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.

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

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