The James Bond Project 2: The Secret Agent

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Jonathan Cape, London, 1953)

Reading Casino Royale some sixty-three years after it was first published, your first impression is  that it has not aged well.  The James Bond we find in its pages is a product of the Edwardian attitudes and behaviours of his creator and consequently bears nothing but a fleeting resemblance to the representation we’re used to from even the earliest of the movies.   Secondly, you can’t help but notice how slight it is as a novel, with a predictable plot and largely one-dimensional characters.   It’s probably kindest and most useful to regard it as a kind of pilot episode for the series, in which the author lays down the essential building blocks of the franchise which he will revisit, refine and expand as opportunity arises.

Nevertheless, in 1953 the book was a runaway success, and its first print run sold out within a month.  James Bond became a popular resort on the cultural and literary map and Fleming continued to produce a book of 007’s exploits every year until he died in 1964.

Not surprisingly, given that the Cold War was at its height in the middle of the last century, Casino Royale puts down the enemy’s marker very early on in the form of SMERSH, a conflation of the Russian phrase “Smyert shpionam”, which roughly translates as “death to spies”.  SMERSH is a covert execution squad variously described as an “efficient organ of soviet vengeance” and “the most feared organisation in the USSR”.   Opposing them on the side of the angels are characters who will recur but who at this early stage are clearly auditioning for their places in the canon and therefore seem to be operating at about half-charge.   Among them are a sternly patrician M, with his “cold eyes”, and Felix Leiter, described, in typically Jingoistic Fleming style, as one of the “good Americans” who “were fine people” and most of whom “seemed to come from Texas”.

The most interesting of these introductory vignettes ,however, is Miss Moneypenny who, we are told, “would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical”.  She is introduced, in other words, as that most dangerous of women in Bond’s universe, one who asks questions rather than blindly accepting instruction.  This initial reading seems to be distinctly at odds with her subsequent default position of doe-eyed but hopeless adoration of 007.  It’ll be interesting to watch that unfold.

Bond himself is presented in full testosterone-overload.  To look at, he reminds love-interest Vesper Lynd of Hoagy Carmichael, an American composer, pianist and performer in the nineteen-forties and -fifties, to whose appearance Fleming’s own had, tellingly, been compared.  In Bond’s case, however, there is also something “cold and ruthless” in the way he looks.  He has “grey-blue” eyes, a “comma” of hair that falls above his right eye, despite the attentions of hair-brush and comb, and a “thin vertical scar” down his right cheek that makes him look “faintly piratical”.  He has “warmth and humour” in his eyes, but as he sleeps, “his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold”.

He is also clearly a member of a privileged class used to the finer things in life.  He is at home in the cosseted world of the super-rich, and thinks nothing of hazarding tens of thousands of pounds on the turn of a card or the chatter of a ball on a wheel.  The novel opens with a description of  a casino in the small hours which oozes glamour and danger, but Bond the “expert gambler” fits right in: “he liked the solid, studied comfort of cardrooms and casinos”, believing “the more effort and ingenuity you put into gambling, the more you took out”.

I’m also intrigued to know what his contemporary audience, waiting at their bus stops in the rain, on their way home from the public library with a borrowed copy of Casino Royale in their string shopping bags, would have made of 007’s epicurean predilections.  “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink” he tells Vesper, and the reader is forced to do the same, particularly during a chapter focused entirely on what they had for dinner that doesn’t move the plot forward one iota.  We do, however, learn that 1943 is the best year for Taittinger champagne which, Bond informs Vesper, is “not a well-known brand… but it is probably the finest champagne in the world”.   Although he does have the decency to grin ruefully at “the touch of pretension” in his remark, the character – and his creator –  has obviously sampled enough brands of fizz to be able to discriminate between them.

