James Bond: Choice of Weapons: Three 007 Novels: Zero Minus Ten; The Facts of Death; The Man with the Red Tattoo Reviewed By Dr. Wesley Britton of Bookpleasures.com
Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at hisÂ WEBSITE
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Author: Raymond Benson
ISBN-10: 1605980994: ISBN-13: 978-1605980997
While movie fans worry about the future of 007, readers of Bond novels know he’ll return next year in Project X by Jeffery Deaver. Until then, those who haven’t read the continuation stories of Raymond Benson can revisit the literary Bond of the 1990s this month if they pick up the hefty anthology—over 800 pages—of three Benson novels and two of his short stories.
It’s a bit odd to say that the books of Raymond Benson, roughly contemporaneous with the reign of Pierce Brosnan as the film Bond, are already worthy of new appreciation. Back in 1996, everyone was surprised that this Texan, author of The James Bond Bedside Companion but writer of no previous fiction, was tapped to pick up the 007 literary mantle. Before him had been a handful of sanctioned books by John Pearson and Christopher Wood, but Benson was in the elite direct line of the official chroniclers of Fleming’s character—Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun (1966) and the run of John Gardner books (1981-1995). While Gardner wrote both 14 original adventures and two tie-in film novelizations, both Amis and Gardner were famously distanced from the movie franchise, only repeating EON production’s formula of keeping Bond frozen in time. This, of course, resulted in a character frozen in most everything else as well.
When Benson took over the helm in 1997, he too learned none of his stories would ever be filmed, but the shadow of EON Productions had a more important role in his series. For one thing, the literary Bond now reported to a female M, following the lead of the casting of Judy Densch in Goldoneye. For another, Benson’s marching orders were to make the books more cinematic to appeal to a new audience of readers more familiar with the movies. Nevertheless, Benson was credited with looking to Fleming as his primary wellspring, largely ignoring events in the Gardner books and bringing back Fleming creations like American agent Felix Leiter and Bond’s former father-in-law, Marc-Ange Draco.
Then came 2003 and Benson’s run ended with his novelization of Die another Day, also the final Brosnan outing. Ian Fleming Publications had decided to focus on Fleming’s own novels to celebrate his centenary in 2008, and hired Sebastian Faulks to return 007 to the decade that made him famous—the 1960s. In the same year, five years after his tenure had ended, Benson’s first 007 short story and three of his six original novels were published as an omnibus, James Bond: The Union Trilogy including High Time to Kill (1999), Doubleshot (2000), and Never Dream of Dying (2001).
Now, this year’s collection, Choice of Weapons, brings together the three other original Benson novels and two 1999 short stories previously only available in their original magazine publications. Because the three interrelated “Union” books had been grouped together in the first volume, Choice of Weapons can’t follow the original publication order. Excluding Benson’s 1997 novelization of Tomorrow Never Dies, the collection opens with Benson’s first two novels, Zero Minus Ten (1997), The Facts of Death (1998), and then the two 1999 stories, Midsummer Night’s Doom (from Playboy) and Live at Five (TV Guide). The set concludes with Benson’s final original novel published after the Union Trilogy, The Man With the Red Tattoo (2002).
Before Red Tattoo, Benson’s first two books demonstrate that while he certainly knew his Ian Fleming, he could not be Fleming himself. Like Gardner before him, Benson set Bond in motion in a world very different from the Cold War duels between Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Smersh. For one matter, Fleming’s books were in the main half the length of the later thrillers, far more compact in the story-telling. For another, especially in the final titles, Fleming’s Bond suffered emotional, physical, and psychological damage—a deeper character than possible in the escapism of the movies or the continuation novels. Bond might have more important personal moments in the books of Gardner and Benson than the films, but still these were essentially throway encounters with few real long term consequences for 007.
In his first outing, what Benson excelled at was imitating Fleming’s use of travel to give his stories rich settings, contexts, and backgrounds sketched with vivid detail. This is most evident in Zero Minus Ten where Benson convincingly brings Hong Kong to life in the days just before the turnover from Britain to China. Benson pointedly reworked Fleming’s love of games by having 007 thrive at Mahjong against a card cheat ala Moonraker. But, as with Gardner before him, the characters are stock players playing their designated types—the damsel in distress, the crime lord who Bond comes to respect, the capable Secret Service officers who sacrifice themselves in the field, the sadistic villain who whacks Bond until he’s bruised and bloody on the ground—leaving 007 with wounds Bond rarely takes long to recover from. Then again, Benson’s Bond is always on the move, running up and down stairwells, zipping in and out of hotels and safehouses, quickly departing scenes of devastation before he can be recognized or arrested. Had Fleming penned Zero Minus Ten, the book’s action would likely have remained in Hong Kong; following the lead of the films, Benson adds expanded material where 007 has a “walkabout” in the Australian outback. And (no spoiler here), Benson adds his own creative direction by playing sleight of hand as to just who the villain really is until the final chapters.
