While I am working my way through the Superman films, all the Alien movies and the latest Big Finish releases I have set myself another challenge. Last month I went to a book talk by the historian Ben Macintyre about his most recent book Double Cross. I was intrigued to learn that he had written a biography of Ian Fleming and James Bond. I bought it and it was a fascinating read which has prompted me to go back and look at the original novels and to try and read them in the order they were published. So here goes with the original Bond novel from 1953.
The plot is well known. Bond is sent to beat the villain Le Chiffre at Baccarat in the eponymous Casino. I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that Bond wins the card game but things don't go entirely according to plan from then on.
The strange thing is how little Bond actually does in this first book. Apart from the card game, he is involved in one brief scuffle at the Casino and he drives and then crashes his Bentley. Otherwise he is a mostly passive participant in the events which happen to him or to those around him. He isn't the punching, shooting man of action that he becomes in the films.
However, all the well known facets of Bond's lifestyle are filled in. His clothes are described in beautiful detail. He goes on about drink a lot, and invents the famous Vodka martini. He orders expensive food with great precision and then asks the head waiter if he approves of the choices in a combination of snobbery and wishing to impress. As Macintyre points out in his book these meals must have been instantly attractive to Fleming's audience in post war austerity Britain. Some foods were still rationed until 1954, Bond's menu could only be dreamed about by the majority of his readers.
And, of course, there are Bond's views about women which are also spelt out in some detail and are really quite reprehensible, even for the time. All in all James Bond comes across as an unpleasant character. We might admire his actions and nerve, but we probably wouldn't choose to be in a room with him. Especially with his 60 cigarettes a day habit. This is certainly not the James Bond from the films. It is slightly difficult to see what set the public's imagination alight but maybe it was all those fabulous meals.
One final point of note. Bond has a few minutes between winning his card game and taking Vesper Lynd out to dinner, in which he has to hide the cheque in his hotel room. The way he does so, which defeats both the villains and his accomplice Mathis, is a fantastic little bit of spy-craft which I have never seen used in any of the films. Very clever indeed.
The Bond checklist for this book includes: one villain with a medical condition or deformity, one beautiful girl, one torture scene and one sporting or gambling encounter with the bad guy. Next up is Live and Let Die.