Monday, 18 February 2013

Casino Royale


Ian Fleming

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.


Despite being a fan of the cinematic adventures of Mr Bond, I'd only got around to reading one of the original books before now. I'd enjoyed From Russia With Love when I read it about ten years ago, but I remember having to work at the prose. I'm a fan of fairly spare, stripped-down description in books (although it's not always a discipline I can adhere to as a writer), and I remember Fleming being at the opposite extreme: lots of thin, cruel lips and aquiline noses and clothes described in the kind of obsessive detail that Brett Easton Ellis employed for effect in American Psycho.

Bearing that in mind, it came as a pleasant surprise how easy Casino Royale is to read. It's not that it's different from what I expected in terms of writing style, it's exactly what I expected... and yet I found myself tearing through the book in the space of a day. Fleming spends pages describing locations, characters and clothing, and yet it doesn't detract from the readability of the book at all. He even spends an entire chapter explaining the rules of Baccarat... and I wasn't bored. I just wanted to play Baccarat.

This was Fleming's first novel, and as such, it's an odd example of the species. For a thriller, it's light on action (although that could just be my gauche twenty-first century sensibilities), and the plot is very unconventionally structured, with the main conflict resolved two-thirds of the way in by Deus ex Machina. There's the aforementioned obsession with detail and description, and at times it seems as though Fleming is more interested in converying to the reader a sense of an exclusive and unique world, rather than being overly concerned with plot or character.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this is one of Casino Royale's biggest strengths: it transports you to the glamorous world of high-stakes gambling on the continent in the early 1950s, and weaves in just enough sex, violence and mystery to remind you that it's a novel, rather than an engaging piece of journalism. At times, that's exactly how I was enjoying the book: the same way I enjoy long-form magazine articles that introduce me to a world I've never visited. Unfortunately for me, I was born fifty years too late to visit this particular world.

Spoiler warning, because I'm going to talk about the ending.

Fleming often comes in for a bruising about his attitudes towards women, and it's easy to hold up the fate of original Bond girl Vesper Lynd in this debut offering. Blackmailed by SMERSH into betraying Bond, she ultimately commits suicide as the only way to extract herself from an impossible situation. Bond internalises his feelings, informing his superiors of the situation by phone: "3030 was a double, working for Redland. Yes, dammit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now."

It's already one of my favourite last lines in literature. Out of context it comes across as cold, even misogynistic, but in the context of the book, it's anything but. Fleming spends most of the book delineating Bond as a man whose demonstrative success with women is undermined by the fact he clearly doesn't have a clue about what makes them tick. Throughout the book, Bond is bemused, irritated and infatuated by Vesper in turns. By allowing himself to fall for Vesper and leaving himself open to the resulting heartbreak, the ultimate capable man has managed to get in out of his depth. That's why, despite appearances, the anger in that last sentence is directed squarely at himself.

What I learned: a good opening line is important, but a killer final line is what resonates.

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