CASINO ROYALE, BY IAN FLEMING (1953)
(On June 10, 2006, I purchased a box of 75+ vintage paperbacks, mostly sci-fi and adventure books, from a Half-Price Books And Records in Lincolnwood, IL. I am reading all of them. This is book 4.)
Part of what first attracted me to the big box of paperbacks--the contents of which, for the record, I have removed from the box and placed on a shelf--was that it contained a complete set of Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels. (Although I can't remember if it contains The Man With The Golden Gun, which some argue wasn't mostly written by Fleming anyway.) Consequently, a sub-project of this Big Box Of Paperbacks Project will be reading each of these. So why not start with the first one, particularly since it's the source of the next big-screen Bond movie? (This won't be spoiler-free, sorry.)
I'd never read any of Fleming's books before, not even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I knew Bond exclusively from the movies, so it was difficult reading this to move the setting back from the 1960s and all the trappings one associates with Sean Connery-era Bond to the 1950s when it was written and set. Although, in some ways, it wasn't that difficult. The Bond found here lives in a grittier world than the Bond of the movies and he's charged with a simple, however, improbable task: Defeat a French communist union leader by beating him at baccarat, thus forcing him to face the music with the Soviet intelligence agency SMERSH whose money he's squandered on a chain of brothels.
Fleming's Bond, in this book at least, is less the world-traveling bon vivant than a man of very specific tastes (which he apparently shared with Fleming) who practically cramps up when he has to turn introspective, particularly when women are involved. I remember Alan Moore writing somewhere, in a piece that attempted to peel back several heroic icons, that Bond was driven by his hatred of women. That seemed a little joy-killing to me, but it's there on the page. The sub-plot here involves Bond letting his innate disdain for women fall aside long enough to romance a fellow agent named Vesper Lynd, who seems to be acceptable to Bond because she's not particularly womanly, once you get past the way her lovingly described clothes fit on her body. There's a fascinating passage in which he reflects on his disdain for every facet of the courting process. "The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement," Fleming writes, continuing:
He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affiar. The conventional paraboa--sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the finall bitterness--was to him shameful and hypocritical
With Vesper it's different and he give himself over to it instantly, even considering giving up the service after the book's initial adventure draws to a close. (And interestingly, it's not Bond who defeats the bad guy.) Of course she's a double-agent. The book ends with her suicide and Bond's recommitment to the spy game and the dismissive words, "The bitch is dead now." With his notes of cruelty and misogyny (both reportedly not confined to the screen), Connery was expert casting.
In some ways it reads more like an origin story than a proper adventure, and I was surprised by the exhausted, world-weary tone of the book. It's not sophisticated like John LeCarre, but there's a similar sense of the toll espionage takes on the soul.
More on Fleming and Bond further down the line. But for now, here's two nuggets: Fleming describes Bond as looking like a Hoagy Carmichae ("but cold and ruthless." (Apparently some described Fleming that way as well.) And the drink Bond orders quite memorably early in the book isn't the vodka martini, shaken not stirred of the movies. It's this: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?"
Got it. But I don't think I could drink it. I like a good, stiff drink as much as anyone, but I can't imagine moving after that, much less besting anyone at baccarat.
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