After a 15-year run that began in 1981, John Gardner retired from writing James Bond novels. The Ian Fleming estate replaced him with Raymond Benson, author of 1984’s The James Bond Bedside Companion, whose tenure ran from 1996 through 2002. In that time he wrote six novels, three short stories, and three novelizations. The Union Trilogy collects the third (High Time to Kill), fourth (Doubleshot) and fifth (Never Dream of Dying) novels that featured Bond fighting against the global criminal organization known as the Union.
Benson shows his grasp of the Bondian mythology right from the opening chapter of High Time to Kill with Bond in the company of a beautiful woman, his personal assistant Helena Marksbury, snorkeling in the Bahamas. Later that evening during a dinner party, the former Governor, who appeared in the Fleming short story “Quantum of Solace,” gets his throat slit. Bond heads off in pursuit of the assailant, and Benson’s economical word choices allow the reader to move along as fast as the chase.
The plot involves a formula known as Skin 17, which would allow an aircraft hull to withstand a speed of Mach 7. Shortly after its introduction, the rules of the genre require that it be stolen. This is done on behalf of the Union. Their plans to sell the formula to the Chinese run afoul when a plane carrying it crashes on Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. Bond has to go on a climb after it, competing against his enemies and the elements. Benson states in the “Trilogy”’s introduction that Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air inspired this part of the adventure.
The choice of beginning Doubleshot near the end of the story as the prologue foreshadows Bond going rogue creates suspense and intrigue. The Union is very unhappy with its recent failure to obtain Skin 17 and wants to make those responsible suffer for it. They get involved with the Spanish mafia to help them reclaim Gibraltar from the British.
Bond is a top priority when it comes to exacting their revenge, but the limits of the human body get a head start as a blow to the head he received while pursuing the Skin 17 formula has caused a lesion on his temporal lobe, resulting in severe headaches and blackouts. The latter are particularly troubling when Bond regains consciousness and finds a woman he had sex with murdered and in another instance learns of his involvement in terrorist activities. M, a woman as she became in the movies, finds it harder to believe Bond’s innocence as the evidence piles up against him.
Over a year has passed when Never Dream of Dying opens. The Union’s profile has risen among international law enforcement, causing them to be declared “the world’s most dangerous threat.” Their latest scheme involves using the production of producer Leon Essinger’s Pirate Island to hide their nefarious operations. Benson returns Bond to the baccarat table and introduces him to the Cannes Film Festival as Bond and The Union collide once again, this time revealing personal connections between the two.
Also included in this collection is Benson’s first official Bond story, “Blast from the Past,” which debuted in the January 1997 edition of Playboy. It appears uncut in English for the first time and is a sequel to Fleming’s You Only Live Twice. After Bond receives a letter from James Suzuki, his son from Kissy, he heads to New York and finds an old enemy waiting to settle a grudge.
Benson demonstrates himself to be a capable chronicler of James Bond with these stories. He won’t make anyone forget Fleming, but he doesn’t sully the brand. He creates fun, escapist adventures of international intrigue to while away the hours. He doesn’t push any boundaries, but for the most part, keeps things interesting within the expected confines of the genre, offering interesting twists on familiar plots. I am surprised they haven’t been used for movies yet.
As a reader of the Fleming novels, the highlight was the natural reemergence and mention of old characters within these new stories, creating continuity to the previous works. The violence seems a little more graphic in comparison, but still tame by today’s standards. The main flaw in the stories are the women who Bond beds. They all come off like shallow, one-dimensional, adolescent male fantasies that at least when looking back at Fleming one could excuse on the ignorance of the times. Even for Bond, the idea of two eager identical twins seems a little much to swallow. It’s too bad this aspect couldn’t have been updated.
For readers who enjoy this set as much as I did, the website commanderbond.net is reporting a second anthology containing the remaining three novels (Zero Minus Ten, The Facts of Death, and The Man with the Red Tattoo) and two short stories (“Live at Five” and “Midsummer Night’s Doom”) by Benson will be released in 2010, tentatively titled Choice of Weapons.