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.
Raymond Benson’s All Time High
A Look Back at High Time To Kill
by John Cox
“In hard covers my books are written for and appeal principally to an “A” readership, but they have all been reprinted in paperbacks, both in England and in America and it appears that the “B” and “C” classes find them equally readable, although one might have thought that the sophistication of the background and detail would be outside their experience and in part incomprehensible.”
Ian Fleming, letter to CBS, 1957
“I write what is referred to as ‘commercial fiction’. I’m convinced that if Casino Royale was delivered to a publisher today, it wouldn’t get published! Publishers want an easy-to-read style when it comes to thrillers, except in the cases they call “literary thrillers” such as Mystic River.”
Raymond Benson, interview with CBn, 2004
Query whether that comparison of the motives behind the supplies (and suppliers) of written Bond is entirely fair, although what it may illustrate [aside from crashing (if magnificent) snobbery on Fleming’s part] is a perception (correct or otherwise) in the changed nature of the demand.
Whether that perception is the product of the writer’s (both writers) own reflection on what he achieved and did not achieve – and contemplation of what he was seeking to achieve – or a demand imposed upon him by the publisher, one cannot immediately tell. Evidently, however, there is a difference in outlook. Regardless of origin, the shift in attitude to what was trying to be produced may assist any conclusion about whether Mr Benson succeeded in Mr Fleming’s job; he did not because the job was [simply] not the same one. Therefore, is comparison inappropriate because the motives and intent were not on a par?
Yet, whychange the motives and intent? Is there really no market for Fleming’s approach any more, and a greater one for Benson-esque output? Whilst I appreciate that it would be “odd” for Glidrose to commission a series of books that would be deliberately uncommercial (however much their weaknesses put the core Fleming material in a better light – a conspiracy theory too far, perhaps), what was their understanding of what commercial written Bond is? Selectively targeting one’s audience and grateful for whoever else tags along for the ride – which seems to be what Fleming was up to if that quote is anything to go by – or just trying to cover all bases instantly, and democratically, without evidently directing the product at capturing a particular audience other than undiscriminating and gullible collectors who would acquire anything “official” with the words “James Bond” on it?
Are the answers to be found in the fact of which of these authors gets regular reprints despite the antiquity of their work, and which does not – and, I believe, will not? [There is an essay on how Fleming, initially seen as terribly racy, if he courts popularity now it is for a charming/absurd ancientness, and when this switch in perception may have occurred: but this bain’t going to be it]. Not being sufficiently discriminating, was that the reason for the Benson “commercial fiction” not being a great commercial success? Are we to believe that the general – “commercial” – market would have been insufficiently intrigued by the potential cognitive dissonance that efforts to appeal to a select audience would have birthed, instead of feeding just more of the same old commercial stuff in, indistinct from the narrative capabilities and incapabilities of the bog standard?
Isn’t hindsight great?
Wouldn’t they have been better off conceiving “new old” in avoiding a mass market that Bond was never (apparently) intended by its creator to be (“new old” in the sense that a more conscious effort would have been made to appeal to Fleming’s perception of Fleming’s reader (y’know, like giving the old maggot some credit for coming up with something successful), not Mr Benson’s editor’s perception of Mr Benson’s perception of Glidrose’s perception of Eon’s perception of its 15-hour-Bond-movie-marathon overweight burger masticators)? Is it admirable, this apparent desire to give the general commercial market some “same old” and let it flounder along with mounds of similar stuff?
Or, more succinctly – who the hell dreamt this scheme up? Did he/she/it really think that it would be a sensible proposition to try to cram into an already brimful general commercial pap “C” appeal thriller market, rather than develop something that would stand out? Y’know, like Fleming tried, with his frustrations at attempting to write something and his insecurity that his wife’s clever friends despised his efforts at what is – if not literature – then trying to be literary.
This is not to put Fleming on some sort of pedestal as a “Great Writer”, more as a distinctive one. There’s more to this than a wide vocabulary, and more to this than “being Ian Fleming” which is a biological impossibility to emulate and therefore a trite position from which to attack – or indeed to defend one’s self.
