Bond Plays On

The latest, unlikely inheritor of the James Bond franchise is Texan Raymond Benson, whose new book is out this month. Guess where it takes 007.

June 1998By Comments

SUNBURNED AND HUNGRY after a day of tubing down the Guadalupe, you head back to Austin for dinner at one of your favorite Tex-Mex restaurants—a garish, festive joint called Chuy’s. You are seated and slurping on a margarita when you spot a striking man in a nearby booth. A little over six feet tall, he’s wearing navy trousers, a light blue Sea Island cotton shirt, and a light navy jacket. You notice the thin, almost cruel lips, the comma of dark hair falling across his forehead, the faint scar running down his right cheek. It occurs to you that the man bears more than a passing resemblance to James Bond. Then he rises and moves across the room to chat up a leggy blonde at another table. As he sweeps by, you catch the gleam of his trademark Walther PPK nestled in a shoulder holster under the jacket, and you realize with a start that it is James Bond.

Bond in Texas? If you think that sounds like the fantasy of a young Texan with dreams of international espionage, you aren’t too far off. Something like that scene can be found in the pages of The Facts of Death, the second James Bond novel by Texas-born Raymond Benson, to be published this month by Putnam. The 42-year-old Benson is the first non-British writer to assume the mantle of Ian Fleming, who created James Bond in the fifties and wrote some fourteen books about his exploits. Benson got the call in November 1995 from Fleming’s literary agent, Peter Janson-Smith, who heads up Ian Fleming Publications (until recently known as Glidrose Publications), the British company established by the Fleming family to manage the writer’s literary estate. At the time, Benson was working as a computer-game designer in suburban Chicago. A Bond fan since childhood, he had never written a novel but had published the omnibus James Bond Bedside Companion and was considered an authority on the suave secret agent.

Sitting in an Austin cafe last fall, Benson looked pensively at a copy of 1997’s Zero Minus Ten, his first Bond novel, and a paperback of his novelization of last year’s Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, and shook his head. “It’s still hard to believe,” he said. “Here’s this glossy paperback with Pierce Brosnan’s face on it, and there’s my name underneath. I can’t get used to seeing it.” A somewhat rumpled man of medium height with a neatly trimmed beard, Benson has little in common with the storied character. No career in the military or in espionage. Doesn’t smoke. Doesn’t like martinis that much. “I’ve stepped into some very big shoes, and I have a responsibility to do good by them,” he said of writing about Bond. “It’s scary at times—a dream come true that I was never allowed to dream.”

Ian Fleming’s shoes are very big indeed, and these days the walk in them is uphill. His literary legacy has fallen on hard times over the past ten years, and it will be a challenge for Benson to return the James Bond of the printed page to his glory days of the sixties. For one thing, as an American, he has had to overcome the skepticism of British critics who see Bond as essentially British and Americans as essentially incapable of understanding what that means. And then there’s the pressure of not only preserving but also elevating the status of the character he has loved almost his entire life. Benson thinks the answer lies in taking Bond back to familiar ground—restoring him to the original character Fleming invented. And it’s only fitting that Benson would take this Bond back to the place where he first fell under his spell, his old Texas stomping grounds.

Ian Fleming introduced James Bond to the world in the 1953 book Casino Royale. By the time Fleming died, eleven years later, Bond had become a movie icon as well as a literary phenomenon. Fleming had sold the film-production rights to Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli’s Eon Productions in 1961, ensuring that the film character would have a measure of immortality—and in effect separating the Bond of film and the Bond of books into completely unrelated entities. But the literary Bond also managed to survive Fleming. In 1968 British novelist Kingsley Amis penned a new Bond adventure, Colonel Sun. After that there were no Bond books until 1981, when Glidrose asked British mystery-espionage writer John Gardner to continue the series. License Renewed came out that year and was followed by an average of a book a year for the next fourteen years. During that time, James Bond grew increasingly moribund in the bookstores, and in 1995, by mutual agreement, Gardner and Glidrose ended their relationship.

