The new Ian Fleming is the anti-Bond.
By Deanna Isaacs
It was two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The sun blazed from an endless blue sky, scorching the blacktop of the Walker Bros. Original Pancake House parking lot. The girl hurried across it, glancing at her watch. At the doorway, she checked her reflection in the glass, then looked through it. He was there, as she knew he would be. When she stepped inside he rose and extended a hand. "Benson," he said. "Raymond Benson."
The handshake was lighter, friendlier than she'd expected, and his appearance disarmed her. The new Ian Fleming was anti-Bond--a compact, trim-bearded chap of 43 in jeans, pink cotton shirt, and a wedding band. His dark hair was flecked with gray, and he had a good-natured face that she warmed to immediately. Still, she noted, the blue gray eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses were problematic.
"Bond would never come here," she said, testing the water.
"Ah, but he would," said Benson. "Breakfast is his favorite meal. He'd order scrambled eggs and tell them exactly how to cook them."
He smiled wryly and her pulse quickened. She had the right man. They followed the hostess to a booth in the back. As soon as they were settled she put the question to him: "How did a computer geek from Buffalo Grove end up writing the adventures of 007?"
Benson looked at her for a moment in silence. "I was growing up in Odessa, Texas," he said. "It was 1965. I was nine years old, and my father took me to see Goldfinger. It made a big impression--the gadgets, the girls, the music, the big set pieces. And then you had Sean Connery, just sort of cool as hell. That same summer they rereleased Dr. No and From Russia With Love. Then Thunderball came out. Within one year I'd seen the first four movies, and I became, like so many other boys my age, just a Bond nut. I started reading the novels around age ten. Although a lot of it went over my head, I knew they were different from the movies--more realistic, more serious. I reread them when I was older and realized how great a writer Ian Fleming was. He created this spy fantasy genre that has been so imitated.
"I went to the University of Texas at Austin, majored in theater. In 1981 I was living in New York, directing off-off-Broadway shows and composing music. I started working on a reference book on James Bond. Nothing like it existed. I pitched it to a publisher, and it was published in 1984--The James Bond Bedside Companion. In the process of working on it I got to know some members of the Ian Fleming family and Peter Janson-Smith, who runs their literary business, Glidrose Publications."
Benson paused for a sip of Diet Coke. For the next decade, he explained, he and his family moved around as he pursued a career writing computer games; finally they settled in Buffalo Grove, and he began working for Viacom. "Then in late 1995 I got a call from Mr. Janson-Smith. He said John Gardner, who'd been writing the books for the last 15 years, had decided to retire, and he asked me if I would like to give it a shot. I was scared and floored, but I said sure. I had to write the outline for a plot and the first four chapters on spec. Once that was approved I got a contract to write Zero Minus Ten, which was published in 1997."
The girl licked syrup from her fork while Benson related his escapades since Janson-Smith rang him up. They were impressive: he'd written two original Bond novels, one novelization of a movie, and two short stories for Playboy. In his spare time he'd knocked off a non-Bond novel. "I've tried my best to bring back Fleming's Bond," he continued. "He's more ruthless, more of a brooder than you'll find in the films, a shadowy figure with a very cruel mouth. He does what he has to do for queen and country but keeps to himself. He distrusts women. He carries a lot of baggage. Fleming put a lot of himself into Bond. He had a reputation for being very ruthless with women--yet they couldn't resist him."
She wondered if, traveling to Bond's locations, eating Bond's meals, he also identified with his protagonist. "No," he insisted. "I know the character inside out, so that's no problem. I have a passion for him. But it's a fantasy."
Still the question nagged at her: How much of the Bond aura rubs off? She looked at him closely. "Do women come on to you now?" she asked.
Benson searched for the right answer. Under the beard he blushed, his full face pink as an English rose--a nice American boy, miraculously afloat in the supercharged world of his pubescent dreams. "I get a lot of attention."
They left the restaurant together, separating in the parking lot. She kept her eyes on him as he climbed into his Chevy Malibu and carefully backed out. He watched her watching him and stopped, lowering his window for one last revelation: "No machine guns." Then he rolled off in the direction of Buffalo Grove.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Raymond Besnon photo by Nathan Mandell.