What seems to have been ignored in the grand scheme is not that one sought a Fleming clone, or pastiche, but that some attempt was made to give the books as much distinctiveness as the Flemings had. This doesn’t mean one has to write like the man, nor be the man; just appreciate what he was trying to do. The perspective of Bond novels expressing attitudes and reactions to the events more than mere reportage of them is a key ingredient. The mass market appeal comes from offering something different, not something familiar (be it apeing a “commercial” style, or a film style), allowing that market to expand itself rather than absorb more of the same. If you overface it with the same diet, it will reject. The commercial market is encouraged to evolve, and it will react with greater interest to material that forces its evolution; anything that maintains it is merely sustenance but of no substantial value to its development. Consider Harry Potter; ostensibly children’s books but enough of unique content, style, attitude to interest the adult market – more than the “same old” children’s books. And they’re not “literary” by any stretch of the imagination.
Why consider these ideas here, by way of general preamble? Primarily because they have been generated by High Time to Kill and what it represents. I’ve tended so far to go easy on the Benson writing style (I assure you, compared to what’s coming, that was “easy”), but High Time to Kill is such a fundamentally frustrating book because of it. The main reason is that it is bold in its conception, and has a number of solid ideas that one seethes and starts bouncing off the walls in desperation that they didn’t get someone else to write it for him.
Its ambition is betrayed by its quite, quite dreadful expression. An ounce of uniqueness, or novelty, about the manner of delivery, coupled with its inventive structure, and this could have been a genuine contender to break out of the cycle of being hunted down only by the Bond fans. Instead, it’s a mess and exceedingly difficult to like. It really won’t do, y’know. “The Impossible Job” made just that more impossible. Lord alone knows whose fault it really is; but it’s Mr Benson’s name on the cover. Perhaps it’s someone in the lengthy frontispiece of “thankyous”; I’m tempted to blame the staff of the splendidly named Hotel Yak and Yeti, but I doubt it’s them really.
What’s of particular annoyance is that Raymond Benson (or whatever committee goes by the name of “Raymond Benson”) takes leaps with his confidence in structuring the story (far from perfect, but interesting) but the prose has barely advanced. Indeed, so much has he reachched with the one that the other appears to have gone backwards. Accordingly, the gulf between the two disciplines – structure and delivery – is far more marked here than in the opening two books. Therefore, whilst High Time to Kill exemplifies Mr Benson as a plotter, it exposes him horrifically as a writer. He doesn’t do his story anywhere near the justice its conception deserves. Strong skeleton, but gutless. It remains a skeleton.
The mystery is that, on reflection, Fleming’s plots, divorced from their delivery, can be unengaging. The plot of Goldfinger, for example, is terrible and, taken apart, suffers from gaping logical lacunae. Consider some of the rest: James Bond beats someone at cards. James Bond stops a diamond smuggling ring. Woo-hoo. But it was never what was done – it was how it was done. It is better to travel hopefully than arrive. I’m afraid Mr Benson appears to be all about the destination, and we can sit in economy class to get there. There’s a genuine shift in outlook here – a desire to emulate the plot driven commercial easy-to-read – and shoddily written – market rather than creating, or in this case perpetuating, a mystique.
Did they really think it was strong enough to survive? That cheapening the Bond series in this manner was (gulp) a good idea?
Too harsh? In truth, as Raymond Benson has said himself, he’s no worse and no better than the majority of commercial fiction writers – much of Clancy and Grisham, at the most successful end (and don’t even mention The DaVinci Crud; have you read it? Isn’t it dreadful?), contains staggeringly inept prose that one would not choose to inflict on anyone, and one is carried along by the plot alone – but it’s not much of an ambition to be “no worse and no better”. How does one stand out if that’s the extent of the perception of what one seeks to achieve? If that was the extent of the ambition, it would be churlish to propose anything other than he achieved it. But, still?
Note: Inevitably, this will contain substantial spoilers. Page references are to UK first edition hardback. The views expressed are not necessarily those of CBn. Not necessarily. But they’re honest.
High Time to Kill
(I’ve evolved this (i.e. changed my mind) and abandoned strengths and weaknesses, because it may come across as a bit out of “balance”).
You’ll have heard that it’s Bond meets Cliffhanger. It’s a lazy description, but about as strenuous a precis as the book merits so I’m happy. In truth, the story is misrepresented to you if that’s the expectation; the climbing doesn’t start until page 177. Most of that is effective: there seems a need for it to happen although I have wondered whether taking a helicopter up there would be quicker. I assume that anyone getting out of it would have to acclimatise anyway (and it may offend all sorts of gods and monsters and cause an international incident to bung a helicopter onto Kangchenjunga (albeit we could probably stuff Nepal in a fight, Skin 17 or not; as a world power they’re “not much of one”)). In essence, the mountain climbing plot seems plausible. No more implausible, anyway, than “James Bond does Top Gun” or “M is kidnapped” or whatever else rot the continuation authors have seen fit to inflict upon us.