The Facts of Death revealed a Benson with a firmer hand on the formula, splicing in bits of Fleming’s characterizations in between the film-inspired scenes of, early on, 007 hanging onto a helicopter over the Mediterranean and the Q scene where Bond gets a new toy-laden Jaguar XKE. Benson shares more from Bond’s point-of-view and develops the relationships in the supporting cast including both the old and new Ms. Benson also added more humor, notably James Bond filling out paperwork and making a contribution at a sperm bank. And we’re reminded of another distinction between the literary and screen Bonds—007’s uncanny ability to inspire nearly everyone he meets to spend pages telling him their life story. Still, Benson’s talent for creating a complex plot with layered episodes sets the stage for all his better books in which Bond’s deadly duels and sexcapades build tension, excitement, and fast-paced suspense.
By the time of The Man with the Red Tattoo, Benson had become comfortable tinkering with the mythos created by Fleming, most controversially by having Bond kill his ex-father-in-law, Marc-Ange Draco, in Never Dream of Dying (2001). In Tattoo, 007 is deeply distressed he’s been ordered on a mission to Japan which he last visited in 1964 (You Only Live Twice). In that Fleming novel, Bond killed archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, avenged the murder of his wife, and then suffered amnesia which resulted in his living for months as a Japanese fisherman. His unhappiness is offset by his working again with Tiger Tanaka, and their first briefing is pure Fleming—a vividly described meal with the cultural exchanges of two world-wise sophisticates. The setting and plot continues to be close to a Fleming story with the action mostly earth-bound instead of over-the-top stuntwork, including an old-fashioned train trip featuring a killer dwarf. This Bond doesn’t have super-powers—his face shows the bruises of a beating and 007 actually allows a doctor to examine his head for concussions. The last chase scene—through some of the most exotic landscapes ever in a Bond novel—and the climax are as exciting as any explosion fest on screen. Strangely, not only did Benson’s final book look back to the gritty origins of the 007 realm, it made a contribution to Bond lore beyond its pages. In 2005, happy to have been a setting for a Bond book, the government of Japan's Kagawa Prefecture established the permanent 007 Man with the Red Tattoo Museum dedicated to the book.
The two short stories, clearly the nuggets Bond enthusiasts will need to complete their collections, are worth the price of admission as they too add to Bond lore beyond the printed page. The very short Live at Five, written expressly for TV Guide, has 007 zipping around a skating rink to distract the defection of a Russian skater. In the background we hear the commentary of Janet Davies, an actual Chicago news anchor. Publicity for the story included the real Davies having to ask her bosses for permission to sleep with 007 in the story. Midsummer Night’s Doom was another commissioned yarn, this time by Hugh Hefner to bring James Bond to the Playboy Mansion. 007 has to come to a party in satin pajamas to find out how a rock star is passing on secret information. The Q for this episode is Hef himself who provides 007 with a most useful pen. Neither of these tales compare with any of Fleming’s own short stories, but they weren’t intended to. They’re light entertainment, deliberately blurring the lines between fiction and reality just for fun.
As the continuation novels have always interested a limited niche market, it’s clear most potential readers of Choice of Weapons will be James Bond fans but, no doubt, many missed these books when they first came out. Others should enjoy re-reading stories they might have perused years ago and will find new things the second time around. Would Benson appeal to a wider readership, say readers of espionage fiction as a whole? I see no reason why lovers of Ludlum or Clancy etc. shouldn’t find these titles equally engaging page turners whether or not they care overmuch about 007. The only difficulty with Choice of Weapons is its size—its thickness wouldn’t make it the best choice for airport reading, unless you plan on using it as a weapon yourself. The question now is—will Benson’s three Bond movie novelizations be bundled together in a new collection as well? I see no reason why not. As readers of the tie-in novels have learned, to borrow the sub-title of a new critical overview of the many worlds of James Bond, the films are not enough.
Listen to Wes Britton’s audio interview with author Raymond Benson for the “Dave White Presents” radio program posted HERE