Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ian Fleming's Casino Royale: The Spy Story to End All Spy Stories


I am probably one of the world’s biggest James Bond fans, but it’ll surprise you to know I’m more a fan of the books than the movies. It’s Fleming’s fault that I decided to write my own books, and he still teaches and inspires me as a writer today. The Bond books are overlooked pieces of art in a flooded espionage genre, a genre that gets no respect, but maybe that’s okay as a lot of the espionage genre is as disposable as yesterday’s trash. Not so the Bond books. As an example, take the first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale”. It's a spy story, yes, but there is much more beneath the surface.

The book introduces James Bond as a sharp British secret agent assigned to take on a Russian agent in a card game and clean him out. There are the expected details of high living and beautiful women; assassination attempts, gadgets, action; and a bit of philosophy that will throw you for a loop.

I’m talking about Chapter 20--The Nature of Evil. James Bond is in the hospital, recovering from torture received at the hands of the villain. He is having a crisis of confidence. And he’s been doing some thinking. He tells a compatriot, a French agent named Mathis, about how easily the young distinguish between good and evil. We’re given “fairy stories” about the Devil from parents and schoolmasters, Bond says, but those stories mean nothing to somebody like him who has witnessed evil up close.

He decides that he himself has behaved in an evil way in order to fight evil, while the evil, to oppose the perceived evil of the good, respond in their own way to the threat. Each side thinks he’s on the side of the angels. Basically, Bond (and Fleming) is saying that whether a person is good or evil depends on their point of view. (Get your head around that!) It's not a black-and-white picture Fleming paints; he presents a complex moral question. However, it's a question that must be answered, and in the end, Bond discovers his answer. If he's the evil that opposes a greater evil, so be it, he's ready and willing to take on that role, and the OO7 we know and love is born.

To provide more detail will spoil a wonderful book, but if you’ve seen the recent movie version, you know the basics. It’s a shame that the filmmakers left out this conversation between Bond and Mathis, but it’s indeed better read than viewed as the reader may want to go over it a few times to make sure they’re reading what they seem to be reading. This sort of conversation isn’t what you normally associate with James Bond.

That’s the genius of Fleming. He’s never been given enough credit as a writer. The Bond books are solid pieces of storytelling. Fleming dipped his pen in fantasy, no question, and some parts of James Bond’s adventures come off more cartoonish than others, but Fleming reached the right balance between comic-book fantasy and fictional realism. Fleming’s gift was characterization and Bond, in his everyday behavior, is fascinating to watch.

When he wrote “Casino Royale” Fleming said he wanted to write the spy story to end all spy stories. If he had stopped with “Casino Royale” and gone on to write other non-series books, we wouldn’t have the James Bond we have today, but we’d have a novel that addresses the dichotomy between good and evil like nothing else in the genre. That alone would give Fleming a place in the halls of literature.

James Bond is not out of place in a blog dedicated to hardboiled literature. His inclusion is debatable, but there's enough hardboiled action in the Bond canon to make the case. I think I’ve read “Casino Royale” five or six times and it never gets boring. I often discover new aspects to the story that I missed in previous readings. That’s the sign of a good book.

That’s what makes good literature.

23 comments:

  1. I think it was Fleming that inspired me to write too and I challenge you - I am actually the world's biggest 007 fan.

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  3. great author thanks for this review on ian fleming my favorite !

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