Whilst all the larking about on the mountain is fairly engaging – without being particularly fascinating (but that’s probably more to do with the fact that mountain climbing has never interested me and never will), the majority of the book’s serious flaws are contained within the preceding 176 pages. Stretching the metaphor, it’s a hell of a trek before you get to the good bit and query whether it’s really worth it. The first hundred pages or so are a genuine struggle, and the three “set pieces” within them just don’t work. This may of itself create a danger that one views the mountain sequence more generously (and in hindsight, it exposes the rest of the book as pretty hopeless timewasting) because it is inherently more unusual than the early stages, but hey ho. Except insofar as it feels drawn out and a bit of an opportunity for Ray to whack us over the head with his research, on the whole the mountain bit is entertaining stuff that pretty much works.
On the face of it, it seems fresh to have a plot in which everything has gone wrong for everybody. That’s funny, and it seems novel: the book is preceding in such-and-such a manner and then this damn great mountain hoves into view and thwarts everyone. Interesting idea: the villains are as frustrated by their plot going wrong as Bond is frustrated in his mission; everyone has to readjust, scrabble about in a bit of a panic. An odd note is sounded by M’s rather ambivalent motive: expressing in relation to Skin 17 “I wouldn’t want Japan to have it” passes by without any sort of explanation.
On reflection, though, it’s For Your Eyes Only II – a defence device developed by the British, the purpose and effect of which is hinted at but never generously overexplained (in this case, maddeningly anorexically at pages 55-56), is lost and Bond and the villains are in a race to retrieve it (with some climbing involved), but the recovery of the “thingy” takes a definite backseat to the “real” plot – which, here, is the question of what’s going to kill Bond first – the traitor, the Union, Marquis or the mountain? Or the teams of competitors? Having had a fill of nuclear devices and warheads in the previous two books, it’s a twist on the expectations to let the hardware take a less significant role. The slight difficulty have is that Skin 17 is even more abstract than the silly Polaris typewriter machine and whilst I’m sure it’s super and that what it can do is accurate, it’s not that interesting. Still, the apparent idea of the story would be ill-served if it was nuclear bombs again, so this slightly out-of-focus plot device is probably a success. It does generate a really fine idea – the microdot on the pacemaker battery is a splendid conception.
The unfortunate downside of this idea to make the environment the threat to Bond, rather than another host of colossal whizzbangs, is that there is little “threat” in the book until the mountain climbing starts and various members of the mountain climbing team start being picked off. The motive behind the recovery of Skin 17 is basically preserving Britain’s image – interesting as a plot, although there seems yet another missed opportunity for Bond to reflect on the shabby pointlessness of risking his life for that; nowhere does this happen. The problem is that before the point of the book turns up over halfway through, there is no tension. Accordingly, because Skin 17 is so undernourished that it cannot be seen of itself to be an dangerous thing, and Britain or her interests are not directly in peril, to create a threat means deviating into directionless set pieces and underwhelming Helena Marksbury traitor issues Helena Marksbury that don’t Helena Marksbury succeed.
Overall, inevitably the greatest similarity is to Thunderball – the Union/SPECTRE pinching some British military hardware is a patent similarity, but there are a couple of hamfisted nods elsewhere – for example Bond’s quip “Someone probably lost a contact lens” – a direct lift from Bond’s “Someone probably lost a dog” from Thunderball “da movie”. Unfortunately this is the best joke in the book and is in essence the same joke in response to the same situation – crime syndicate pinching war stuff from Britain with the help of a traitor. There are also echoes of Blofeld’s attitude to the Lektor in FRWL (film) in Le Gerant’s determination to retrieve Skin 17 and keep his deal going, and GoldenEye in the rivalry between the fair (but unfair – see what he did there?) Roland Marquis and the dark (but shiny) Bond. The story rattles along nicely enough but one is basically waiting?waiting? for the mountain climbing to start.
The far more significant problems start at the?er?start. The book contains three particular incidents that require the mountain climbing to turn up to rescue it; if that hadn’t happened, this really would be a wretched effort.
