Tuesday, September 01, 2009

James Bond: The Union Trilogy by Raymond Benson

James Bond: The Union Trilogy’ is a recently-released compilation of three James Bond books penned by American author Raymond Benson, who took over the reins of Bond’s literary adventures in 1996 (from English author John Gardner.)

Held together by the pursuit of common protagonists, ‘The Union Trilogy’ sees James Bond come up against a shadowy organization known only as ‘The Union’ – mercenary terrorists willing to commit any atrocity for the right price.

Their trademark: Slitting the throat of anybody foolish enough to betray them.

The trilogy kicks off with 1999’s ‘High Time to Kill,’ in which James Bond must race to the peak of Kangchenjunga – the smaller, but deadlier cousin of Mount Everest – to recover a vital piece of stealth technology.

It’s a solid story, intricately researched and with enough grit to remind us that Fleming’s James Bond was truly tough-as-nails – not the smarmy, smirking secret-agent we’re familiar with from the movies.

The compilation continues with ‘Doubleshot,’ which sees Bond recovering from a head-injury sustained during his adventure in the Himalayas.

With more than a nod towards classic film-noir plots sharing similar themes, Bond starts to question his own sanity after he’s accused of murder and forced to go on the run from his colleagues at MI6.

The final chapter in 'The Union Trilogy' is ‘Never Dream of Dying,’ in which Bond investigates a sinister film mogul (perhaps loosely based on the infamous Roman Polanski.)

As Bond probes further, he’s shocked to discover that the shadowy mastermind behind the vicious ‘Union’ might be somebody closer to him than he could possibly have imagined.

Wrapping up the compilation is the original Benson story ‘Blast from the Past,’ which debuted in Playboy magazine back in 1997 – plus a new and extended introduction from the author himself.

The introduction is a fascinating insight into the thought-process behind the three stories, but does contain several ‘spoilers’ that give away vital plot twists. I’d recommend reading the introduction after the stories themselves.

And after that layer cake of Benson-style Bond, how did I think the American author held up?

Benson’s Bond shares more characteristics with Fleming’s original character than Gardner’s prissy, pallid imitation did. Bond womanizes, drinks, kills and gambles with an emotionless impunity that reminds us just how dangerous the man is supposed to be.

Benson also shares Fleming’s devilish flair for details – with intricate research in ‘High Time to Kill’ that makes Bond’s mountaineering come vividly to life. Likewise, the torture scene towards the end of ‘Never Dream of Dying’ is honestly, unequivocally unnerving and ranks alongside the testicular-torment Bond experienced at the end of ‘Casino Royale.’

Less successful is Benson’s writing style. Some stages seem rushed – delivering bland exposition instead of evocative description. Likewise, much of the dialogue is awkwardly stilted and doesn’t feel real. Another criticism is the clear ‘Americanism.’ Benson flits inconsistently between using American and English words – perhaps he’d have been better off sticking to one or the other.

But looking at the whole package, ‘The Union Trilogy’ makes for a deeply satisfying read.

For all his faults, Benson’s got a clearly superior grasp of the James Bond mythos than his predecessor. While John Gardner wrote fairly generic thrillers (Bond could have been replaced by Boysie Oakes or any other Gardner creation) the Bond that Benson writes about is clearly Fleming’s famous creation.

That makes ‘The Union Trilogy’ a solid choice for Bond fans everywhere – a worthy testament to Raymond Benson’s time at the helm of the Bond franchise.

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