G. P. Putnam, 1997 272pp
After the death of Ian Fleming the character of James Bond must have been considered to be too commercial to simply let die. Other authors have received permission to write their own James Bond novels. None, of course, has gotten the following that Fleming did. However, Eon Films is starting to use material from John Gardner, I believe, giving him their stamp of approval. As for the quality of the novels, well, they are mostly pretty pat. But then a James Bond novel is not supposed to be good--it is supposed to be a James Bond novel. Bond is always highly self-confident and supernaturally lucky. The James Bond villain is supposed to look intelligent enough to be a threat, but then he is brought down more by his own hubris than by anything that Bond does. James Bond novels are not really good spy stories, or at least not the highest quality spy stories. Len Deighton, Donald Hamilton, or John Le Carre could sustain much better spy series than the best Bond novel.
I had previously read James Bond novels by Kingsley Amis and by John Gardner. But recently I saw that the mantle had been passed to a new writer, Raymond Benson, author of The James Bond Bedside Companion. His first James Bond novel is Zero Minus Ten. I was hopeful that with a new author would come some new twists. And there were, but not as many as I would have liked. It appeared from the book and some discussion I had read that at least part of the novel would take place within mainland China. An adventure that would take James Bond into the mainland of China is actually an intriguing idea. Things are very different there than they are in his usual glamorous Western settings. Even a chase through China would be little like anything that has ever been in a Bond novel. Bond would obviously be a stranger wherever he went and at the same time the author would have to give us a great deal of detail about life in current China. It sounded like Benson might have been doing some serious and creative departing from the usual mold. Well it turns out that the major settings are Hong Kong and Australia, and there is a relatively short plot stretch in Guangzhou. That is the city that the West used to incorrectly call "Canton." The province is Canton, but the city is Guangzhou. Hong Kong and Australia are unusual Bond locations, though not as unusual as a novel set predominantly in China would have been. Actually Guangzhou is the least adventuresome city in China for Benson to choose. It has been the most Westernized city due to the Guangzhou Trade Fair which would bring visitors from all over the world. It was one of the first places where Western dress was seen back in the early eighties.
One of the problems that a current Bond storyteller has is that James Bond has been around so long. Benson should have decided how old to make Bond, but he sidestepped the issue. In Zero Minus Ten there are references to Bond remembering previous cases that we know took place in the 1960s, but this novel takes place in 1997 at the transfer of Hong Kong back to China. It does not sound right to have someone as nimble as James Bond is in this novel remembering cases he was on better than thirty years earlier. If he had been thirty years old then, and that is about the minimum he could have been, that would make him sixty-something now. And he recovers from injuries much too fast for someone who is of his apparent age. The same problem occurs with other heroes, of course. Batman has been around for something like sixty years, but one perpetually thinks of Batman as being about ten or fifteen years into his crime-fighting career. I guess the reader thinks of his origin as being true and the last ten or so years of the comic. But then in the comic, at least when I read it, there were no references to incidents that happened impossibly long ago. It might have been better for Benson not to mention Bond's early missions.
By setting this story in Hong Kong in part, Benson is able to give us a painless introduction to Chinese history of the last 150 years or so, including the story of the Opium Wars and how Hong Kong came to have this unusual status of a forced "loan" to Britain. However, not everything that Benson tells us about the Chinese may be entirely accurate. At two different places in the plot it is claimed that Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were members of the Triads, a criminal organization that figures into the plot. Of one of the men I might have believed it. Both I would have to see some documentation to believe. Elsewhere it is said that the peach is a symbol of loyalty in Chinese art. It is actually a symbol of longevity and marriage. In Chinese lore the gods had a peach tree whose fruit gave immortality.
But those are is just side issues. Does Benson give us a cracking good James Bond yarn? Well, no. In the final analysis Benson delivers on little of the promised originality. Most of the plot really is just a retread of a lot that has been done before in James Bond novels and films. Standard and overly worn conventions are used. We have the villain who cheats at some game and Bond comes along and out-cheats him. This is a tradition going back to the golf game in Goldfinger and has been used in many other Bond stories. In Zero Minus Ten it is Mah Jong. I find that somewhat humorous, but then when I was growing up the only Westerners I knew who played this game was middle-aged Jewish women. The concept of James Bond playing a cutthroat game of Mah Jong is probably not as whimsical as it seems to me. But overall too much of this book is borrowed from tired James Bond conventions. There is a plot twist, but one that is telegraphed as soon as it is set up. Most painful, we have the villain who could easily just shoot Bond and be rid of him. Instead, he tells Bond his plans and even hints at what should be his best kept secret. Bond only has to use what he has been given to foil the plot. Once Bond has talked to the villain the last quarter of the book becomes very stereotypic and predictable. Sadly, when the subtitle of the book calls this The New James Bond Adventure it is only partially correct.