The Hero: James Bond; The Villain: ??? The Bond Girl: Sunny Pei; Supporting Characters: “M”, Q, Moneypenny, T.Y. Woo, Chen Chen; Locations Covered: Hong Kong, Australia, Jamaica; First Published: 1997
Someone long ago called it the “Undertaker`s Wind”, but hardly anyone in Jamaica referred to it by that name anymore. The Undertaker`s Wind was supposed to blow the bad air out of the island at night. In the morning, the “Doctor`s Wind” would come and blow the sweet air in from the sea.—-Zero Minus Ten, page 1.
In the passage quoted above, Raymond Benson was referring to a Jamaican superstition about the weather. For all intents and purposes, he might as well have been talking about the current state of the Bond literary franchise. Prior to his taking over that is!
Zero Minus Ten is a tough, raw, back-to-basics Bond novel that pays tribute to fans of both the cinema Bond and the literary Bond. It contains the best of both worlds, and should be a crowd pleaser for all.
Zero Minus Ten starts off with a teaser of sorts. A mission before the main mission, and one that is totally unrelated to the rest of the book. Chapter Two: Three Events, sets up what will become the catalyst for the investigation Bond will undertake. The events include an atomic bomb exploding in the Australian Outback, an explosion that destroys the entire Board-of-Directors of Eurasia Enterprises, and the gunning down of several customs agents in England. What`s the connection? Is there one?
Bond is sent to Hong Kong to investigate who may be responsible for these and several other terrorist attacks that have taken place in Hong Kong or with corporations doing business in Hong Kong. Could someone be trying to set up a potential war between China and Britain? A conflict that could possibly destroy the peaceful transition from British rule to Chinese rule that`s due to take place July 1st, 1997?
I haven’t mentioned the villains yet and for good reason. There are several who may have a motive for wanting to destroy peace between England and China. Those include an insane Saddam Hussein-like General Wong, who is just chomping at the bit to go ahead and invade Hong Kong with force, a Triad (a type of Chinese mafia) leader who hates Communist rule, and the President of Eurasia Enterprises, who is bitter at England for turning her back on Hong Kong. Even if you were to guess who did what to whom, it`s unlikely you`d figure out why until the very last few pages. Benson throws in enough red-herrings to confound even the most savvy mystery reader.
You can tell from reading the novel that Benson did his homework. The novel is rich in detail. The greatest thing that Benson does for Zero Minus Ten is “personalize” Hong Kong. By that I mean he makes Hong Kong seem just like a person. Not a soulless, steel and concrete mega monstrosity, but a living, breathing, vibrant human being. Through the many different characters Benson presents, you get a sense of anxiety for Hong Kong. A sense of worry for her. You feel how many residents now feel. Nervous with anticipation for her future. I cannot reiterate this enough. I was really impressed with how I felt about Hong Kong after putting down the book. I felt like i`d made and lost a new friend all at once. I feel this was the greatest achievement of Benson`s effort.
I was also impressed with the amount of background material presented about Hong Kong and the Triad`s. Benson gives you quite an education on Hong Kong`s evolution into the city she has become today. The rich background history lays an excellent foundation to later explain who is doing what to whom and why. It makes the main villain`s scheme seem much more plausible, and makes you somewhat more sympathetic to his cause.
Benson writes Bond back as a man in or around his early forties. The emotional baggage is still there, but without overtly giving in to today`s political correctness. Benson`s style of writing is definitely different than Fleming`s, yet it`s not necessary to copy Fleming`s style when you`ve captured the essence of who Bond is. And Benson has done that.
The Bond girl in this story is a prostitute, but to Benson`s credit, he never takes the easy way out in writing her character. Though she is a prostitute, Benson writes her with intelligence, an educated background, and an attitude. Benson also creates an interesting paradox that helps add to the chemistry between Bond and Sunny Pei. At one point, her very existence depends on her killing Bond, while Bond is trying to keep her alive by doing a nasty job for one of the villains.
Benson also brings a genuine sense of humor to the novel that has been lacking for quite a while. Most of the best humor comes from T.Y.Woo, or his son Chen Chen, who at just 15, has been put in charge of driving Bond around Hong Kong. I laughed out loud at Bond receiving “flammable shoelaces” from “Q” or Moneypenny telling Bond she`d whisper him “sweet and sour nothings”.
As I said, Benson`s novel is rich in detail. Sometimes too rich. Pages 50 through 53 contain a lengthy review of a dinner that Bond enjoy`s while in Hong Kong. Chapters 6 and 7 extensively cover a game of mahjong between 007, Guy Thackeray (The President of Eurasia Enterprises) and T.Y.Woo, Bond`s liason in Hong Kong. If you`ve had some experience playing mahjong but still had a few questions on how to play it, these chapters are for you. If you`ve always wanted to know how to play mahjong, these chapters are for you. But if you`re like me and never likely to play it, these two chapters can be awfully tedious. It would have been nice if these passages had been consolidated somewhat.
The book really hit`s it`s stride though beginning with Chapter 8: Private Dancer, where Bond hooks up with Sunny Pei. Up to this point we`ve had the teaser, the set up, and then two long chapters about mahjong. But here is where the action begins. From here on out, Zero Minus Ten is a fast paced, page turner. It`s no coincidence that, from this point onward, it only took me a day to finish out the book. Literally, I could not put it down. I did not want to put it down.
No book is perfect, and Zero Minus Ten has it`s faults. My gripes with the book are minor though. Benson is more explicit with how he approaches the love scenes than Fleming or Gardner ever were. I sort of miss that subtlety. I also felt Bond`s infiltration into Guangzhou was a lost opportunity. I was looking for a Mission:Impossible type scenario here, and it turned into more or less of a shootout. I felt the Stephanie Lane character too closely resembled Xenia Onatopp from “Goldeneye”, the “coldhearted bastard” remark from “M” was too reminiscent of the exchange between “M” and 007 in “Goldeneye” and the scene with “Q” seemed culled straight from any one of the films.
Still, small gripes aside, this is the hardest, tightest, and fastest Bond thrillers to come along in ten years. It`s Bond at his most basic. As of this writing, we aren`t certain what Hong Kong`s future will hold with China. But with James Bond and Raymond Benson around, it`s looking good so far.