Incident one: the opening. An unlovely take on Quantum of Solace, that tedious tale of betrayal, and gruesomely unsubtle in its devotion to its source. Involving Helena Marksbury in this (utterly unwelcome) sequel is an elephantine day-glo clue as to the “twist”; Bond and Marksbury betray each other to greater or lesser degrees during the book – that “certain degree of humanity” is lost, a quantum of solace of nil. That Benson fails to come good on this twist by refusing to make Bond as culpable as he should be is a hell of a lost opportunity. To introduce that theme, even though he handles it in an underwhelming manner, the involvement of “the Governor” character from Quantum of Solace may – may – be justifiable as an idea. But it creates a number of problems.
Well, two anyway.
The problems are exposed by the only two ways to read it: with knowledge of the “original” story, or with ignorance of it (I apologise for the triteness of that observation, but you’ll see the point in a moment).
“Knowledge”. In the original short story (which I’ve never liked because it is very obvious, tedious and substantially the least interestingly written thing that Fleming wrote) Bond and the Governor are not friends. The Governor is merely a cipher for the tale; it is evident that at the end, Bond is at best cordial, rather than chummy; they still don’t like each other. No explanation is given by Mr Benson for the “friendship” that he is keen to emphasise here. Additionally, QoS refers to a colonial life of many years past, and given the context, must refer to Britain’s position in the mid-to-late 1950s. Also, the Governor in QoS is pretty decrepit even then. This can’t be in the same time sphere. To give Mr Benson some credit, there’s acknowledgement of this with the Governor’s mock accusation that Bond is jacked up to the “fountain of youth” – although the double edge is that by this comment there is an acknowledgement that Bond must be older (retirement age, if not beyond) than he is actually represented otherwise in these books (at a guess, fortysomething). Anyway; sum total of “knowledge” approach – inconsistency.
“Ignorance”: There is no physical description of the Governor – he remains a cipher – but that’s simply not good enough when he is ostensibly the tale, not just the teller. He doesn’t come across as having any sort of character whatsoever. So poorly fleshed out is he that the Union threat to him strikes no chord of concern. At all. Additionally, there are at least four overt Fleming references in the opening half-dozen pages – QoS, Scaramanga, Mary Goodnight, Mr and Mrs Harvey Miller which, to the uninitiated, will be baffling, and is a terrible display of redundant Bond knowledge, and gives the lie to any suggestion that one need not read QoS to “enjoy” this. I cannot see anyone ignorant of James Bond not being puzzled by all this stuff. It’s ticking off the Bond references one by one, letting each thump to Earth with a solid clang. And they are primarily references to one of the more obscure Bond stories, so what on earth is that apart from pure swank? Sum total of “ignorance”: going off and reading something less (tragically) boastful instead.
Gardner abandoned Fleming (for better or worse – but he abandoned James Bond too, which was a key problem) but Benson seems so determined to hang onto the coat tails that it’s wearying how many references are chucked at one in the opening few pages. Laying it on a bit thick. Not a character worth bringing back, the Governor. He never meant anything, and he means even less now.
It’s just trying too hard to connect his Bond to Fleming. If Mr Benson doesn’t want to be compared to Fleming, why do this? It really isn’t a credible stance to whinge that he isn’t Fleming and shouldn’t be criticised when he brings it upon himself in this inglorious and baffling manner. Surely, if he did not wish to invoke comparison, wouldn’t it have been better to come up with “some new stuff”? Gardner tried. Habitually a bit of an effort, but at least he “tried”. A character other than the Governor would have sufficed; the tie to Quantum of Solace could have been recognised in passing rather than have it thrown at us. Mr Benson would have been much better off tying his Bond to the film Bond; there’s material in Benson’s output that’s the equal, and in many cases the better, of some of the pus that has been banged out by the infinite number of braindead committee-monkeys Eon have been conned into paying for. I accept that as damning with exceedingly faint praise – after all, the “scripts” of the Bond films are hardly something anyone with half a synapse should wish to aspire to unless they have troubling self-esteem issues – but it is praise.
To whom are these directed, these strange half-remembered bits? The reference to Scaramanga and Goodnight is a reference to the novel; subsequently referencing the DB5 later in the book, however, is a creature of the films. Falling between the two, not satisfying those who seek a literary Bond, potentially confusing those who know only the film Bond and distancing itself from those who know neither. Not surprising these things didn’t take the world by storm: the potential to satisfy no-one when seeking to satisfy all is immense.
