Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale is the first of the James Bond novels, published in 1953. I read many of these years ago, and occasionally return to them to savour the crisp story telling. Unlike modern action thrillers by Ludlum, Cussler, or Clancy, the Bond books are generally a modest 200 pages or so. The 2006 movie Casino Royale (with Daniel Craig, by far the best looking Bond), follows the book closely, but has several subtle differences in tone. For example, the movie shows Bond has become a double 0 agent after killing two, and the second was easier. In the book, Bond has also killed two, but found the second harder. The movies vary from camp to disturbingly violent, and reflect the style and issues in vogue when they are made. The novels are more consistent and serious. They are set during the cold war, but Bond’s enemies are colourful individuals rather than an anonymous red scare. Bond is cynical, but not quite hard boiled: he works for the government, and believes his sacrifices make the world a better place.
I had not read Casino Royale before, but knew the famous opening sentence:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.
A great opening, despite the unnecessary ‘suddenly.’ Fleming continues by providing some background in dialogue, through Bond imagining a conversation between casino staff the next day. This is a little technique I plan to steal. Fleming also uses a much older technique – two key parts of the novel are letters. Though effective in context, they are slightly clumsy exposition. In fairness, I know this is his first novel, and perhaps I am looking too hard for signs of that.
The end of the first chapter is very telling about Bond and the direction of the novel. He returns to his hotel room to sleep, we learn he is a secret agent in the course of his careful inspection of the room, and he settles into bed.
His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt Police Positive with the sawn barrel. Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.
The plot seems too light to sustain any novel, especially a spy novel: Bond’s assignment is to defeat a foreign agent at a card game. A couple of assassination attempts pad the story, but the climax still seems to come too early. Then the actual story arc is revealed to be Bond’s relationship with a female agent, Vesper, assigned to help him.
He considers her more a burden than a help. This is consistent with the misogynist tone of the book. Women are nothing more than a battle prize, as Fleming freely admits. After the card game is won. the bad guy defeated, Bond takes Vesper to a night club, and tells her:
It’s wonderful sitting here with you and knowing the job’s finished. It’s a lovely end to the day – the prize-giving.
This is about as offensive as pillow talk can get. (I have no idea if Fleming was misogynist or not, and don’t care, but nothing in the book contradicts Bond’s opinion of women.)
Before he can enjoy his prize, Vesper is kidnapped, and Bond sets out to rescue her. But the kidnapping was not about her – she’s just bait – and he doesn’t want to rescue her for her sake – it’s his job. When they are back together, he wants her only so he can ensure his literally tortured equipment is still functioning. It is, but there is no fear of a long term relationship. She’s a double agent, and that never turns out well. The last line is Bond’s phone call to headquarters:
3030 was a double agent, working for Redland. Yes, dammit, I said was. The bitch is dead now.
Unlike the movie, where Bond attempts to save her, here at least she has the dignity of being able to plan and carry out her suicide on her own, making her a little less a victim than she is in the movie. On the other hand, in the movie Bond is shown to have some genuine feelings for her and regrets her death, but it only spurs him on to further manly action. The final scene of the movie is his avenging her death, and she is absent. She is present in the final scene of the book, as Bond expresses hate and possibly self-hate.
No matter how you look at it, there is misogyny, but the Bond books are boys’ adventure stories. They are about the comitatus – a group of men engaged in military action, led by a hero – a story form dating back to the oldest English story, Beowulf. I should be offended by the marginalized role of women, but in this world where only men matter there’s ample pleasures to be had in the barely sublimated homo-eroticism, the cars and guns fetishes, and an obsession with the male body. I didn’t catch it when I was younger, but now I wonder how I missed it.
The answer to both how I missed the homo-social and homo-erotic aspects, and whether or not I should tolerate the misogyny, lies in Stuart Hall’s theories of how we understand media. Briefly, he proposed that readers interpret stories based on their backgrounds, and may accept, reject, or negotiate various messages in the story. More at Semiotics for Beginners. So I’ll continue to enjoy the odd story from the twisted world of James Bond, ignore the misogyny, and delight in images such as Bond curled up for the night, hand resting on his partner’s butt.