New Bond book gets back to basics - guns and girls

Robin Stummer meets the author aiming to revive the 'real' 007
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Bond dragged languidly on his specially made Morland Turkish cigarette, then, after another sip of vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) returned to the puzzle that wouldn't go away: what is the link between Britain's coolest hero, the computer game Dark Seed II, and Buffalo Grove, USA? Tough one, even for 007.

Benson knows the answer. Raymond Benson. "My friends say 'Look what Raymond's getting to do - it's what he's always dreamed of. In fact, it's a dream I didn't even think I was allowed to dream. Who'd have thought that a smalltown American boy could carry on Ian Fleming's character?" Who indeed?

Thirty-three years after Fleming's last 007 novel, Goldfinger, the Beretta- toting smoothie is back.A new novel, Zero Minus Ten, seeks to recapture the literary qualities of a Bond story, as opposed to the "kiss kiss bang bang" screen versions. Yet the writer charged with restoring him to the page bears as much relation to Bond's creator as Blofeld to Mr Blobby.

Fifteen 007 novels have been published since Ian Fleming's death in 1964 - one of them, Colonel Sun, by Kingsley Amis writing under the pseudonym of Robert Markham, the others by John Gardner. Though successful, the later books portrayed an increasingly health-conscious, less combative hero - Eighties New Man in a tuxedo. Now, in the era of the New Lad, first- time novelist Benson has gone back to Bondian basics in a fast-moving world of bedrooms, firm breasts, betting and bruises.

"The fans have been clamouring for the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanising rake that he used to be," says Benson. "There are certain elements that have been missing from the follow-up novels - the gambling scenes, for example. Fleming was really very good at taking two or three chapters and making a scene over baccarat or whatever.

"There have always been scenes with exclusive meals and lots of detail about what the meal looked like and how it was made, what it tasted like - that was all part of the experience."

Accordingly, Zero Minus Ten, set in Hong Kong immediately before the handover to China, contains all the classic ingredients - glamorous setting, abundant sex, sinister gangs, megalomaniacs, beautiful women, exotic food and a lengthy gambling scene.

But isn't it treason to hand the fate of God's Englishman to an American? Fleming was born to a wealthy upper-class family, followed an Establishment path of Eton, spells at Sandhurst and Munich and Geneva universities, then Reuters, the City, wartime service in Naval Intelligence, friendship with Noel Coward and Graham Greene and, after a post-war spell as foreign manager of a newspaper group, fame as the author of some of the best-known stories in English.

Benson, 41, though an avid Bond fan since childhood and the author of the James Bond Bedside Companion, is the quintessential Nineties American - until now, he's made his living designing elaborate computer games with such titles as Dark Seed II and Return of the Phantom. Tall, confident and debonair, Fleming and Bond were womanisers with a taste for fine cigarettes. Benson is a compact, happily married, softly spoken non-smoker. Does he like vodka martinis? "No. Brandy."

"Americans have always seen Bond as an Englishman and that added to the coolness factor because in the States anything from England is considered cool," he explains. "The real challenges were because I'm an American and so I had to watch out that the English characters talked British and that no Americanisms crept in.

"If you're a Bond aficionado and know your stuff, you'll be able to pick up all the little details in my book. The first chapter is called Shamelady which is what Fleming almost named his house in Jamaica. He was one of the first writers to use brand-names and makes in his work - to get down to specific items - and I do that too. It's all part of the game."

Peter Janson-Smith, who was Fleming's literary agent and is chairman of Glidrose, the company which holds the publishing copyright to the Bond name, says: "One of the reasons I chose Raymond to write the new novel is that he knows the books inside out. I even look to him for facts I've forgotten myself.

"In the Eighties, Bond had become too politically correct, too well-behaved. He's meant to be a maverick character, but in the recent books he doesn't have his special cigarettes, doesn't drink as much vodka martini and pussyfoots with the ladies rather than leaping in."

Welcome back, Mr Bond. We've been waiting for you.

'Zero Minus Ten' is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 3 April