park, M’s office is still on the top floor with a red warning light above the door, and while we now have new addition to Q Branch, Ann Reilly, affectionately known as “Q’ute”, handling Bond’s equipment (you know what I mean), Moneypenny and Tanner, the permanent fixtures of the firm, still perform their respective functions. M is still M, and Bond, though implied to be slightly older, with“minute flecks of grey just starting to show in the black hair”, is very much still Bond, with his three-inch scar and black comma of hair (he also still likes his showers scalding hot followed by ice cold, and is still partial to Sea Island cotton shirts, as Gardner makes early efforts to follow Flemings eye for detail). As M says to him, “you’ll always be 007 to me”. To us as well. And of course, once Bond does get there, M’s earlier comment to Bond, that “there are moments when this country needs a trouble-shooter – a blunt instrument” proves prophetic.
The rest of ‘Licence Renewed’ is more or less a standard Bond outing, as Bond thwarts nuclear physicist Anton Murik’s plans to hijack six nuclear power plants and cause a global meltdown in what’s a solid rather than spectacular novel, albeit a fun one – with plenty of action and some genuinely suspenseful passages, such as the torture scene and Bond’s escape from the fortress – and one that successfully put James Bond back onto the best-sellers list.
But all this updating would really come into play in Gardner’s second Bond novel, ‘For Special Services’ and this is where this new Bond gets interesting. Not all fans are sold on the concepts of Cedar Leiter or the new Blofeld, but Gardner is making an interesting statement on Bond here. We have an older Bond, who is now fighting alongside and against the children of his former allies and adversaries, the offspring of both his greatest ally and greatest nemesis no less. The rest of Bond’s contemporaries, the old guard, are gone, having died, retired or moved on, ceding the playground to the next generation, But here’s James Bond, still playing Red Indians. For all the “changing times” and for all the changes Bond has made to his lifestyle, he’s still James Bond.
But Gardner would soon abandon this interesting examination of a slightly-aging Bond, and the details of his low-tar cigarettes and new exercise regime would rapidly disappear from successive entries. By his eighth book, ‘Win, Lose or Die’, not only are we down to mere occasional slivers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, such as Bond’s internal analysis of world leaders handshakes, but there’s precious little of the John Gardner’s James Bond we met in ‘Licence Renewed’ either, and we’re left with really little more than a rather standard contemporary action hero in a rather standard contemporary action adventure. His latter Bond books have their moments, and contain flashes of what Gardner was capable of as a James Bond author, but they’re at times repetitive, convoluted, and bland, and never again pack quite the same wallop as the neat one-two punch of ‘Licence Renewed’ and ‘For Special Services’, followed by the third, the knockout hit where he seemed to really find his voice as Bond author, ‘Icebreaker’.
Raymond Benson’s Zero Minus Ten: Bringing It All Back Home
If Gardner’s intent was to update Bond and bring him forward into the 1980s, then Raymond Benson’s was surely to return Bond to his roots, albeit now in a contemporary setting. Note that our very first sightings of Bond in both Gardner and Benson’s debut outings depict him making a journey to a “home” of sorts. With Gardner the “home” in question was a recent purchase, a newly acquired “weekender” cottage befitting Bond’s new lifestyle. Benson, on the other hand, while also gifting Bond with a newly purchased estate (once owned by a “well-known British journalist and author”), transports him back to his old stomping ground of Jamaica. Benson is bringing Bond back home, in every sense of the phrase.
Chapter 1, titled Shamelady, opens with an education of the Jamaican “Undertaker’s Wind”, which, as all Fleming reads know, “blow(s) the bad air out of the island at night. In the morning the Doctor’s Wind would come and blow the sweet air in from the sea” and we immediately we’re back with Bond and Quarrel feeling the night breeze in a passage from ‘Live and Let Die’ or ‘Doctor No’.
In the following chapter, Benson wastes no time in cleaning house, quickly taking the opportunity to reaffirm Bond’s disdain for tea (Gardner notoriously had Bond drinking tea in ‘Brokenclaw’) and restoring his rank to that of Commander (Gardner having, of course, promoted him to Captain in ‘Win, Lose or Die’), as if performing key restoration work on a heritage-listed building (Benson also rearmed Bond with his trusty old Walther PPK in his earlier short story, Blast from the Past). The message is clear: no “cups of mud” or “aye, aye, Captain” for IAN FLEMING’S James Bond.
