OK, I just patched a big, gaping hole in my cultural literacy. I read my first Ian Fleming James Bond novel.
Wow! I was pretty blown away. It wasn’t at all what I expected. That’s both good and bad, but mostly good.
I started at the very beginning with “Casino Royale,” the first Bond novel written in 1952.
Aside from any inherent merits of the work itself, which were considerable, I found it interesting in much the same way as when I first read “Dracula,” or a collection of Conan the Barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard.
In all three cases, I was dealing with characters who had gone on to saturate modern pop culture. I’d taken in derivations of those characters. Interpretations by other writers and filmmakers. But I’d never checked out the source material.
I found out that James Bond, like Conan and Dracula, was a considerably different character at his inception than the guy who emerged from a decades-long stay in the pop culture echo chamber.
You could argue that Bond was the most influential of the three. Ian Fleming virtually invented the modern thriller. 007’s influence persists in everything from action/adventures like “The Dark Knight,” to spoofs like Austin Powers, to works that fall somewhere in between, like Scott Pruden’s “Immaculate Deception.”
So how does the original Bond, James Bond (yes, that phrase is in “Casino Royale”) stack up?
Let me give you a warning, in case you intend to read “Casino Royale.” Some minor spoilers are coming.
So if you just want to know if you should read the thing, my answer is yes. The stories are very different, but in some ways I see “Casino Royale” as comparable to Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.”
Like “Straw Dogs,” it’s very much a product of its time. Like Peckinpah’s film, it’s problematic, and those problems pretty much begin and end with its treatment of women. But the two works are so skillfully done, so gripping and suspenseful, that you can almost tune that out.
Now, on to the review.
I grew up watching James Bond films. I loved the Roger Moore movies when I was a kid, but considered them too lightweight as I got older. Although I still enjoyed the Sean Connery movies, even those I basically considered to be frothy, male-fantasy escapism. A sharp contrast to John le Carre’s works, which explored the gritty side of espionage.
Le Carre and Fleming, I should note here, both drew on professional experience in espionage for their works.
To my surprise, I found that “Casino Royale” was far closer to Le Carre’s stuff than I had imagined. It wasn’t quite as psychologically complex or intellectually rigorous. But it was a lot more raw and dark — flat-out bleak at times — than I’d expected. In tone, it was more like the 2006 version of “Casino Royale,” the “gritty reboot” of the franchise starring Daniel Craig (which I really liked).
I might as well address this now. The sexism in the book was very over-the-top and very off-putting.
Look, I’m no politically correct scold. I’m not going to pick up a book written 60 years ago and expect it to conform exactly to modern sensibilities. And the James bond franchise has never been renowned for its enlightened attitude toward women, so it’s not like I was expecting “The Feminine Mystique.”
But the James Bond in this novel is not the double-entendre-spouting charmer that Sean Connery and Roger Moore portrayed. He’s a sneering misogynist with an overweening contempt for women.
To be fair, Fleming doesn’t present this as a sympathetic trait. And as the book progresses, it becomes clear that Bond maintains that attitude toward women as a psychological shield, because getting too close to someone is a potentially fatal mistake in his job.
But it’s hard getting around cringe-inducing moments such as Bond’s speculation that sex with a female character will be enjoyable because her emotional inaccessibility will give it “the sweet tang of rape.”
Still, one thing that surprised and impressed me about the book was the extent to which that job exacts a physical and emotional toll on Bond. He’s far from the stoic, indestructible hero. More like a man desperately trying to maintain his stoicism in the face of overwhelming tests.
Sure, it starts out as pure male fantasy. Glittering casinos. Beautiful women. Big money and cool spy tricks. You see how seductive the job can be.
Then the book veers sharply away from male wish fulfillment territory.
The villain, Le Chiffre, kidnaps Bond. Then he takes Bond to his sprawling, underground headquarters, where he straps him into a fiendish high-tech execution device. He explains to Bond his plans for world domination, then exits the room to carry it out and leave Bond to die. But Bond cleverly escapes by …
Actually, that’s not what happens. What really happens is that Le Chiffre brutally tortures Bond by beating his genitals. It’s a long, harrowing scene that rivals the sodomy from “Deliverance” for disturbing, sadomasochistic intensity.
He ends up in the hospital, because this Bond doesn’t take a beating and then show up in the next scene looking impeccable in a dinner jacket. There, he tells a colleague he’s thinking about retiring, because he can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore and the memories of the men he’s killed weigh heavily on him.
Does this sound like anything you’d see in one of the Roger Moore films? Not exactly.
I’m not going to give away the ending, although it won’t surprise you if you’ve seen the 2006 remake. I’ll just say it ends with Bond back in the game, but at the price of even greater emotional isolation.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a fun, campy romp, don’t read Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale.” But if you’re looking for a good book, by all means do so.