New York: Putnam, 2001, pp. 272.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS
Reading Never Dream of Dying the book's title struck me as the most Fleming-esque Benson had yet come up with. It also compares favorably with High Time to Kill in its better fit with the story, evoking one of its more unusual elements rather than simply being a questionable pun forced into the dialogue.
Befitting such a title, the books draws more heavily on Fleming's material. Where Benson had previously tended to limit the appearances by minor Fleming characters to "walk-on roles," here they figure prominently in the plot. The first third or so of the book in fact splits the investigation between Bond and Rene Mathis, whose adventure is actually the more interesting during this portion, with the two threads merging significantly later in the book. Along with Mathis, his father-in-law Marc Ange Draco turns up, and while initially appearing marginal to the story, he quickly proves to be deeply involved in the tale's events.
Still, heavy as the references to the Fleming books are, Never Dream goes for a more contemporary feel in ways large and small. Alongside the old-fashioned Bondian idea of glamour (like gaming at Monte Carlo's Grand Casino), there is also a new generation's idea of high living--Bond attending a fashion show at the Louvre, accompanying movie star Tylyn Mignonne to the on-location shooting of a blockbuster (Pirate Island), and heading off to a premiere at the Cannes film festival for the climax. (Bond is, of course, a stranger to all of this--and in Fleming fashion comes off more senior civil servant than high-living international man of mystery in the process. But the context makes its impression all the same.)
It might be noted as well that the sex is the most graphic Benson ever wrote, Bond and Tylyn engaging in mutual masturbation, with certain parts of the female anatomy explicitly mentioned--unremarkable by today's standards, but going much further in this regard than his predecessors ever had (and apparently it caused a stir in some fan circles).
Consistent with this, it is also the most cinematic of the Benson novels--and perhaps any Bond novel written to date. This is, in part, because it is so action-packed, opening with a massive firefight, and once the story has properly started, keeping the action coming thick and fast, with at least four of the action scenes that follow being equally or even more spectacular. But it is also a matter of the frequent Hollywood hokiness of contemporary action-adventure filmmaking.
The most grandiosely conceived of the novel's action scenes, Bond's escape from the Starfish floating hotel being used by Pirate Island's stars, begins with an ambush reminiscent of the one at Carver's party in Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond escapes his attackers, then steals a speedboat to complete his getaway, resulting in a boat chase that goes right through the movie's shoot of its biggest, most explosion-packed sequence of all as the director shouts "This wasn't in the rehearsal!" right before deciding "No! Keep the cameras rolling. This looks great!" on the way to Bond's "stuffing" a speedboat under a tanker ship just as it explodes--then making his getaway on a conveniently prepositioned underwater vehicle created by Q Branch.
The fights even come complete with the cheesy dialogue associated with the genre. Fighting Union thug Rick Fripp on a catwalk inside a targeted theater, Bond gets his enemy at a disadvantage and tries to make him talk--at which point Fripp yells "Let's go together!" before pulling Bond off with him to drop down to both their deaths. During a knife fight the Union thug Antoine says "You want to dance, my friend, let's dance!"
And of course, reading it all on the printed page, putting it together in one's head, it's harder to overlook their silliness than when passively watching a flickering screen.
Indeed, taken altogether the climax put me much more in mind of the finale of Charlie's Angels II: Full Throttle (which similarly involved a bomb attack on a big movie premiere, and the heroes hanging on to the villain's getaway vehicle on the way to its inevitable crash) than anything ever before put into a Bond novel or film.1 And increasingly I found myself wondering just how we were supposed to take it. Up to this point Benson kept the humor in his books limited, writing in jokes but not making a joke of major plot points, let alone the plot itself, the way Gardner so often did.
However, this exceptionally metafictional adventure often feels as if, after several years and several novels, he too is going this way.
The plot twists correspond to the action in this respect. The "mystical" abilities earlier attributed to the Union chief are revealed not to be a Mr. Big-like fraud for the benefit of credulous subordinates, but actually real, while Bond encounters another character possessing such prophetic powers--making for by far the most unambiguous intrusion of the occult into a Bond novel to date. Bond and Le Gerant also turn out to be connected in a most unlikely way--and Benson kills off not just one but two of Fleming's creations, and his more memorable ones at that.
More significant to the plot than its differing handling of glamour, sex and cinematic action, the supernatural and the soap operatic, and the unprecedented level of summer blockbuster hokiness that results--and certainly less welcome than these novelties--is the book's callousness. In an early scene an action sequence ends explosively--in the process, killing a child, and indeed, a child who turns out to have been dear to someone close to Bond himself, and whose death made revenge a not insignificant element in the goings-on. Bond scarcely reacts to it all, suffering over it less than he had before over the death of many a villain, even when all has been said and done. Additionally, while the situation (for all its melodrama) is the sort of thing that raises questions about the real ethical implications and human consequences of secret service stuff in the real world, the narration likewise shrugs it off in what struck me as an unfortunate sign of the "dark and gritty" times--one which made it harder to enjoy the turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-the-ride experience it is sometimes quite successful at serving up.
Still, love it or hate it, it does conclude the Union saga--and in a big way--while also setting up the next book in one of its plot threads, namely the Union's association with an ultranationalist Japanese terrorist, Goro Yoshida, the villain of the next book, The Man with the Red Tattoo (coming soon).
1. Of course, Never Dream came first--Charlie's Angels II being a 2003 release.
Raymond Benson and the James Bond Series
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