Monday, December 5, 2016

Review: High Time to Kill, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 1999, pp. 304.

Raymond Benson's High Time to Kill, his third James Bond novel (film novelizations apart), is also the first in a trilogy depicting a multi-volume war between 007 and the international criminal organization known as "the Union."

That war opens with a murder at a dinner party Bond attends, and only narrowly misses stopping, then gets seriously underway when Union agents steal the data from a secret British government technical breakthrough relevant to the development of hypersonic aircraft, "Skin 17." Bond is assigned to recover the microfilm containing the key information, setting in motion an international chase that leads to the plane carrying the Union agent with the goods crashing atop Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. To enable Bond to continue the pursuit M assigns him to join the mountain-climbing expedition ostensibly going to recover the bodies, as other nations (the Russians, the Chinese) send teams of their own, and a Union agent on Bond's own team contrives to beat him to the punch . . .

As might be expected given that High Time is a Bond novel, it reads rather like a Pierce Brosnan-era film--not least in its opening which gets Bond into an early action sequence that also hints at the stuff of the later plot, its gadget-packed car chase heavy on late '90s digital technology (for better or worse), and Bond's generally less stoic and more flamboyant demeanor (more on which later). There is also considerable use of Fleming's material, including Benson's by this point familiar incorporation of minor Fleming characters into the storyline (the Governor of the Bahamas--now ex-Governor, of course--from "Quantum of Solace" and the shooting range Instructor from Moonraker).

However, less expectedly Benson evokes very strong parallels between the events of this novel, and Fleming's earlier works. The parallel one might suspect between the Union and SPECTRE is played up rather than down, Benson making it explicit when he has Bond himself think that what he saw of the Union recalled to him his battles with SPECTRE early in the novel, while the Union's boss makes a very Blofeld-like initial appearance. (Le Gerant, like Ernst Stavro before him, heads up a meeting of the Union's senior chiefs at which he metes out deadly and exemplary summary punishment of a traitor to the organization.) A key relationship in the story also contains a good deal of Casino Royale . . .

More surprising still is the mid-point turn in the course of the story, from typical Bondian globetrotting heroics to the Kangchenjunga expedition. The insertion of Bond into a group in this manner, his having to be a Team Player (rather than his being attached to a team) is much less Bond movie or Fleming novel than it is John Gardner. The same goes for the emphasis on that team battling the elements in a cold and remote place--as Gardner had it do in his own third book, Icebreaker.1

The mix of elements struck me as problematic. The Union's effectively being SPECTRE II, and the evocation of Vesper Lynd in Bond's central romance ended up weak repetitions of past adventures, rather than resonant echoes of them--and they made an unsatisfactory fit with the newer material. The industrial espionage that is the chase after the vaguely described Skin 17 is a questionable choice of opening battle for Bond to fight with these successors to Blofeld and company. And time and again, the mix of screen Bond with book Bond proves problematic, with the Fleming evocation highlighting this. As in Moonraker, Bond has a scene on the SIS shooting range with the Instructor, a man extremely grudging in his praise who would never let Bond know he is the best shot in the Service--but where Fleming's Bond showed no need for such validation from the man, professionally concerning himself only with his proper business on the range, Benson's Bond, in rather undignified fashion, tries to force him to admit that his performance was in fact pretty good, wasn't it? Wasn't it?

However, perhaps the biggest problem of all is the awkwardness of the fit of the Kangchenjunga episode with the stuff of Bond's adventures. Making the ultra-individualistic Bond--this Bond who wouldn't even let the Instructor's stinginess with praise slide--over into a functional, effective member of a larger team is far from easy. And while the ultra-urbane Bond is an outdoorsman and a sportsman, competent on the slopes and in tropical waters, something seems lost when he doesn't return from them to his fast car to drive to his luxury hotel to enjoy a fine meal at the end of the day. Immersed in a group, doing right by it, especially without the familiar Bondian props, the Team Player in the Wilderness is reduced to a cipher, as Gardner unintentionally demonstrated time and again in the various novels where he pursued such an approach.

High Time to Kill did not change my mind about this--and unlike in some of Gardner's efforts (Win, Lose or Die notably) the adventure element did not really compensate for this break with the accustomed pattern of the adventures. After all, the climb dominating the second half of the book is rather a glaring plot hole. That a helicopter could have been used to reach the site and recover the microfilm almost immediately is not even mentioned, though in fact the Aerospatiale Lama helicopter developed specifically to meet the requirements of the Indian and Nepalese militaries for helicopters suited for high-altitude operations in the Himalayas, would have been up to the job and not at all difficult to come by. (And its appearance would certainly have been more logical than the use the Union made of a Hind helicopter earlier in the story.)

Additionally, there is the drawn-out, repetitive, stop-and-go nature of high-altitude climbing, to which the book is all too faithful--the team ascending partway, then establishing a Base Camp and acclimatizing before starting the next phase of the climb. This does not help foster a sense of urgency, or flow, instead setting us up for a sequence of disconnected incidents--alas, not very interesting incidents. The rivals to Bond's team are not much of a presence in the book, mentioned more than seen, save in one confrontation that plays more like a prank (not least, on account of its scatological element) than anything else, and the reader easily forgets they are out there for much of the rest of the narrative.

Meanwhile, Benson derives little suspense from Bond's relations with the other members of his own team. This is partly a matter of Bond not getting to be Bond here--but partly also of the characterization of his rival and eventual foe on the team, Roland Marquis. Even while the reader knows that he is a traitor intent on nasty business from the start, he seems more dangerous for his oafishness than his treacherousness, the principal worry for a significant part of the narrative that his stupid one-upsmanship and showing-off (amplified by the altitude sickness to which they are subject) will get them into some kind of trouble—-as when he starts shooting cans and bottles on ground their Sherpa porters consider sacred.

Indeed, it all makes for an at best passable first half, followed by a weak second half. Things pick up somewhat in the characters' final approach to the peak and the microfilm, at which point they get to finally start making their real moves--but these are far from enough to save the adventure. In the end this leaves High Time working as neither a Bond tale of the more grounded type (as DoubleShot does), nor as an over-the-top, blockbuster-movie-crammed-between-covers (at which Never Dream of Dying is far more effective). In fact, it strikes me as the least satisfying of the novels he penned for the series--and it does not surprise me that Benson's subsequent books took different courses.

1. Some of these elements cropped up in many a subsequent Gardner novel--among them Role of Honor, where Bond wound up working a programmer in a video game company (how un-Bondian is that?!); and Win, Lose or Die, where Bond was in the Royal Navy and in charge of a superpower conference's security aboard the HMS Invincible.

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