ZERO MINUS TEN
Raymond Benson is a James Bond fanatic, with a background lecturing in film theory and directing New York theatre productions. Whether this necessarily qualifies him as a literary successor to James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, will, I suggest, always be open for debate. These few bare facts however do have implications over the material which comprises his first 007 novel, Zero Minus Ten. Here, more than any previous book, is an adventure tailored to read like a prospective Bond movie rather than a bona fide Bond novel.
So the opening chapter bears little relevance to the story itself, almost resembling the famous pre-title sequences. There is a clear briefing, surrounded by jokey banter with Moneypenny and Q. Like the movies of the late-eighties and mid-nineties, the tale itself has a slightly picaresque style. Bond is portrayed as a bit of a rogue agent, blithely ignoring his boss’ orders and being deliberately foolish; his actions endanger both himself and his companions. The violence is swift and perfunctory, much of it unnecessary. The romance is unimaginative. Bond wins M’s approval. Done and roll the credits. Tellingly there is a whole page of acknowledgements.
This seems to suggest Benson doesn’t elaborate on his research. It certainly leads to paragraphs of dull technical jargon like: “Li’s Sealine Statesman 420 was a high quality British import equipped with twin 370hp Volvo diesels and had a cruising speed of 27.7 knots...etc.” All very interesting if you like that sort of thing, but Benson doesn’t tell us what it looks like or sounds like or how it feels to control a flashy speedboat in Hong Kong harbour. Similarly, when he describes Uluru, it’s as “the big red heart of Australia... the 348 metre high monolith was indeed a breathtaking sight” which doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. I expect better from an author. Benson’s gathered the ingredients for the cake, but he hasn’t made it.
This half baked feeling permeates though the whole novel. While I appreciate the early sections, where Benson attaches 007 folklore to his version of James Bond – he hints at four past adventures in chapter one alone – his generally terse style began to grate about a third of the way in when he narrates at length a game of Mah Jong. I’m not familiar with the game and the way Benson describes it, I’m not sure I ever will be. His technique is to pile in the information, which confuses the reader, when he ought to be concentrating on the four characters involved. Fleming was very astute about these confrontations: it is the behaviour of Drax and Le Chiffre which make his card games so memorable not the machinations of the game itself; this showdown is simply turgid. For insight, Benson merely gives us a series of questions, a ruse he uses time and again in an attempt to build tension.
At the end of this stupefying episode a gang of machete wielding villains arrive and kill most of the spectators. This should be a terrifying moment of lurid violence, vivid colour and harsh agonising sound, yet Benson is thoroughly withdrawn. As “the room filled with the screams of victims and there was blood everywhere” all Bond has to do is ask more questions. Twenty one of them on one page, actually.
There is no mention of the effect of death, of wounds, the sight of hacked limbs or the smell of blood and gore. The prose is striking because it is so bereft of character, so oblique; I almost likened it to cartoon violence or to comic book illustrations or, of course, to an action movie.
For on this evidence, Benson’s 007 exists firmly in the unreal world of the cinema. Gunfights, fist fights, chases and sexual liaisons occur for the most spurious reasons, while the protagonists, from see-through baddie Guy Thackery to Triad kingpin Li Xu Nan to whore-made-good Sunni Pei, are all easily castable caricatures. Even Bond’s doomed assistant T.Y.Woo is a patronising Chinese spoof of Kerim Bey. It’s all as one dimensional as the storyboard for a blockbuster Bond movie.
This flat prose reveals a lack of literary expertise. Used occasionally, blandness can have a positive effect on a narrative, particularly when describing a place or scene; used all the time it merely becomes a series of sign posts (e.g. “Bond ran... Bond shot him...”) without the wider picture. When he does try to elaborate Benson is either sketchy (for instance, a cherry picker is only “apparently” used to clean windows) or over complicated (Li’s fight with a baddie is told thus: “If it hadn’t been a life or death struggle it would have been one of the most impressive displays of Eastern fighting techniques imaginable.”) He’s equally fond of colloquialisms. Expressions such as “some kind of” or “sure enough” crop up a lot, as do lines like “He was quite dead” and, on catching the nasty General Wong in a compromising position, “The look on his face was priceless.”
There is a school of thought that suggests this is good technique, that it allows the reader to form images in their mind, but what it’s really doing is leaving the picture in black and white. I know the General’s expression would be startling, but I’d like to know whether Bond saw his teeth, if Wong was sweating, if he froze. The lack of an effective simile at such a moment is at best arrogant, at worse incompetent.
Anyway, in a tribute to the author, I’ll ask a question – does Zero Minus Ten have any redeeming features?
Well, not many. I did like the plot, about a mad businessman planning to detonate a nuclear bomb during the ceding of Hong Kong to China. It’s a topical, modern idea, which hasn’t really dated even if the historical moment has passed. Also Benson’s Bond doesn’t globe trot as much as Gardner’s, being based mostly in Hong Kong, and neither does his M, which also felt very real. Some of his action scenes, while being badly executed, were certainly imaginative [one of them even predicts Daniel Craig’s assault on an embassy in Casino Royale]. There are two or three inventive contretemps between Bond and Li Xu Nan, only marginally spoilt by being dialogue heavy. But that’s about it.
I rather enjoyed Zero Minus Ten when I first read it in 1997, but this time around it was a very lacklustre affair, saddled with a dreadful, drunken baddie, who even the heroine recognises is having an extended temper-tantrum, and a series of action set pieces which would probably look better than they read. The climax is Goldfinger (1964) all over again, with the unlikely addition of Sunni Pei karate kicking a top assassin to death. Throughout, Zero Minus Ten is reminiscent of James Bond’s book and film adventures but doesn’t bring anything significantly new to our hero, who is a blunt hit man, given to musing about life and death when he isn’t killing people or having energetic un-erotic sexual encounters.
Two things stand out for me. Latterly, Bond has to endure a walkabout in the Australian Outback. It’s a brilliant conceit and Fleming would have made so much of this potentially life and death situation. Benson handles it rigorously, but too swiftly, and we get none of the long, drawn out stagger of starvation, dehydration and death I would have expected. It’s desperately disappointing. And that feeling is summed up by my ultimate response to the first few lines of the novel:
“Someone long ago had called it the Undertaker’s Wind but hardly anyone on Jamaica referred to it by that name anymore. The Undertaker’s Wind was supposed to blow the bad air out of the island at night. In the morning the Doctor’s Wind would come and blow the sweet air in from the sea. The Undertaker’s Wind was certainly at work that night, whipping the long red strands of the Englishwoman’s hair like the flames of a torch.”
Ah, it all started so well...
3 from 10
Last edited by chrisno1 (19th Jan 2011 01:34)