The guzzling doesn’t end there.  Earlier he has breakfasted on a half-pint of iced orange juice, three scrambled eggs with bacon and a “double portion” of espresso coffee, while lunch is pate de foie gras and langouste.   And that’s not even taking into account his pre-match tipple: a cocktail he later names “the Vesper”, composed of three measures of Gordon’s gin, a measure of vodka, half a measure of Kila Lillet (a fortified wine rather like vermouth, apparently) shaken well with crushed ice and served with a thin slice of lemon peel.  I’m surprised he could walk after consuming that lot, let alone cut cards with an international super villain.

There are other trappings of wealth and luxury.  His car is “one of the last of the four-and-a-half litre Bentleys with the Amherst-Villiers Supercharger”, a convertible coupe in battleship grey, while his cigarettes, of which he smokes a lung-carbonising seventy a day, are a Balkan and Turkish mixture made up specially for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street.  Obviously he’s not a man accustomed to popping down to the paper shop for ten Park Drive.

To say the plot is flimsy would be to flatter it.  In a nutshell, Bond has to separate Soviet paymaster Le Chiffre from the embezzled Trade Union funds he is gambling to replace the Trade Union funds he has embezzled.  And how is this daring coup to be accomplished? By beating him at cards.  It’s hard to credit that any intelligence service would think that the best way to ensure national security is to send its top trained assassin off to a posh watering hole with a wallet stuffed with Treasury banknotes so he can stake the lot on winning a few hands of cards.  Yet that, dear reader, is the premise on which this book is rather shakily constructed.  It takes a while to get going, too, despite a gratuitous explosion in chapter 6.  Once we’ve waded through a very clunky set-up – the back story and character of the villain are presented verbatim as a “Dossier for M” in Chapter 2 – and descriptions of a few sumptuous meals, Fleming, through Bond’s explanation to Vesper, devotes a chapter to the rules of Baccarat, presumably for the benefit of readers more accustomed to Beetle Drives at  Methodist Church Socials than the slap of the card-shoe in high-stakes casinos.

Once these preliminaries are out of the way, the novel’s major set-piece begins at the High Table in the casino’s “salle privee”, and for the next four chapters the protagonist serially wins, loses his (and the British taxpayers’) shirt, and then, thanks to the intervention of the CIA, ultimately wins back not only his stake but the entire seed money of his opponent. Job done.

To be honest, these chapters are actually quite exciting and we can’t help but gasp, sigh and applaud when after much sweating and anxiety, not to mention a credible death-threat, the cards finally fall in the hero’s favour.  Fleming manages the narrative well here to keep us engaged, but it isn’t long before we’re back to swilling champagne and scrambled eggs in what turns out to be a somewhat premature celebration in the casino’s night club.

A kidnapping, a car chase and a capture later, we’re on to the book’s second great set-piece, Bond’s torture at the hands of Le Chiffre, as the latter tries to find out where the former has concealed his winnings.  Fleming obviously intended this episode to make us squirm and shudder, but it leaves me curiously unmoved, probably because I’ve never been up close and personal with a carpet-beater and therefore have no concept of how painful it would be for one to be brought into repeated contact with a person’s naked “underparts”.   Judging by Bond’s reaction, the answer is “excruciatingly” and “enough to make you faint” but, just as our hero is at breaking point, a lazy deus ex machina device prises him out of the bottomless cane chair which has provided unhindered access to his squashy bits and he’s off to hospital.

There are other, more easily imaginable and possibly more painful methods of torture that Fleming could have come up with, so repeatedly smacking someone on the botty with a domestic implement has the air of the kind of punishment meted out at a boys’ boarding school.

That may be the novel’s weakest link, the sense that it is a “play up and play the game” type of boys’ adventure story, albeit one seasoned with the sharp tang of sex and a smackerel of sadism. This atmosphere lingers in other parts of the book, too, chiefly in the dialogue.  In outlining the mission to 007, M asks “What about it, Bond?” as if the secret agent has a choice.  He goes on to say of the French Deuxieme Bureau, “We shall be lucky if they don’t kick up rough”, advising Bond to “go over… and get your hand in” before opining that “Le Chiffre is a good man”.  In fact, the whole of this section reads more as if Bond is being offered a chance to play rugger with the first fifteen against a team of notorious cheats than to bring down a senior Soviet agent.  You wouldn’t be surprised to hear Billy Bunter shout “Yarooh!” as a boot connected with his expansive posterior in some ante-room of M’s inner sanctum.

