April 7, 2010


by Ian Fleming
189 pages, Coronet Books, 1988

Angel of Death by Pat Black

Curious thing; every time I write the words “Ian Fleming” I want to prefix them with “Sir”. The title just seems to fit. It would have looked cracking on the letterheads and business cards, monogrammed on the golf socks. And entirely fitting on the front covers of Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Casino Royale is still fresh in movie-goers’ memories. A “reboot” of the Bond series in much the same vein as Batman Begins, it was a tough and somewhat caustic reintroduction to a character we think we all know. It is very unusual in the Bond movie canon in that it follows the plot of its source material – Bond’s first adventure in print - very closely.

Fleming published Casino Royale at the age of 42. His house, Goldeneye, was already built in Jamaica, and a colourful and intriguing career as a journalist mixed with wartime service in the Navy were behind him. Although Fleming describes his creation as looking a little bit like the singer Hoagy Carmichael – except for a scar running down the side of his face – I can see a lot of Bond in the author’s portrait. A handsome, but somewhat cruel-looking man, with sardonic eyes and a thin-lipped mouth. Opinion seems to be divided as to whether or not Fleming was a nice guy. What is clear is that the Bond who appears in Casino Royale isn’t a nice guy.

With his Double-0 status confirmed after having killed two men in the line of duty for MI6, Bond is enlisted by M to take on a Russian agent known as Le Chiffre at cards in the French resort of Deauville. They hope to clean him out, making his position untenable with his paymasters and either opening the door to his liquidation or offering him the chance to turn double for the west.

There is a myth regarding the Bond novels - that they’re always very grim and gritty affairs, ultra-realistic and harsh. As an excellent review of Dr No on this site reminds us, they are in fact something of a mixed bag; some of the books are as ludicrous as the very worst of the Sir Roger Moore movies (You Only Live Twice, with its Samurai-armour wearing Blofeldt facing off with Ninja James Bond, stands out like a turd on a croquet lawn in the series), while some, like From Russia With Love, series high-point Thunderball and odd-man-out The Spy Who Loved Me (which takes place in a grungy US motel), do fall into this accepted model of Gritty Bond.

Casino Royale is in the latter category. There are no space rockets, trousers that turn into jam, sharks with frickin’ lasers, satellites or underground lairs with monorail fitted as standard in the first Bond adventure. Bond doesn’t even kill anyone. For all that, he is lethal in this book – a borderline sociopath, a confirmed misogynist, a bit of a drinker. He drives fast cars, he has a Chelsea flat with a Scottish housekeeper (“a treasure”), he has this cute little cocktail he’s invented which sounds like it would blow your effing head off quicker than his snub-nosed Walther PPK, and he is all business. Bond might well be reinvented as a banker or a stockbroker if he appeared today.

The curious thing about this book is that the mission – and its grim denouement in a flurry of double crosses and whacks to the bollocks – forms a key part of the story, but not of the overall arc of the plot. The villain, Le Chiffre, exits the stage with a good 50 or so pages to go. The book’s curious structure is matched by the very odd metamorphosis Bond’s character undergoes. He starts off as one cold fish, indignant at the idea of the main female character, Vesper Lynd, joining him on his mission to Deauville: “And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way, and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they brought with them. One had to look out for them and take care of them.

“ ‘Bitch,’ said Bond.”

Although we know Bond as a lethal instrument and hardly your favourite uncle, this introduction to his true feelings still comes as a slap to the face. This just doesn’t square with the guy we know. Sure, he gets a girl at every port he stops in – he’s a bit of a boy, as my old man would have said. But that doesn’t mean he… well… hates them, does it? And even in the other books as well as the films, Bond is a righteous, shining protector of his women. He liberates them from cruel lovers, he protects them at the expense of his own health, and on the occasions when they lose their lives in the course of his mission, he takes revenge for them.

But this guy is different. At the end of chapter one, we get this classic description of Bond just before he sleeps: “With the warmth and humour in his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.”

Yeeesh! This is not a guy who giggles in his sleep – though I do suspect he is a mattress humper.

