Casino Royal - Ian Fleming (1953)
Daniel Craig's James Bond was the first Bond I properly got to know. In my young mind James Bond was unreasonably handsome and effortlessly cool, but at his core was an action hero. He had more literary credibility and maturity than a John McClane, but the romantic, suave, gentlemanly James Bond of old wasn't the image I had until much later. The 2006 Casino Royale film wasn't even about poker to my young eyes: it was about explosions, car chases, machine guns with bottomless magazines, tailored suits and product placement for cars that would only look at home parked ostentatiously on a driveway at a summer house. Later I adopted the modern, rose-tinted lens through which most of us see James Bond but without having any contact with the franchise other than the Goldeneye Nintendo 64 game and Craig's movies. Picking up the Casino Royale book, I knew that this Bond would be very different to the Bond I knew, and I was correct.
The very first paragraph set a promising precedent for Fleming's first entry in what would become the James Bond juggernaut:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling - a compost and greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
This immediately told me that Fleming could write well if he chose to. The word "soul-erosion" so perfectly described the feeling of hope fading and the imminent consequences of one's questionable actions. It gave the reader something they could relate to by reminding them of the feeling when they've gambled and lost - not just a memory, but a feeling. I was immediately emotionally invested in the book and wanted to go along for the ride.
Fleming went on to describe a familiar James Bond who noticed tiny details, including about people, security holes and exactly how they could be exploited. These descriptions would be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a book or watched a movie influenced by the series. At the end of the first chapter I got the first clue that the book would not continue in the familiar vein of its modern adaptations:
Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.
The description of the casino contrasts noticeably with the description of Bond as he falls asleep. In the former, Fleming used the word "and" in his lists to create a sense of movement so the reader feels a part of the scene. "Scent and smoke and sweat.... compost and greed and fear". When describing an emotional Bond revealing an ugly, empty side of himself, the lists used commas to slow down the reader and create a chilling atmosphere: "ironical, brutal, and cold."
This emotional Bond continued to rear his head and, until after the climax of the book, he continued to stifle it for the good of the job. This showed he was deeply conflicted but unfortunately he did not become as satisfyingly complex as even Craig's Bond. The Craig films add extra dimensions to Bond to mould a rich character and even something of an ageing hero. Just this level of depth outclasses Fleming's Bond, whose relationship with women is distasteful to modern palettes (a necessary evil in books of this time) and who harboured a fondness for cars and guns. This isn't to say that Fleming's Bond left a bad taste in my mouth after comparing him to Craig's Bond, but that I was expecting something more from a classic British novel like this.
To digress slightly, it was also interesting to me as an unapologetic car person that Fleming's Bond didn't drive an Aston Martin DB5 as he did in the old films. Bond's car was a Bentley, in which he participated in a car chase that is is more aptly referred to as a night drive: he drove along a country highway at slightly above modern highway speeds for a long time without seeing anyone, until he did, where the car chase ended without any Hollywood stunts.
Fleming's Bond was terrifically calm at all times, horribly antisocial, lucky, confident with himself and with others, and as was noted before, deeply conflicted. His internal conflict was properly explored in a good chapter, albeit one without subtlety or tact, towards the end of the book where the moral ambiguity of his position caused him to nearly end his career as a spy. This conflict would have been so much more satisfying to the reader if there was just one other human trait to find, but even his sexuality was hard to relate to. He finally did show a personal side, shortly after he decided he'd like to quit killing people, where he planned to marry his female companion Vesper Lynd. Even this accidental slip into normal, relatable humanity was tainted when, after learning of her heartbreaking position which led to her betrayal, he coldly reported to MI6: "The bitch is dead now."
When describing this book to your friends later, there are three things you're going to tell them. Number one is that the book is fantastically well written. The scene at the casino is terrifically tense and the prose is unique and full of character. I sometimes like to write in books to remember my thoughts for club meetings and my notes at the end of this chapter read:
One of the best written, thrilling, suspenseful pieces of prose I've ever read. Fantastic.
The second thing you're going to tell them is you didn't expect to be given a full introduction to the game of Baccarat. I had expected the casino section to be about poker and to be relatively short and irrelevant. I was wrong. About 20% or more of the book was dedicated to explaining the rules of Baccarat and to playing it. I actually liked that Fleming decided to do this: it gave the book so much more character than it would have otherwise had and set it strongly apart from the movies.
The third thing you're going to tell them is about the rape. Bond doesn't rape anyone - he's no less virtuous than the movie Bond - but a romantic passage about Lynd includes an eyebrow-raising comment that generated plenty of discussion at our club meeting:
... she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
I like Craig's Bond. Craig's Bond is just relatable enough, just conflicted enough and just cool enough to seal his place among the great heroes of modern cinema. Fleming's Bond is awkward and crass like a teenager who doesn't realise his Facebook posts will pop up again in ten years for everyone to see and for that he can be forgiven. Casino Royale was always meant to be a book that was for entertainment rather than enlightenment and it should be read as such. I've been fairly harsh on Fleming's portrayal of Bond as a character, and that's partly because the modern Bond is such an important figure. Fleming's real strength, though, comes from his descriptions and prose, in creating suspense in scenes that are difficult to create suspense in, and in making the reader feel as though they are right there experiencing the story along with Bond. The icing is Fleming's own personal quirks which lend some character to a novel that the films will never be able to match. As the first in a series it should be enjoyed without looking through the lens of its future success. It's a fun book, entertaining and interesting in its own right, with some fantastically written scenes that it would be unfair not to include among those found in great classic literature. I just wish it didn't have James Bond.
Dylan Williamson (Fortitude Valley Chapter)