Thursday, September 26, 2019

the last book I read

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.

So. The name's Bond. James Bond. Codename 007. Licence to...well, I expect you know the rest. Let's imagine - as difficult as that obviously is - that we've just met.

Bond is an agent of the British intelligence agency MI6, sent to the French seaside resort of Royale-les-Eaux to compete in a high-stakes card game with a shady character called Le Chiffre, who is a financier of the Soviet espionage agency SMERSH. The idea is that Bond (a skilled and experienced gambler) will be good enough to beat and bankrupt Le Chiffre, who is using SMERSH funds as part of his stake, thereby ensuring that some big Russian goons will shortly afterwards turn up to cash in Le Chiffre's chips in an unpleasantly brutal way, thereby saving MI6 the trouble of getting their hands dirty.

Bond is a loner, a man who likes to get things done, a maverick secret agent, if you will, who doesn't play by the book but - dammit - gets results. Nonetheless with the high stakes (in every sense) here he has a bit of a support network including René Mathis of French intelligence and Felix Leiter of the CIA, as well as an assistant from MI6, Vesper Lynd. Bond is far from happy about having to work with a woman, since they are flaky and unreliable in a crisis, and prone to swooning, attacks of the vapours and being distracted by shiny jewelled trinkets and fluffy kittens at key moments. Plus of course they provoke The Urges, and no man can think straight when a foxy female colleague is just standing there giving him the female vibes. Any red-blooded man, and Lord knows Bond is one of those, my word yes, is pretty much bound to get a bit distracted and rapey under such trying circumstances, and that's how missions get endangered.

Vesper actually turns out to be perfectly competent, despite making Bond go a bit funny, you know, Down There, and actually she makes for a convincing bit of arm candy for Bond to parade around the casino and blend in with the other high rollers. But soon business must intervene and it's down to a high-stakes game of baccarat for many millions of francs (which, unless I misunderstood the maths, turns out to be a disappointingly small many thousands of pounds when translated back into Proper Ruddy Money). Bond does well for a while but then loses his entire stack to Le Chiffre on the turn of a card. Disaster! Fortunately his new buddy Felix Leiter has some CIA funds he's prepared to put at Bond's disposal and, back in the game, he wins the crucial winner-takes-all hand and cleans Le Chiffre out.

And so to bed. Well, not quite, as after a celebratory small-hours dinner Vesper gets lured out to the front of the hotel on some pretext and promptly bundled into a car by some thugs and driven off at high speed. Bond gives chase but is forced off the road, trussed up and taken to an out-of-the-way location for a bit of a chat with Le Chiffre, who'd quite like his money back. And why wouldn't he, since SMERSH are breathing down his neck. So he decides to torture its location out of Bond by the not-at-all-weird method of tying him naked to a chair and repeatedly whacking him in the balls with a carpet beater. Bond is made of stern stuff, though, and just as Le Chiffre is on the verge of giving up and cutting Bond's tackle off with a bread knife the SMERSH guys arrive, kill Le Chiffre and his henchmen, give Bond a gruff nod and an "all right?" and then leave again.

Safely back in hospital and waiting for his balls to shrink back down so that he can get his trousers on again, Bond is reconciled with Vesper and they agree to escape for a holiday once Bond is discharged, whereupon they can explore their burgeoning feelings for each other and Bond can make sure the old chap is still in working order. And so it is, apparently, but after a few days' blissful rogering Vesper becomes convinced that she is being followed, becomes strangely quiet and uncommunicative and eventually kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving Bond a note explaining that she'd been blackmailed by SMERSH into becoming a double agent. Women, eh?

It's almost impossible to judge this, the first James Bond novel, published in 1953, on its own merits now, given Bond's subsequent history, especially on film. It's a very effective and gripping thriller which I raced through in a couple of days, although you could argue not a great deal actually happens - Bond beats Le Chiffre at cards, Le Chiffre isn't very happy and duffs him up, Bond recuperates with his girlfriend who turns out to be a spy. One might also observe that most of the key plot points on which the novel turns and by which Bond prevails in his various challenges are down to blind luck and not any super-ninja spycraft from Bond: the turn of a card at baccarat enabling him to beat Le Chiffre, the SMERSH agents turning up at just the right moment to rescue him from the torture room, and their subsequent decision not to just bump him off too for good measure.

Just like Tropic Of Cancer there are some general problems with women here, mainly a very similar feeling that despite the furious pursuit of women Bond (and by extension Fleming) doesn't actually like them very much. And passages like this are definitely a little bit, erm, problematic for modern sensibilities:

This is, I think, the third Bond novel I've read, both of the previous two being a very long time ago, and I would say it's better than The Man With The Golden Gun (which turns out to have been the last one, published posthumously in 1965), but not as good as Dr. No, which contains a ludicrously thrilling escape sequence about halfway through which was almost completely omitted from the film, largely because the effects budget presumably didn't stretch to the climactic battle with a giant squid.

Speaking of films, Casino Royale was of course the first film starring Daniel Craig as Bond, and just about all of the events in the book are included in the film, plus a lot more other stuff to compensate for the minimal action. The only major change is the switch from baccarat to Texas hold 'em to make the cardplay more comprehensible to modern audiences. The less said about the earlier 1967 comedy version, on the other hand, the better.

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