Zero Minus Ten (1997) – Raymond Benson

While I may not have cared for Raymond Benson’s 007 short story, Blast From the Past (to be clear I liked everything but for the Penthouse Forum ending of the story) I was more than ready to return to the world of James Bond, and see what Benson could deliver with his first novel featuring Ian Fleming’s iconic and enduring character.

Walking the fine line of both cinematic and literary continuity, Benson picks and chooses his Bond’s character traits and memories, as 007 finds himself assigned to an investigation in China. The year, 1997, ten days before Hong Kong is being turned back over to the Chinese by the British government.

There have been a series of murders, explosions and deaths over the past few weeks, not to mention an illegal nuclear bomb test in Australia, that seem to be all connected to one company, and the man who runs it Guy Thackeray. Bond is to go to Hong Kong, investigate, find out what is going on, and ensure that nothing interferes with the Hong Kong handoff.

Bond, who has been to China before, is paired with a local agent, finds himself mired in the organized crime world of the Triads, and romancing the stunning Sunni.

Benson delivers a crackling Fleming-esque narrative that doesn’t really have any surprises or reveals when it comes to who the villains are. Benson knowns the formula of the novels so well that he could easily play with expectations but doesn’t do so in this, his first effort.

He does make his female characters a little stronger than they have been in previous Bond entries, M remains a woman, and Sunni, is not only physically appealing, but more than capable of taking care of herself, and actually seems a little more thought out than some of the other women that have graced the pages of James Bond novels.

He also keeps Q’s gadgets to a minimum, and none of them are technical things, they are all just little items that could prove of use during the case, and are safely encapsulated in the heels of Bond’s shoes. We also check in on most of the usual supporting characters, including Moneypenny and Tanner, though his housekeeper, May, heling out in Bond’s flat in Chelsea, isn’t mentioned this time around.

The story is fast paced, exciting and, has the expected sex and violence, and delivers exactly what we would expect from a 007 novel. And that’s probably a good place for Benson’s first novel, lay the groundwork first before he starts playing with the tropes and stereotypes and expectations of the series and the character.

We’ll see if he does that, because James Bond Will Return… in Benson’s adaptation of Tomorrow Never Dies (which actually, story wise, and thematically, has a lot in common with Zero Minus Ten).

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