When Raymond Benson’s James Bond Bedside Companion first appeared in 1984, followed by an updated edition in1988, reader response was so appreciative the book was dubbed the “Bond Bible.” The Mystery Writers of America nominated it for an Edgar Award in the Best Biographical/Critical Work category. Then, much to the author’s surprise, Ian Fleming Publications, the rights holders to the Fleming literary estate, was impressed as well. They called on Benson to take on Fleming’s mantle by contracting him to become the third official writer of 007 continuation novels. From 1997 to 2003, Benson wrote six original novels, three film novelizations, and three 007 short stories.
This year, long after Benson’s 1988 non-fiction tome went out of print, Benson has joined the ranks of many other writers who are now making their older titles available in a digital format. For Bond fans, for whom the Bedside Companion is the stuff of legend, there’s no question many will want to add this opus to their collections in this form and avoid paying the high prices of second-hand sellers. But, after all these years, what can readers expect?
In all its incarnations, the meat of the book begins with a rapid-fire summary of the Fleming novels and the production of the Connery, Lazenby, and Moore films. Then, in more expansive sections Benson provides focused critical analysis of the 007 literature and movies from 1953 to 1987. In particular, he deepens his look into the life of Fleming with insightful commentary. For example, he notes that the author’s compartmentalization of his friendships was often misinterpreted as snobbery. Even better, Benson’s subsequent portrait of the literary James Bond is one of the best in print, highlighting the character’s development as Fleming matured and progressed. More debatable, perhaps, are his discussions of the movies from Dr. No to The Living Daylights. And that’s only because every fan has their own take on the successes and misfires we’ve seen on screen.
Still, in his “Foreword,” Benson admits the new digital edition isn’t really a full “update” as little new material was added and no revisions of old passages were made. On one point, Benson is justified. Noting that once he became personally involved with both the literary and film realms of 007, it would be inappropriate for him to comment on projects he was part of. This is particularly true of the 1990s when his own novels came out during the Pierce Brosnan era. So, in his “Foreword,” he only mentions his own books and those by his successors. To be fair, to give all the post-Moore movies and novels their due, Benson would have needed to compile another volume entirely. After all, in its 1988 state, the Bedside Companion was already nearly 600 pages.
On the other hand, Benson notes many typographical and factual errors were in the print editions that weren’t corrected. That seems a bit lazy, especially as a copy-editor is credited at the book’s beginning. Beyond the occasional misspelling, a good editor should have changed the tenses of sentences when what was once was the future is now long past. While substantial re-writes would have been a daunting task, some changes would have been simple fixes. For example, Benson repeats the erroneous rumor that John Barry might have written the James Bond theme and not Monty Norman. That notion has been disproved, and Benson could have made the correction with a simple cut of one sentence. Or, in the additions from the 1988 edition, at one point Benson refers to Dalton’s first film as A View to a Kill, which was, of course, Moore’s swan song. Again, this could have been a simple fix.
Of course, any project of this complexity is going to have such errors. In the main, they don’t diminish the credibility of the book, then or now. More importantly, since 1988, not only have there been new movies starring two new Bonds, Benson’s novels and short stories, but an endless stream of non-fiction studies, histories, TV movies, James Bond, Jr. cartoons, you name it. For reference and opinion, the internet’s sources are wide, deep, and constantly being updated. No one single volume by anyone can be a “Bible” anymore. Still, there’s much value to this version of the Bedside Companion. Admittedly, the sections on the movies have been superseded many times. But 007 fans are known for enjoying reading critiques by others simply to compare their own responses to what they read. There are many aficionados of the Bond universe, but they share little agreement on anything.
It’s really the sections on Fleming the writer and the break-down of Fleming’s novels that really merit renewed appreciation. I’d wager these were the sections that caught the attention of Ian Fleming Publications. These passages are thoughtful, show an awareness of what Fleming was trying to do, and demonstrate how all the elements of storytelling came together in each book. You no longer need the James Bond Bedside Companion for plot synopses or trivia, but Benson, along with commentators like O.F. Snelling or Kingsley Amis, stands out as an essential critic of where it all began. Few writers have hit the mark so precisely or so fully as Benson does in his appreciation of one of the most influential thriller writers of them all.