But is this Ian Fleming’s James Bond? While Benson does, in the opening chapter of his inaugural opus, take Bond back to the destination, Jamaica, that is synonymous with the books and with BookBond, the manner in how he gets him there, the journey, via a HALO jump, is much more in-synch with the films and with FilmBond. Indeed. Chapter 1 itself reads like a classic James Bond film pre-title sequence.
There’s a new M of course, to synch up with the films, putting Bond back through his more traditional paces, and while the Armourer is called “Major Boothroyd” (having reclaimed Q Branch from Gardner’s Ann Rielly, who isn’t mentioned), what he participates in is very much a “Q” scene. References galore to both the novels and the films permeate throughout, sometimes as many as six to a page, sometimes as few as four. There’s authentic details, descriptions of locations, and a horrific torture sequence, all of which we’ve come to expect from our BookBond, and a villain who cheats at a game for some reason. But it does feel very checklist, derivative of what has come before, rather than anything even remotely new, and would’ve felt even more so if not for some genuine ingenuity on the part of the author.
Bond on Bond
One might say that John Gardner’s James Bond is JOHN GARDNER’S Bond, whereas Raymond Benson’s James Bond is sometimes IAN FLEMING’S Bond and sometimes EON’s Bond. In fact, one just did.
Gardner apparently didn’t watch a new Bond film after he started writing Bond books, mentioning in later interviews that he hadn’t seen a new Bond film since 1979, revealing a genuine level of detachment and a dogged determination to remain detached. Whether that was a good or bad thing is for debate, but could you imagine Raymond Benson not going to see the new Bond movie? Benson was considerably more knowledgeable on and infatuated with both medium and arguably “got” Bond and the Bond formula more than Gardner did, but was arguably too referential, too willing to revel and wallow in the past, and his efforts to be true to both the films and the books (possibly one mandated and the other his own heart’s desire) and to blend the two together are admirable, but jarring and at times obvious.
Benson too attached, Gardner too detached? It’s a legitimate question, albeit one constructed with poor syntax and sentence structure. Gardner has a very specific plan of what he’s trying to do, to “bring Bond into the 80s”, though he seemed to move further and further away from James Bond himself with each successive book, to the point where it sometimes hardly felt like James Bond at all.
Benson’s purpose had somewhat less clarity than Gardner’s, and what emerged from him was at times an odd marriage between the film Bond and literary Bond, between the classic and the contemporary. I don’t think the two gel particularly well and it often feels like he’s walking a tightrope, with Fleming and the cold war on one side, and EON and the modern era on the other, in an attempt to satisfy all-comers. This would continue though all six of his contributions, often quoting the films (with variations of GOLDFINGER’s “shocking… positively shocking” in High Time to Kill, and THUNDERBALLs “someone’s probably lost a dog” in ‘Never Dream of Dying’ to name two), and parading a cavalcade of Fleming characters with Mathis, Tanaka, Marc Ange Draco, Darko Kerim’s son, Mary Trueblood’s brother-in-law, and Cecil Blacking’s old high school maths tutor all making appearances.
As to which is the superior of the two debut outings, ‘Zero Minus Ten’, loaded with ideas such as stranding Bond in the middle of the Australian Outback, is more engaging and more inventive than ‘Licence Renewed’ (Gardner didn’t really fire until his following Bond, ‘For Special Services’, – his most lively, most colourful, most bizarre and most Bondian adventure – if perhaps not his most natural). Benson was a very clever plotter, as ‘High Time to Kill’ and ‘Doubleshot’ also attest, but then the Bonds, certainly Fleming’s, were never really about the plots. We like Fleming in part because he made the ordinary seem interesting and the preposterous seem plausible. It wasn’t so much what he did as how he did it, which is why for some Bond readers, the continuation novels are simply just not “the real thing”.
But whatever their books very real strengths and weaknesses, this fan feels that Gardner and Benson gave us some entertaining, interesting, and valuable contributions to the literary James Bond world.
Thanks for reading.
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