Second incident that fills one with dread – the golf. As an incident it sets up the rivalry between Bond and Marquis, but in the nature of the detail of what is reported it reads as a facile introduction to the game, assuming one knows nothing of it. It comes across as a terribly podgy incident, descending into a tedious litany of golfing expressions painstakingly explained as if to a ‘B’ or ‘C’ – “[A] birdie, or one under-par? [A]n eagle, or two under-par”. You don’t say. This verges on “Golf is a game. Games is stuff done in spare time. Time is an abstract concept. A concept is an idea. An idea is what this lacks.”
Fleming, with his “A” market, wrote the Goldfinger game relying on an assumption that his audience knew what would be going on; there’s little or no explanation of the rules, it is a given. Let the Bs and Cs catch up. Similarly, the explanation of bridge in Moonraker is pretty impenetrable if one has no knowledge of card games. Here, however, everything is laid out on a plate and it’s facile stuff. They play golf, but one doesn’t feel it happening as Benson breaks off and explains what a “birdie” is for the billionth time. The suspicion is that he is not writing what he knows; it comes across as yet another thing Ray has researched but not experienced. In the same manner that one cannot know what it is to drive a car by listening to three lectures about how the internal combustion engine works, there is no evident participation on show here, or a willingness to draw the reader in by sharing it. Accordingly, he has substantial difficulty transferring it to us with anything approaching conviction. By way of comparison, whilst it has a questionable place within a James Bond story, Bond in the Tex-Mex horror in The Facts of Death was evidently written from familiarity, and it shows. Perhaps Mr Benson does not participate or enjoy English country sports; at the very least, he hasn’t transmitted it. Best advice would have been to have left well alone. He doesn’t do himself any favours here.
Additionally, it just doesn’t work as an incident. Aside from the apparent discrepancy whether Bond likes a flexible or firm shaft (fnarr), it is nakedly and clumsily expositional, a huge amount of snarly dialogue (as ever) being scattered about – and inevitably has unfortunate overtones with Goldfinger. This is hardly accidental in the way too cute setting of the game at Stoke Poges; naff. Why not fencing? Yachting? Polo? Cribbage? Snap? Slapsies? Something not seen before which wouldn’t waken the dead. Something that wouldn’t raise inescapable and unfortunate comparisons. Did he really think he had done enough in the past two books to go head to head? He can only be squished, and squished is what he is. Weird choice. Disastrous choice. Don’t want to be compared, Ray? Don’t do this, then.
Third incident, and the most fetid of the bunch: “The Road to Brussels”, chapter 6, is the most lamentable chapter in any Bond book. It is a monument to colossal feculence; that it contains plenty of car crashes is testament to its nature. For sheer awe-inspiring banality, for birthing the urge to crawl into a foetal ball and sob giant salty tears at the desecration, it has no equal. Not one. I don’t want to look for one, anyway. I couldn’t bear it. Please don’t make me.
If it was only the very boring writing it wouldn’t stand out from the rest of the very boring writing, so that can’t be it. Nope: the reason it is so noticeable is the idea – and the culpability for that can’t realistically be that of the editor, but the writer. This goes beyond an editor’s glitch in failing to eradicate a few Americanisms – this one is fair and square Mr Benson’s problem.
Bijou problemette one: it’s a car chase. These things happen, I s’pose. It is a Bond book; no credible objection to a car chase other than it being about the fiftieth one. Must be hard coming up with a crisp spin. Accordingly, what novel slant, what fresh hell has its creator devised for us now? The new angle of naked pointlessness – there is absolutely no reason for it to happen. It’s a chase just for the hell of it. Lot of exposition in the preceding few pages of the script, so time for things to start “blowing up”. Hmm. Why Mr Benson isn’t “writing” the films is a bit of mystery; he apes the Eon logic perfectly.
Second minty fresh idea: Bond only has to sit in car – “that scout thing” is back, fans of “that scout thing” – and shout things out. (I’m not making this up; please remove your jaw from the floor). “Prepare silicon fluid bomb?” “Ready rear laser..” “Count of three for one-second laser flash?” Christ it’s ghastly. I feel emotionally soiled reporting it.
Bond is never in peril. He doesn’t even have to drive this car; totally disassociated from the action. By way of technological advance, neither does he have to press buttons this time. Reminiscent of the BMW chase in Tomorrow Never Dies, in that Bond doesn’t actually have to do very much to “win”. There’s no risk, no danger, and no guile in escaping danger; accordingly, no interest other than disbelief at having to waste precious minutes reading it. You won’t get the time back, y’know.