“Who reads James Bond these days?” asked New Yorker critic Anthony Lane in a June 1996 review of a new Ian Fleming biography. “More to the point, who knows that it is possible to read James Bond at all?” For recent generations, Bond is a suave, wisecracking screen figure who battles villains with steel teeth and drives fancy sports cars that shoot missiles under water. Fleming’s Bond was more serious. He was indeed dashing and debonair, but he was also a grim and cold-blooded killer, knifing through the bleak international intrigues of the cold war era. “Exotic things would happen to and around him,” Fleming once said, “but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a government department.” With changing times and the phenomenal success of many of the movies, the film Bond, with his wry persona, has run roughshod over the steely character Fleming sketched in his books.

Some critics, Benson among them, attribute the literary Bond’s diminishing popularity to the lighter and more politically correct tone struck by Gardner and the films of the seventies and eighties; Bond had lost both the strengths and the weaknesses that had made him compelling. “Readers have been clamoring for the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing Bond,” Benson says. “There was actually a movement to have Bond quit smoking, and I wouldn’t do it. Mr. Gardner even had him almost practicing safe sex, and fans didn’t like that either. Bond needs to be politically incorrect.”

Not only is Benson’s Bond politically incorrect but he has also found himself back in some of the staple situations of Fleming’s books, notably long, tense gambling scenes and leisurely, exotic meals. “That’s what I think was missing from Gardner,” says Benson. “He never did any of the meals or gambling.” In returning to what he calls the “original Bond,” Benson returns to the character he knows best—the one he became infatuated with as a young boy growing up in West Texas.

Benson was born in Midland, the son of a geologist for Gulf Oil. When he was five, the family moved to Odessa, or “Odessolation,” as he calls it. From the beginning, Benson’s parents gave him free rein to discover himself, and early on he knew that he wanted to be involved with show business. He recalls trips to the public library just to thumb through the New York Times Arts and Leisure section.

When he was nine, his father took him to a drive-in to see the just-released Goldfinger, starring Sean Connery. It was Benson’s introduction to James Bond, and he says, “It changed my life. No one had ever seen anything like that in West Texas before, and it opened a huge fantasy world for me.” (It’s not hard to imagine the appeal of Goldfinger to a young boy: Bond dispenses with the evil Oddjob, then makes off with Pussy Galore.) By the time Benson was eleven, he had read all the Fleming books and would reread them many times throughout his life. Though he went eagerly to see the movies as they came out, he became, like most purists, “a fan of the literary Bond more than the movie Bond.”

Benson graduated from Permian High School in 1973 and moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where he earned a BFA in drama directing. Theater became his life during this period, and his interest in Bond waned, due in large part to Connery’s successor, Roger Moore—seen by many Bond fans as Bond Lite. During Moore’s tenure, the films played fast and loose with Fleming’s plots, introducing all sorts of unlikely gadgets, sending Bond to outer space, and pitting him against an outrageous, metal-mouthed character called Jaws, who never appeared in the books. After graduating from UT, Benson was hired as an apprentice director at the Alley Theatre in Houston. A year later, he moved to New York, where he devoted himself to theater and supported himself with a variety of office jobs, including typing specs for renowned architect I. M. Pei.

In 1981 a new release in a New York bookstore caught Benson’s eye. It was License Renewed, John Gardner’s first Bond book, the first new one in thirteen years. Says Benson: “I saw it and said, ‘Wow, they’re doing Bond books again,’ and bought it and read it and got excited again.” That coincided with the release of the Bond film For Your Eyes Only, which Benson considers—despite the presence of Roger Moore—a throwback to the classic films: “They went back to the way they used to make them, without all the goofy stuff of the seventies.” His enthusiasm rekindled, Benson himself went back to the source, Fleming, and reread all his books.

It was in this state of mind that, during a whimsical conversation among friends about books they wished they could write, Benson got the idea to do a coffee-table book devoted to Bond. A writer he knew from Midland, Doug McGrath—Woody Allen’s co-screenwriter on Bullets Over Broadway—put him in touch with his editor, and despite the fact that he had never written a book and didn’t have an agent, he was given a contract.

