Monday, January 26, 2004

BOOK BOND REVIEW: Raymond Benson's all time high

As we approach the Five Year Anniversary of its publication, I thought it was time to look back at what many fans now consider to be one of Raymond Benson’s best James Bond novels, High Time To Kill.

In his third original Bond adventure, Benson is highly experimental in his use of a single setting for much of the story while, at the same time, still deftly adhering to the classic James Bond formula. No “continuation novel” demonstrates a better understanding of what makes a classic Bond thriller, and High Time To Kill surpasses even some of Fleming’s books in this regard.

The first half of the novel finds OO7 in familiar, glamorous settings: The Bahamas, Belgium, behind the wheel of the DB5. Yet it’s the realistic beating Bond takes at the hands of the obligatory oversized henchman that signals High Time To Kill is going to be veer off into new territory. And does it ever!

The villain’s ingenuous plan to smuggle a Top Secret formula (Skin 17) into China is waylaid by fate — a plane crash. Suddenly, the chess board is scrambled in a twist that is far more satisfying than any of the double or triple crosses that have been so overused. Bond joins a mountaineering team in the Himalayas, and races against the clock to reach the downed plane before the baddies. The remainder of the novel plays out on the rocky slops of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak.

James Bond meets Cliffhanger? Why not?

What unfolds is an adventure unlike anything we’ve ever seen Bond participate in before — yet all the Bondian ingredients are firmly in place: Villain, sidekick, Bond girl, breathtaking locales (literally this time), gadgets, exotic culture, set-piece showdown and coda. But every one of these “classic” elements (which in the movies have drifted toward clichés) feels 100% fresh because it’s all set within the context of a reality-based high concept idea: Mountain climbing. The overlaying believability of the concept elevates the characters and makes High Time To Kill truly suspenseful in a From Russia With Love sort of way. Benson has never fleshed out a location better — which is ironic seeing as Benson was unable to take a planned research trip to Nepal for this book.

Even the almost always fumbled “this time it’s personal” element works perfectly here. We understand that the villain is driven by his competitive masculine/sexual ego (a subtext of almost all Bond villains), but the possibility of altitude sickness motivates his megalomania in a completely believable way. The ice axe throwing competition is as gripping as any casino face off. Bond catching a glimpse of Hope Kendell undressing in her small pup-tent is much sexier than Halle Berry bursting from the sea like a Bond Girl Jack in the Box. Bond’s sidekick, a Sherpa, is indispensable in a way most Bond sidekicks are not. The “gadgets,” cutting edge climbing equipment, are real, but still exotic. And what better test of OO7′s stamina than a savage mountain climbing expedition? There is a return to the idea of OO7 as a master of the extreme sport in this book that is very much a part to the world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. In fact, I think Fleming would have eventually written a book just like High Time To Kill.

This is also the book in which Benson begins what no Bond continuation novelist (or, of late, Eon) has ventured to do; develop a SPECTRE-like criminal organization, complete with Blofeld-like mastermind, that would return to menace Bond in subsequent adventures. High Time To Kill was the start of what became known as “The Union Trilogy,” an idea embraced by Bond fans and nicely fleshed out in Benson’s next two books, Doubleshot and Never Dream of Dying.

There’s more, but suffice to say High Time To Kill is the perfect fusion of the high-concept Bond formula and the completely believable and dangerous world of high-altitude mountain climbing. If you’re looking to sample a non-Fleming James Bond novel, THIS is the one to get. It’s truly Raymond Benson’s “all time high.”

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