Thirdly – and this is the worst aspect (it tops the second, and – agreed – that is a pretty incredible achievement) – there’s something eminently disturbing about it. The antagonists are on three motorbikes. However, in the course of dispatching them, Bond destroys two “innocent” lorries and it’s not clear whether their drivers survive. Is this because two lorries being damaged is more immediately “cinematic” than motorbikes, which aren’t as big and viscerally satisfying when they go down, kablooey!! But doesn’t Bond’s licence to kill only extend to those who would threaten the state – it is after all, the state who has granted him the licence? This just seems to be an act of wanton destruction; unlicensed (attempted) murder of the general public. Terrible. He may have a licence to kill, but this is not to be used wantonly. “That should get the attention of the police, thought Bond”, yeah, you an undercover secret agent ‘n’ all.
So, along with the traditionally, by now almost heartwarmingly anodyne manner of blank reciting of the incident, an exceedingly unfavourable impression is created about this entire (unnecessary) incident. The book struggles to recover. If you’re determined to persist with this rot, don’t read chapter 6 (you lose little: he goes to Belgium and meets his contact, Gina Hollander (and she can be safely ignored)). If you’re determined to read chapter 6, do it drunk; it dulls the pain. If you’re determined to enjoy chapter 6, isn’t there some sort of register the police make you sign? Please stay away from me and my family.
It would be inaccurate to suggest it’s all rubbish before the mountain climbing starts – it’s not: it’s predominantly rubbish. Couple of incidents pass by entertainingly, particularly the fight in the hotel room with Basil, which is increasingly vicious (Bond does get unpleasantly injured but this is quickly forgotten – still some sort of superhuman) and accordingly, viscerally satisfying. And redolent of OHMSS, given that Basil is a big black man and they trash the room – whether this is the subtlest of subtle clues as to the Union’s genesis?nah, that’s overgenerous. One odd point: frequently (if not entirely) Basil is described as “the black man” – why not just “the man”. There’s only two people having the fight, after all, and we know one of them well. Perhaps that’s inconsistent of me; after all, Fleming would probably have chosen even more provocative epithets.
Another moment of interest is the SIS Visual Library – nicked for TWINE (including the involvement of a BBC news reader, oddly). It’s a nice “visual film” touch, and at least stops M and Bond from playing their usual Benson game about “who knows more about the ostensible plot this time.” However, it is still script. Why is he so terrified of descriptive narrative? Also, is it really the case that, although the author wants to give some context, an archive would really present its information in such a History Channel fashion – this is an information archive, not a museum. As Mr Benson notes “The narration was terribly clichéd” which seems to undermine his purpose.
What else? This is a bit of a struggle?um?the hijacking of the tourist ‘plane is an effective sequence, and it’s just as well it works because of its critical nature to his sleight-of-hand construction. However, on the whole, the majority of the book is significant only for its crashing banality and excuses for film-like sequences of little genuine merit: a pointlessly Eonesque Boothroyd sequence – no reason for it, could have been done by descriptive narrative rather than dialogue; an attempt on Bond’s life by a sniper in Kathmandu which seems to serve little purpose other than “time for a chase and a bit of local colour”, which seems to involve trashing a temple in true Eon “ah, stuff the locals and respecting their ways – can we blow it up?” manner.
Then they climb the mountain.
Structurally, there’s little else like this in the Bond books (although it is reminiscent of a few films and therefore not too alienating). As a departure from the written norm, the plan works. This is, in its framework, one of the more distinctive books; the preceding two were very much by the numbers (The Facts of Death especially, although arguably none the worse for it) and, after all, Fleming was at his most interesting when playing with form – From Russia with Love, as an example.
There are a number of interesting visual ideas – that the golden boy – in appearance and success – is the dark hearted one, and the darker child is the true hero. (This is something more successfully drawn out here than, say, in GoldenEye with its casting of the fairer Sean Bean against the dark Pierce Brosnan).
His killings are becoming more gruesome (really nice, sadistic deaths for the “bit dim” Dr Wood, the sinister baddie Glass and poor old Chandra), his sex?well, that’s becoming very silly, but he seems to be trying his hand at stretching himself in terms of manipulating the form, which is confident.
By Christ, his editor should be ashamed. This book contains some of the sloppiest and most uninspired, clumsy prose since I had to grit my teeth and agree that my twin sons’ Batman rip-off for a school project was “really good”. But they’re ten. Unless Glidrose is into child labour, there’s really no excuse for the abject manner in which this story is flung at us.