In the course of researching the book, Benson came to the attention of Glidrose Publications and impressed Peter Janson-Smith with his expertise and fervor. Janson-Smith quickly came to rely on Benson’s voluminous Bond knowledge, consulting with him at various times on other Bond projects and referring questions of lore and trivia to him. The James Bond Bedside Companion was published in 1984. Now out of print, it is widely considered one of the best reference books about Bond—both the films and the books. It earned Benson fame and the respect of Bond aficionados, including Hugh Hefner, who had serialized Fleming’s books in Playboy and recently ran a Bond story by Benson in the magazine.

After the Bedside Companion, Benson found his second career—computer games. The mid-eighties saw the advent of text-based computer fantasy games, and Benson, with his imaginative, literary leanings, was a natural. Over the next several years, his agent found him work in the software industry writing games, a couple of which were even based on Bond novels. He followed this line of work through moves to Austin, Maryland, and finally Chicago, where he lives today with his wife and their nine-year-old son.

In November 1995 Benson got the phone call from Janson-Smith telling him that, after fourteen books, John Gardner was calling it quits. Would he like to try out for the job? Benson was floored. “Me? An American?” he remembers saying. “It was totally extraordinary.”

Benson’s tryout consisted of submitting a thorough plot outline and then, when that was accepted, the first four chapters on spec. In general, he says, “The big problem is coming up with plots, because so much has already been done. And you also have to think about something that England is concerned with, which, internationally, is much less these days than it was when Fleming was writing.” Auspiciously, Benson’s audition coincided with England’s most recent high-profile international affair: last year’s handover of Hong Kong to China. Benson shrewdly seized on the topic and formulated a plot in which a criminal attempts to disrupt the handover and incite a war between England and China. “He came up with an excellent story and one of the best and most detailed outlines for a novel that I’ve seen in a long time,” says Janson-Smith. Ultimately, this became Zero Minus Ten, Benson’s first novel, which he wrote while still working at his day job designing computer games.

Zero debuted to moderate sales, selling out its hardcover run in England—not bad considering the British press’s initial skepticism about Benson. In a London Times article headlined CHICAGO COMPUTER EXPERT IS THE NEW IAN FLEMING, a British writer said of the passing of the torch, “I’m shaken, but not stirred. The idea of taking a quintessentially British hero, with all the snobbery and style-consciousness of 1950’s Britain, and handing him to someone in Chicago seems to me to be taking the concept of making a buck to a ludicrous degree.” Glidrose, however, judged Zero enough of a success to offer Benson a contract for three more novels. These days the Bond books keep Benson too busy to hold down a day job. Each of them requires extensive research and travel—Hong Kong and China for Zero, Greece and Cyprus for The Facts of Death, Belgium and Nepal for next year’s book.

The last two Bond films were unqualified successes, and Bond’s literary future seems to be looking up as well. But it’s a future that may lie in the past: James Bond may not make it to the twenty-first century. Though fans of the film Bond believe that the character should continue through time, unchanging and unaging, equipped with cinema-friendly, cutting-edge technology and gadgets, purists think that Bond should remain a cold war figure and that new adventures should be devised for him in that setting. After all, Fleming’s Bond, who served in World War II, would be in his seventies today, and chances are he wouldn’t resemble Pierce Brosnan. “Sherlock Holmes stayed a Victorian-age character,” says Benson, “and I think there’s a lot to be said for that with Bond. We’ve played around with the idea that maybe somewhere down the line we’ll cut it off and just start doing the lost adventures of James Bond. But the official decision is up to Glidrose.”

Meanwhile, taking Bond back to his roots in Fleming has inspired Benson to rediscover his own. That doesn’t mean that Bond will soon be speaking in a drawl but that Benson is doing some writing in a non-Bond vein. In a three-month break at the beginning of this year, he penned a novel that he is calling Evil Hours. Set in a town like Odessa, it was inspired by a crime that occurred there when he was growing up. The book doesn’t suggest Ian Fleming at all, says Benson, but two other influences even the savviest Bond fan would never suspect: David Lynch and Larry McMurtry.

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