I read Casino Royale that night I said I was going to (after reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography) but never got round to commenting on it. However, I am about to embark on Live and Let Die, and I have some time today, so here goes.
I won't tell you the story. You may have read the book once, no doubt long ago, or perhaps seen the film – not Sean Connery, this one, it was more recent and starred Daniel Craig along with Eva Green, a great favourite of mine since I first saw her as Sibylla in Kingdom of Heaven. All I want to do here is draw attention to a few points that strike me as interesting,
Firstly, we meet "M" and get the whole set-up at once, along with a two-page Top Secret document on SMERSH. I somehow found this surprising. I'd always imagined that Fleming introduced these things, built up this alternative universe, gradually, but no, he had it all there ready in his head before he ever started.
Secondly, there is a reference at the beginning of the book to one of James Bond's earlier cases. (remember this is the first Bond book Fleming wrote, and chronologically the first Bond adventure.) I'll quote the passage. "Head of S" has just emerged from M's room and is telling "Number Two" who has been chosen for this special mission:
'One of the Double Os – I guess 007. He's tough and M thinks there may be trouble with those gunmen of Le Chiffre's. He must be pretty good with the cards or he wouldn't have sat in the Casino in Monte Carlo for two months before the war watching that Roumanian team work their stuff with the invisible ink and the dark glasses. He and the Deuxième bowled them out in the end and 007 turned in a million francs he had won at shemmy. Good money in those days.'
Now I already knew all about that case in Monte Carlo, from the Authorised Biography. You can't imagine how at home that made me feel in Bond's universe!
Thirdly, his (Bond's? Fleming's?) misogyny, sexism, call it what you will. When Bond first hears that his sidekick on this job is to be a woman, he is furious. This pest of a girl [...] 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 carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. When she turns out to be the stunning Vesper Lind (think Eva Green) that makes his attitude worse, not better. Then she is abducted by the villain, Le Chiffre, and as Bond races after her in his Bentley, it is just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men ... For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched ... But we have to remember that this is a man, and surrounded as we are by psychologically emasculated 20th century males, we may need to suspend our modern prejudices along with our disbelief as we read these books, and be honest about who we would want racing to our rescue in similar circumstances. And in Fleming's defence (SPOILER COMING) it turns out, ironically, that it is not Vesper who has "fallen for an old trick like that" but Bond himself. The abduction had been a trap Bond raced right into.
Finally, there follow two chapters that constitute perhaps the most horrifying and haunting torture scene in modern literature. It is there in the film but it is toned down. In the book he spends weeks in hospital recovering before he can return to the arms of Vesper. (Yes, she emerged unscathed.) This business of the reader / cinema-goer as voyeur, watching James Bond endure agonies that only he could, is another key feature of the James Bond product. Perhaps the film world did it best in the very first one when he fell into the hands of the sinister and sadistic Dr No – once again while attempting to save a beautiful girl. James Bond as Knight Errant then. The man you pray will come along when you are chained to a rock and the dragon is approaching – even if he does believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. (As you will have guessed by now, I have a feeling he is right.)
Anyway, this evening I have another date with him: Live and Let Die.