However, in the course of the story, this cold, bitey, bitter man is carefully rebuilt. His interest in Vesper Lynd becomes tender as much as it is carnal; soon, one wonders how much Bond might come to regret his sentiments regarding things getting “fogged” where women are concerned. The wall comes crashing down, and Bond falls in love. And then, in a brutal turn (though much less spectacular than how things work out in the movie version), it is rebuilt again. The last line of the book - present in the film - takes us back to square one. “The bitch is dead now.”

I couldn’t help but be confused by this gear-shift in Bond’s character. Usually when you get bitter womanisers in life, they’ve undergone the nasty experiences first, before they get all cynical and self-centred. A faithless relationship here, a custody battle there, finances decimated everywhere… and hey presto, James Bond. Bond seems to undergo the reverse; he starts off bleak and brutal regarding the girls, then has his heart broken, then gets all bleak and brutal again. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Perhaps Fleming’s message is ultimately a positive one: that although Bond makes the wrong choice, any heart can be melted at any stage in life. I’m not sure, though. He just comes across as a sulky teenager after having been a bit smudged by his first girlfriend. Girls, they’re a nuisance… wait, no! I love this one, she’s different! Ah, hang on, she’s not. Bitches they are, I tells ya, all bitches!

And as Bond’s certainty about women is shattered, so is his certainty in the job, in the organisations he opposes himself to, and in the characters of the people he must kill in the name of world security. He’s never subversive about this appraisal at the end, but Bond does come to re-examine the role he plays in world affairs, and how real life isn’t like an imaginary story where the hero gets to kill the villain for a clear-cut, just and righteous cause. Given that this book launched a wildly successful series in which its hero goes on to do exactly this in each successive book and movie, this is deeply ironic.

Something that sticks out like a sore scrotum in Casino Royale is the torture scene. In the centrepiece of the book. Bond – having beaten Le Chiffre at baccarat in Casino Royale, thanks to the intervention of the CIA’s Felix Leiter – is captured by his enemy and has his plums whapped repeatedly with a carpet-beater. Gentlemen, you may uncross your legs now.

I was astonished to see this scene present and correct minus one or two details in the movie; here he is, James Bond, this famous swordsman, almost literally emasculated by the man he is supposed to have beaten. It’s a perverse, almost Freudian position for our hero to be in. And in Le Chiffre’s eloquent preface to the act itself, he manages to ridicule the tied-to-the-tracks capture scenarios and last-minute escapes which follow in every subsequent Bond book:

“Torture is a terrible thing, but it is a simple matter for the torturer, particularly when the patient is a man. You see, my dear Bond, with men it is quite unnecessary to indulge in refinements. With this simple instrument, or with almost any other object, one can cause a man as much pain as is possible or necessary. Do not believe what you read in novels and books about the war. There is nothing worse. It is not only the immediate agony, but also the thought that your manhood is being gradually destroyed and that at the end, if you do not yield, you will no longer be a man.”

Wiggida whack!

Back on cosier territory, we do see signs of the Bond milieu as it would become. This is a man who, like his creator, loves foreign travel and good living. Fleming may well have been one of the world’s great food critics had he not taken to making up spy stories. Bond’s fixation with good food and drink is so well-rendered that it’s a wonder that 007 doesn’t go up a couple of dress sizes, even in the course of the book. Lobster bisque, mountainous breakfasts, foie gras, eye-wateringly strong cocktails; no detail is spared. There’s also some hints of the era the book was written in; in this and other Bonds, the idea of aviation seems like something impossibly glamorous, the indulgence of movie stars, high-ranking politicians and international men of mystery. Nowadays, it’s a means to an end, of course. Only James Bond could add mystique to the process of sitting in a departure lounge, bored out of your mind.

Then there’s the gambling – a brilliantly handled scene in which Bond has it, loses it, then has it again over Le Chiffre. This featured a card game I’d never played before, baccarat, but the rules are so well defined and the turns of the cards so well set-up that I felt I was watching the game itself. This is where the movie (which changed the game to poker) followed the narrative of the book most closely; it’s the key conflict, and we get enough character beats to raise the tension along with the stakes at the gaming table. This paved the way for other, equally brilliant conflicts and contests in the series, including another card battle in Moonraker and a spot of high-stakes matchplay golf in Goldfinger.