The mood continues when, in the field, Leiter tells Bond, “Washington’s pretty sick we’re not running the show” but comforts himself with the thought that “your fellows are much the same in London”. Now call me picky, but that sounds more like Bertie Wooster than a Texan CIA agent.   It’s these slightly jarring notes that detract from the overall verisimilitude of the piece, and no amount of brand-name-dropping or luxurious local colour can quite redress the balance.

For the modern reader, the novel is at its most laughable when dealing with women, and nothing can eclipse the Chauvinism of its author.  “What the hell do they want to send me a woman for?  Do they think this is a bloody picnic?” explodes Bond when informed that his back-up will be a “girl from headquarters”.  “Women were for recreation” he later opines.  “On a job they got in the way, fogging things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.  One had to look out for them and take care of them.”  These pernicious ideas are unequivocally expressed and indefensible and, unlike the torture scene, they do make us squirm.  Yet this is what some men, especially ones brought up in middle class or well-to-do households with servants and nannies, genuinely believed in the early years of the twentieth century.

Of course when Vesper Lynd actually appears, Bond’s libido ratchets up a notch.  Fleming gives over a whole page of description to what she looks like, lingering on her eyes, her “wide and sensual” mouth and her “fine breasts”.  Bond “felt her presence strongly”, was “excited by her beauty” and, true to type, “wanted to sleep with her” but only “when the job had been done”.  Thus she moves from being a “pest of a girl”, a sort of Violet Elizabeth Bott to Bond’s Just William, to being a trophy awarded to the victor after a particularly exhausting game of chance.  It’s no surprise that the author’s blatant sexism has had feminists reaching for the blue pencil for the last thirty years.  All we can say is that the book is of its time and be grateful that we are more enlightened.

Despite all these flaws, it’s not hard to imagine why its contemporary readers took it to their hearts.   In a world only recently done with rationing and still tainted with the evidence of a global conflict, it offered a glimpse of a life they could only dream of.  Bond’s suave persona, moving easily through the upper reaches of moneyed society in an exotic location, his devastating effect on women, as evidenced by the alacrity with which Vesper Lynd allows herself to be seduced by him, and his ability to act decisively without remorse or consequence combine to make him the ultimate man’s man.  It is perfect escapism because, quite simply, he can do and say things that we never could – and get away with them.

There is every chance that Fleming created Bond in his own image and that the womanising sophisticate with a ruthless streak was how the author would like to have seen himself.  It is impossible however, not to infer that the character as Fleming originally conceived him was driven, humourless and cruel.  While he may be observed being polite, well-mannered and, at times, even chivalrous, he is not kind or considerate.  His most relaxed relationships are with men whom he considers comrades and equals, such as Leiter or Mathis, his French opposite number.  Women, on the other hand, are treated with an aloofness that borders on disdain: he snaps at Vesper, and patronises her by trying to tell her what to drink.  He is also prone to self-indulgent outbursts of emotion.  A spell in hospital late in the book, for example, finds him in “tears of forlornness and self pity”.

Part of Bond’s allure in Casino Royale was that he was quite unlike any character hitherto seen in popular fiction.  His predecessors, gentlemen-sleuths to a man, such as Lord Peter Wimsey, Richard Hannay and Simon Templar, were largely softies, who, despite their breeding, were liberal humanists, helping the underdog and righting the wrongs perpetrated by The Man in his various guises.  There is, on the other hand, very little human sympathy in James Bond.  Does this make him a recognisably flawed human being or simply a petulant man-child frustrated when he doesn’t  get his own way?  The jury’s still out.

Maybe Live and Let Die will provide us with a few more answers.

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