(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box of over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number two.)
CASINO ROYALE, BY IAN FLEMING (1953)
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 the Box Of Paperbacks Book Club (I've shortened the name a bit at a reader's request) will be reading each of these. So why not start with the first one, which also served as the source of last year's pretty great Casino Royale film?
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 when 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. The Bond found here lives in a grittier world than the Bond of the movies–even the back-to-basics world Daniel Craig stepped into—and he's charged with a smaller, simpler, but just as improbable task as the Bond of the movies: 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. In Alan Moore's excellent introduction to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (which has sadly disappeared from recent editions), Moore writes:
The fictional heroes of the past, while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience. . . . As our political and social consciousness continues to evolve, Alan Quartermain stands revealed as just another white imperialist out to exploit the natives, and we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.
That sounds like a bit of joy-killing, but what's there on the page bears out, if not an utter hatred of women, an inability to digest anything remotely feminine. 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 Bond finds a way to look past the way her lovingly described clothes cling to 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 affair. The conventional parabola—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 final 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, **SPOILER WARNING** 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." **END SPOILER** (With his notes of cruelty and misogyny–both reportedly not confined to the screen)–Connery was expert casting.)
Casino Royale often reads more like an origin story than a proper adventure but it hardly sets up some of the more high-spirited adventures to come. (Full disclosure: I've read ahead in order to have some of these entries in the bank to keep on schedule.) The exhausted, world-weary tone of the book is decidedly un-Bond-like, or at least the Bond that's dominated popular imagination pre-Daniel Craig. Fleming doesn't have the sophistication of John LeCarré, but there's a similar sense of the toll espionage takes on the soul. Apparently he knew a thing or two about that from personal experience.
More on Fleming and Bond further down the line. But for now, here's two nuggets: Fleming describes Bond as looking like a younger Hoagy Carmichael, "but cold and ruthless." Apparently some described Fleming that way as well and the cigarette smoking fellow on the back of my copy does look a bit Carmichaelesque.
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, much less best anyone at baccarat after knocking one back.
Before we go, some covers:
Here's the 1963 British paperback version:
And a British cover from 1973:
I like both of these. Speaking broadly, I get the impression that British paperback publishers kept higher production standards in the '70s than their U.S. counterparts. I wish both would be better at crediting the artists behind them.
Next up in The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Gorgon Festival by John Boyd