By Ian Fleming. Grade: B+
The name’s Bond. James Bond.
These quintessential lines of the quintessential spy best symbolize the espionage genre in the eyes of the artistic bourgeoisie. The name James Bond itself is the epitome of adrenaline-pumping chases, nerve-wracking action sequences, jaw-dropping women, eyebrow-raising tactics and most importantly, nail-biting finishes. With 23 movies already in the franchise and 24th ready to go on the floor, James Bond has been and, is, raking in the moolah. Inspiring the 21st movie in the series, Casino Royale is the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.
The reason I took up this particular book is that we’ve all been surrounded by this name for a pretty long time, some of us for most of our lives, but nobody really knows how it all began. As has been observed generally, novels made into films are comparative letdowns. Is this the case with Casino Royale? That’s not what we’ll look into. What we’ll look into is the book which started it all.
Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, the story line is this:
A hardened, cross-border criminal (who is also a wizard at maths) named Le Chiffre (read: the cipher) has found a profitable way to multiply the investments which he receives from various criminal organisations – Baccarat. The only way for MI6, the British intelligence agency, to stop him is to send in their own man – James Bond. Recently promoted to a double-O status, which means he has license to kill, it is up to Agent OO7 James Bond to defeat Le Chiffre in a game of maths, wits and luck and bring down a major crime syndicate.
Enough with what’s in there. Now to how’s what’s in there.
The novel is an absolute delight. To understand how, let us divide the various factors into two kinds – writing-related and plot-related.
As far as writing-related factors are concerned, they really pack a punch. The kind of language used, the phraseology, the flow in the progression of events, the format and construction of the novel – really are bang-on.
“She has black hair, blue eyes and splendid…er… protuberances. Back and front.”
The language is so rich, it almost is a breath of fresh air in times, where such delicate instances have crass depictions to their credit. It is just like red lipstick (ladies, please forgive me) – if applied too much, although garners a lot of attention, it only points to a sluttier façade. Only when it is applied in the right measure does it add to the beauty of the face it is on.
“He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of card rooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whiskey at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants.”
This just goes a long way to showcase the kind of effort that it takes for an author to portray something which can be taken for granted in an ordinary movie scene. These kind of lines simply whir the engines of one’s imagination.
“He was amused by the impartiality of the roulette ball and of the playing cards – and their eternal bias.”
Another instance to showcase the talent expected of an author. For aspiring authors, this is how one can use two opposing words in the same sentence and increase its beauty as well as its impact.
“He took out his wide gunmetal cigarette-case and his black lighter and placed them on the green baize at his right elbow.”
The level of detailing, especially the use of colours in three separate instances within the same sentence is really commendable. As they say, “devil lies in the details”. Especially the small ones.
“… and suddenly Le Chiffre had grown another eye, a third eye on a level with the other two, right where the thick nose started to jut out below the forehead. It was a small black eye, without eyelashes or eyebrows. For a second, the three eyes looked out across the room and then the whole face seemed to slip…”
Such an eloquent, artistic, elaborate, beautiful description of a bullet entering Le Chiffre’s forehead. Such a crude, brutal scene poised in a lustrous, serene manner.
Commenting on the plot itself beforehand would seem amatuerish as first, it is a pretty well-known plot and second, since the character is already world-famous, there are various pre-conceived notions attached to the plot itself. Still, in itself, the plot is good enough to keep it tight throughout the course of the novel.
There is a theological discussion of good v/s evil towards the end of the novel. The mere existence of such a discussion in an espionage novel, plus a good one at that, plus the fact that completely fits and is not out of context, is truly remarkable. It really puts a question mark on every single out-of-turn twist, baseless character remarks and anything that doesn’t fit into the core story.
“Bond felt himself starting to vomit…”
“He could feel his armpits still wet with the fear of it…”
For all the Bond-buffs, this is a serious eye-opener. Never in the history of Bond franchise has this fallibility been shown to an extent that this one sentence showed. So, James Bond is fallible; the author who created him says so.
There were two letdowns in the novel (both of them plot-related), and probably major ones at that.
First, the characterisation. The character sketches were not very impactful. When you read an espionage novel, you come to expect that atleast the character sketches be of such a level that you have a hard time forgetting them and more importantly, instead of trying to forget them, you try and hang on to them for the lifetime. The sufferers in increasing order were Vesper Lynd, James Bond and Le Chiffre. The characters were not well-sketched and had it not been for the movies, they could have been forgotten easily.
Second, the unfolding of the suspense at the end. Upto that point, the plot is pretty straightforward. But come the time when the hero and his heroine are together, it’s all downhill from there. Not only is the way which the mystery unfolds flawed, but the build-up to the unfolding was not well-crafted at all.
There are a number of reasons why you should read Casino Royale. But if all else fails, read it because it sparked a character who sparked dreams and shaped machismos. Te salud, Ian Fleming.