Other golden moments include a cracking car chase (ended more realistically than in the film, where Vesper is, urm, tied to the tracks); the wonderfully terse M, Bond’s disapproving father figure; and last but not least, the love of his life – Felix Leiter.

In The Man With The Golden Gun, Fleming seemed to be ridiculing-by-proxy a popular psychiatrist’s couch profile of James Bond in which it is suggested that his rampant womanising is due to latent homosexuality – where he’s effectively got something to prove to himself. A pretty ridiculous notion designed to be contrary, I reckon - but I’ve got to say, the only person who Bond responds to with warmth and openness is his opposite number in the CIA. Leiter is the only character Bond ever trusts, the only guy he will drop everything for in order to help out, and the only individual he meets with a genuine smile. Bond even goes on a revenge mission on Leiter’s behalf when he is partly fed to a shark in Live And Let Die; this is true bromance, damn it. If Bond is as moved by the demise of Vesper Lynd, or by his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then we aren’t told about it.

Where I can’t defend Fleming is in his depiction of women. Lynd has her head turned by Bond; not many of the female characters in the books can escape his charms. Even Pussy Galore, in one of the series’ most crass moments, ends up changing teams at the end of Goldfinger.

In Casino Royale, Vesper comes across as weak-willed, unable to stick to her job, needing to be protected by Bond at all times and as something of a silly mare who, one supposes, deserves a good slapping when things get tight. Most of Fleming’s women fall into this template, seeming to justify Bond’s harsh appraisal of women in the field at the start of the book. The entire series is filled with appalling partners for Bond.

A female colleague of mine who could not be called weak-willed once astonished me by calling into question my feelings regarding Fleming’s depiction of women. She made excuses for the age in which the books were written; said that the almost nauseatingly prurient delving into the heroine’s past love life in The Spy Who Loved Me was both realistic and sensitive, much the same as Bond’s heroic appearance to see off her gangster foes was both sexy and dangerous. I couldn’t believe it - I sometimes wonder if I’m more of a feminist than some feminists.

Still, if you only ever read one Bond novel, I think it should be this one. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it raises more questions about its hero and his motivations than any of his subsequent adventures ever dares to answer.

Maybe in some alternate reality we could have alternate Bond novels. The idea for slightly altered-canon movies has already been put forward – Quentin Tarantino has expressed a desire to make a Bond set back in the 1950s. Never going to happen, of course, but we can only salivate at the idea. Maybe we’d get a gay Bond (played by Rupert Everett), realising his true happiness is with Leiter, trying to get out of the service after one last job. Maybe we’d get Janosz Bondski, Russian superspy, a square-headed brute with a blond buzz-cut (like Daniel Craig, in fact, if his head was moulded in plasticine), drinking his vodka straight up and gunning down milquetoast English agents in an explosion of evening attire and cucumber sandwiches. Didn’t they do something similar with Superman one time? Hmm.

Or maybe Moneypenny would be the sexy superspy who has the men eating out of her hand – with her secretary, James Bond (a sort of clean-cut parish-priest-fresh-out-the-seminary type of man), sweating, stuttering and blushing whenever his boss appears to throw her handbag over a coathook. We could have anything.

Personally, if they ever gave me a neo-Bond novel to write (come on, Mr Fleming’s estate… you really want to…), I would set it in 1969, following the timeline of the books. An older, greyer Bond, pointed towards promotion and a desk job, having to watch the young Turks take over his mantle in a changing world of drugs, music and free love… How much would this ageing boor buy into it, and how much would he be out of touch? How much more deadly would all his experience and cunning be in the field, versus his ageing body? How would his unique perspective on women be tested in the flower power era?

Possibilities, possibilities… I’ll stroke my white cat and ponder these awhile.

1 comment:

  1. Casino Royale is such a great book. Lean and incredibly mean, it goes to show that books don't have to be weighty in order to pack a punch.
    Interesting thoughts about directors considering setting Bond back in the 1950s. Whilst its a good setting for the novels, I don't think a modern audience would buy into it with much enthusiasm... Did you read Devil May Care? The latest Bond book, penned by Sebastian Faulks and set back in the 50s/60s... It felt derivative and tired.
    Great review... though I actually quite liked "You Only Live Twice" - Dr. Shatterhand's garden of death was a pretty cool concept.