Raymond Benson, . . Putnam, $23.95 (289pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14884-2

This latest addition to the James Bond canon includes virtually all the requisite components, from an evil villain with a diabolical plot to exotic settings and beautiful women. But what's missing is the biggest piece of all: Bond himself. This time around, Benson's Bond is strangely inert; he lacks the suavity, verve and wit that have made him one of the most engaging heroes in genre fiction. The story line is compelling enough: 007 is in Japan to baby-sit the British prime minister at a summit conference and to investigate mysterious deaths in the McMahon family, whose patriarch ran pharmaceutical giant CureLab. Bond reunites with an aging Tiger Tanaka, who featured in Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, as they pursue Goro Yoshida, the terrorist who links both parts of Bond's mission. Yoshida is a cliché—monomaniacal and merciless—but an interesting one, bent on using biological weapons to punish Western society for polluting traditional Japanese culture. He even has an evil dwarf sidekick, Junji Kon, the knife-wielding embodiment of a kappa, a mythical creature in Japanese folklore. The other Bond tropes are present: love interests (Reiko Tamura, Tanaka's colleague; and Mayumi, the sole survivor of the McMahon family), cinematic action and gadgets (including a Palm Pilot packed with plastic explosive). But it's Bond himself who propels readers along, and here he is a mere facsimile of the real thing. (June)

Forecast:Benson has published five other Bond novels/pastiches, two novelizations of films and The James Bond Bedside Companion. Fans will snap this up to feed their habit, but it's unlikely to draw new readers to the franchise.