There remains too much exposition dialogue; do people really talk this way? Bond is teetering on Basil Exposition territory – it’s still a script. An easy way to do it but it does make Bond come across as a fearful know-all (and given that this is a book in which Bond makes mistakes and faces the consequences (-ish) of them, it doesn’t quite ring true that in other respects, he is an oracle). The moribund determination to shun narrative in favour of dialogue can only undermine the purpose of exposing Bond’s frailties and poor judgment.
There’s still a lot of “these are my chums” – namecheckery ahoy for Paul Baack, George Almond, various others who may or may not be important to the world. It’s a bit-injokey, but fair enough – Fleming did it. But not in every single book. Additionally, the “character” (such as it is) of Baack gives rise to a pretty rum final twist, which doesn’t work. Bond not checking Baack’s body is unlikely and all it really achieves is an opportunity for Baack to say “It’s high time to kill, James” – ranks down there with “Wow, what a view”/ “To a kill” as crass shoehorning. It’s a shame that Benson feels he has to twist one final time (other than to give his buddy a moment of posterity) because on the whole, whilst similarly enamoured of the plot twist as Gardner, Benson’s major spin achieves something (whereas most of Garnder’s were terrible and nonsensical): the betrayal by Harding of the Union works because it has a consequence – it sets the mountain climbing plot into motion. As such, that’s a success. Shame that Mr Benson kept feeling the need to do the “Gardner unexpected turncoat” routine.
A fair few chapters – particularly when starting the long climb – pass by with ends of passages (or, indeed, chapters themselves) where Bond is musing on the Union getting ready to strike. When the “strikes” come, they are diverting and entertaining – but count the number of times Bond “waits” for them. Then, rather oddly, there is a truncated final approach – basically, having had a long time milling about (this demonstrates the tedium of acclimatising effectively – if unintentionally) there’s a very short burst during which a huge amount of climbing is done, as if Mr Benson was getting just as bored with it as I was.
“Minister of Defence”. We have a Ministry of Defence which is headed by a Secretary of State for Defence, supported by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the Under Secretary of State for Defence and Minister for Defence Procurement (basically a government sanctioned arms dealer) and the Minister for Veterans. There is no Minister of Defence, as such. OK, the Bond films have never paid too much attention to veracity [one thinks, for example, of the obvious traitor Frederick Gray keeping his job as “Minister of Defence” (note the terminology – Benson’s choice of title is an indication of film Bond rather than book Bond) between 1977 and 1985 despite a change in governing political party], but in a Bond book the detail sells .
You might think it is a small point, and it is admittedly no more than a minor detail (albeit one repeated, gnawing away), but why it disturbs is this: if one cannot trust the accuracy of information such as this, given that it is very, very simple to check, why should one then trust the accuracy of anything else that is presented to us, and if one is prevented from so doing, when that detail is thrown at us (and a lot of detail is indiscriminately hurled at us during the mountain climbing episode – a brandname bonanza, a lot of name checking going on with the equipment – probably enough to make Milletts fetishists chuck their custard) one doesn’t take it on trust, one doesn’t engage with the material and – indeed – one skims over it, which cannot have been the writer’s intention. Given the amount of ostensible detail that is there, accordingly it becomes very tedious very quickly if one is prevented by mistrust at the potential accuracy in engaging with it on any level. One just looks at the info, cannot connect with it, moves on. Maybe Fleming has the advantage that his references are beyond many of us, antiquated and therefore we take them on trust. His stuff’s doubtless full of sloppy tosh, but at least one has the panache as a distraction. Mr Benson does not have that (or, more charitably, has been deprived it by an complete absence of skill on the part of Glidrose).
“Wood placed a blank compact disk (disc?) into the recorder and punched the computer keypad. The entire Skin 17 formula was saved on the disk. He removed the disk and placed it in an unmarked jewel box. Wood found a red marker on the desk and wrote “Skin 17 Gold Master” on the cover”.
There’s no joy, no flow, no art in this?this thing. It is bland recitation of events. It’s an audio-loop for the blind of the onscreen activity. Mr Benson may be “seeing” this and wishing to convey what he is watching – his predeliction for talking about his characters in terms of the actors who will play them is a dead giveaway – but I’ve seen the James Bond films and seek a different satisfaction, a different experience, from the Bond books. If I wanted the James Bond films, I would watch a James Bond film. This just isn’t meeting the Bond book requirement. Nowhere near. Due to the undemanding nature of the prose, no-one can be in any doubt about what is going on, but it’s really not challenging enough. It may work as commercial fiction and thus meet its underwhelming ambition, but it’s awfully plodding. He did this. Then he did this. Then he did this. Then he did this. Easy to read, I agree. Impossible to admire. It’s just nowhere near good enough. Simply using some words to tell the story. Fine. Just don’t pass it off as anything to do with the literary Bond. If the words “James Bond” weren’t on the cover, I might feel more generous (but then, it’s more probable that I wouldn’t have been conned into buying it in the first place).
