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Saturday, 11 June 2011

Book Of The Month: Casino Royale

Things I learned from reading Ian Fleming's Casino Royale:

(a) I should have read this book sooner as it's really rather good;
(b) How to play baccarat;
(c) That the movie is surprisingly faithful to the book; and
(d) James Bond is a total arsehole.

I was stunned by the coldness of Bond's attitude to women, but then he is also a cold-hearted killer and it's the films that have made him into a romantic character.

In this book - his first outing, dated 1953 - he sees women purely as objects for post-mission hankie-pankie, no strings attached. He has no place for them while on assignment and thus when teamed with young Vesper Lynd he mentally dismisses her as a silly little girl and a "bitch".

He is incredibly condescending and patronising with her for the most part, and then - after a particular grim piece of torture at the hands of the book's bad guy - Bond's main reason for wanting to get Vesper into the sack is to check if his manhood is still operating properly!

But, of course, there are no half-measures with Bond. He finds himself actually falling for Vesper and after their first proper night together decides he's going to propose... and I think we all know that's not a good idea.

This is a man who thinks about "the sweet tang of rape", which isn't quite so bad in context, but is still a repugnant turn of phrase.

Hoagy Carmichael
At times, it's hard to reconcile this Bond - who physically resembles Hoagy Carmichael with a scar - with the tough, but good, guy we were all raised with via the TV and cinema.

As well as introducing us to Bond, Casino Royale sets him on a mission to ruin a Russian agent, Le Chiffre, who has embezzled government funds in a failed venture and is trying to win his money back at the gaming tables of the Royale.

Bond is the British secret services' most proficient gambler - and has recently been granted his OO 'license to kill' - and is packed off to France to liaise with a small multi-national group of agents, including the CIA's Felix Leiter, to bankrupt Le Chiffre during a series of games of baccarat.

Fleming's style is brusque, but evocative, moving the story along like a freight train. Even the central card game scene - which spans a number of short chapters - is incredibly tense, but then this book is laying the groundwork for the character of Bond and his future adventures.

There's a great car chase sequence, the aforementioned torture at the hands of Le Chiffre, twists and double-crosses, romance with a beautiful lady and the downbeat ending.

Throughout all of this, Bond is an ever-present figure; not some caricature of a Hollywood hitman, but a cold-hearted, confident, laser-focused assassin who only finds joy in good food, drink, cigarettes and sex.

He is flawed, prejudiced, manipulative and all too human, but he does what he can to conceal these weaknesses and while on a job, his obsession is that job.

He is not a man you'd want dating your sister!

Clearly a product of his time, there are moments when you wonder if you're only supporting Bond as the protagonist because "he's James Bond", when, in the modern politically correct world, his line of thinking could quite as easily have come from the villain of a story.

Was Bond the first true anti-hero?


There's no denying that Fleming had created a startlingly strong character in Bond, but you can also see - even from this first book - why the movies rubbed some of the rough edges off of 007.

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