Then?then there are the depressing turns of phrase. “Completely destroyed” – “destroyed” is a complete state. Something is either destroyed or it is not. Who the hell did they get to edit this overexcited imprecision? “Then he picked up the phone [sic] again and put in some coins” – why be so irritatingly vague – why not one pound? Fifty pence? What international denomination of currency is “some”? “She had sent him packing” is rancid in its vulgarity. A Russian “looked a lot like Joseph (sic) Stalin” Bit lazy there, Ray. “He had let his loins do the thinking for him once again” Ugh. And then it descends (just about possible) into the hollow qualifications of “somewhat” and “quite” as descriptions – look Ray and handlers of Ray, you’ve really got to try. “It was somewhat cold” tells one nothing more, without an explanation of the nature of the cold, than “It was cold”. The use of “somewhat” is so?underpowered. It is a misery of a word, a bad rainy day of a word, a February Tuesday of a word. It is vile, lazy and coy, the siren song of the intellectually featherweight. Ultimately, it means nothing. As for “?located in Buckinghamshire in the south of England”, that’s grotesque. This I assume is to distinguish it from the Buckinghamshire just outside Mombassa. Or the one on the Moon. As for the trite dialogue – “It’s all a big mystery that I’m still trying to sort out” (says Bond: does this really sound like James Bond?)- yes, well, quite. It would be no mystery (of whatever size) if you had. The inertness of the vocabulary is ludicrous.
When it’s in English. There’s a slipping in of some references – “granola” (whatever that may be; sounds unpleasant), the Stoke Poges membership referred to as “dues” (fees, man, fees), somebody “snickered”, a reference to a device or state of mind or country (I know not which) called a “burlap bag” and vomiting described as “heaving” – which whilst (potentially) being in English, aren’t English. The overwhelming impression is slapdash, of “that’ll do”.
No. It. Won’t.
What else? Slightly odd that he feels the need to translate into English the food that Bond and Gina Hollander are served – to anyone with an ounce of an acceptable education it’s evident what the stuff is; let the Bs and Cs aspire to catch up; don’t do it for them. The dull metronome style, the painstaking and largely unnecessary description of matters well within the experience of those to whom it should be directed, renders this potentially energetic Bond book into an everyday story of spying for really simple folk. It’s Bond for the thick.
This ill-advised casual attitude to what is being artlessly churned out is at its starkest in (repeated) clumsy constructions: consider this, a paragraph after Bond has been fired on by a sniper from a Bhuddist temple (don’t ask):-
“No, I’m coming with you.”
Chandra made a face, then went into the temple. In Nepal, there was a fine line between Hinduism and Buddhism.”
The dismal cliché aside, that reads really poorly; some action. Stop. Dull desire to show off knowledge without finding a stylish way of doing it. Stop. Then back to action.
This phenomenon often happens. Paragraphs meander; their endings rarely tie up with how they began – it’s terribly frustrating and genuinely offputting. It doesn’t give one any confidence that Mr Benson, his editor and Glidrose, collective culpability, know what they’re up to here. Another example? Bond watches Marksbury eat and then ruminates on her mouth and kissing it; however, the image remains with the reader (because it’s in the same paragraph) that the mouth is still full of food. Urr. Another example? The descriptions of Stoke Park start with a character description (Bond’s choice of Callaway clubs (would he choose American clubs?)) and then suddenly switch into a lengthy tract about the location. Another example? The start of Chapter 5. Unless these are genuinely admirable micro-records of the structure of the book – starts off in one way, takes a distinct deviation halfway through (which would be brilliant, but I’m being way too generous) – this constant inability to construct, or in editing reconstruct, a coherent paragraph is shocking.
Apologies if this comes across as relentless abuse. Deserves it. Absent of writing, absent of rewriting, the pervading impression is of being carelessly abandoned rather than carefully nurtured. It’s just there, flung onto the page. As an experience, it has all the enjoyment of one’s puppy dying.