"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."
From the opening pages of Casino Royale, 007 had it all: the sophistication we envied, the danger we dreamed of, the girls we desired, the life we wanted. The fingerprints of Fleming's style -- an apparent worldliness, a precise sense of physical sensation, the urgency of the man alone -- were already there. By the time Fleming died in 1964, he'd created in 14 books a mythological hero, one of the greats of the century, for Bond is part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones. Though the Bond films will probably go on forever and a series of book sequels may well have gone on too long, we should celebrate his anniversary by looking back fondly at the original: the British secret agent licensed not only to kill, but virtually to print money. How, after all this time and tens of millions of copies sold, do Ian Fleming's novels measure up? Can an outdated book-Bond ever hope to withstand an up-to-date film-Bond?
There is a big difference, of course. The films, which started out as faithful adaptations of the books, became silly self-parodies. Film-Bond turned into a tuxedo-clad version of Superman, or perhaps even more aptly, of Batman.
Timothy Dalton's and Pierce Brosnan's occasional attempts to bring the film character back to the novels notwithstanding, book-Bond remains a more complex character, and his exploits are human and attainable. Eric Ambler, arguably the finest thriller writer ever, once said the he thought the Bond books "definitely deserve to be read as literature." Anthony Burgess went further, and named Goldfinger one of the 99 best English novels since 1939, describing Bond as "a patriotic lecher with a tinge of Scottish Puritanism in him, a gourmand and amateur of vodka martinis, a smoker of strong tobacco who does not lose his wind... against... megalomaniacs."
Who is James Bond? A civil servant, possibly born in November, 1924, he entered the employ of the Ministry of Defence at age 17, going to the Secret Service, MI6, after the war. He performs his duties, according to his superior, M, "with outstanding bravery and distinction," though "with a streak of the foolhardy." He likes his eggs boiled for precisely three-and-a-third minutes, and definitely smokes too much, a blend of Balkan and Turkish tobaccos custom-made for him. (At three packs a day, they must crowd his suitcase on long assignments.) He stands a little bit over six feet and weighs about 167 pounds; he lives in a comfortable flat in a cul-de-sac off the King's Road in Chelsea, on an income (mid-1950's) of 2,500 GBP a year (roughly equivalent in buying power to US$100,000 today). At least one woman notices a resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael, though it's hard to see this in "the dark, rather cruel good looks" or "the thin vertical scar down his right cheek" or "the hint of anger in his grey-blue eyes."
He is, however, emphatically not a spy: his job never involves stealing state secrets, blueprints for weapons, etc. (The closest he comes to traditional espionage is receiving a stolen Russian cipher machine in From Russia, With Love. He is a secret agent, a loaded gun sent out to enact the will of his government without being caught. His ancestors are neither the actual Sigmund Rosenblum ("Reilly, Ace of Spies" fame) or John Buchan's fictional Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps), but Sapper's Bulldog Drummond and Somerset Maugham's Ashenden.
Despite some tentative passages -- Fleming grew considerably as a writer in the first few books -- Casino Royale still stands up as one of the best 007 novels. Bond has been sent to the slightly faded French casino to win a 50 million-franc game of baccarat against Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent, French labor organizer and eventual victim of SMERSH, the Soviet organization for counter-espionage (Fleming's version of a section of the KGB under Beria; Fleming implicates SMERSH as the killer of Trotsky). The prose is uneven, but always vividly detailed: scene after scene are imprinted on the memory. Le Chiffre's "obscene" Benzedrine inhaler and the carpet beater which he uses to torture Bond's testicles. The precise gestures of the card games -- no one has bettered Fleming at conveying the mano a mano drama of "polite" competitions like golf, bridge, vingt-et-un. The two Bulgar assassins blown up by a camera bomb (based on an actual event from WWII). And cool, dark-haired Vesper Lynd, first of the Bond heroines, "with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter roughly."
The book, published by Jonathan Cape with a first printing of 4750, was generally applauded by the British press and sold well enough for a second printing. The Listener hailed it as "supersonic John Buchan," and the Sunday Times called it "an extremely engaging affair," saying Fleming could become the best English thriller writer since Ambler if he could make his work more probable. The Spectator found it "lively, most ingenious in detail... except for a too ingeniously sadistic bout of brutality." A year later, when the novel came out in the US, it fared worse, and sales were poor. Anthony Boucher wrote, in the New York Times Book Review, that Fleming "pads the book out to novel length, leading to an ending which surprises no one but Bond himself." He did, however, admire the gambling scenes.
Thereafter, a new Bond book appeared each spring -- at the tail end of the British Empire and the beginning of the British welfare state. Bond would prove a welcome antidote to both conditions. An independent, powerful Everyman who sweats at the idea of his plane crashing, he is tied down to neither one setting nor to one woman, though he remains selflessly loyal and gallant towards the heroine of each novel. (The films' formula of three per adventure, with one discarded or dead, one definitely dead, and one in his arms at the end is a product of the screenwriters. Likewise with the gadgets. The only sophisticated toys in the books are Bond's Aston Martin in Goldfinger (much lower-profile than in the film) and Nash's lethal copy of Tolstoy in From Russia, With Love.)
So the world of the books is not that of John Le Carré, who crested the '60s 007 wave with his complex, heightened realism, nor of Ambler's cold, neutral political savvy. We are much closer to the romantic era of The Scarlet Pimpernel or even Gilbert & Sullivan. He is the last British hero burdened with the weighty myth of empire.
Fleming himself, well after success arrived in spades, defended his creation: "Bond is not a hero, nor is he depicted as being particularly likeable.... He's not a bad man, but he's ruthless and self-indulgent. He enjoys the fights -- he also enjoys the prizes.
"In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins. Nowadays, they have pond water. My books are just out of step. But then, so are the people who read them... intelligent, uninhibited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes, and beds..."
As the poet Philip Larkin has pointed out, what strikes one first about the novels today is "their unambiguous archaic decency. So far from being orgies of sex and sadism, as some academics have protested, the books are nostalgic excursions.... England is always right, foreigners are always wrong.... Girls are treated with kindness and consideration, lust coming a decorous third. Life's virtues are courage and loyalty, and its good things an aristocracy of powerful cars, vintage wines, exclusive clubs, the old Times, the old five-pound note, the old Player's packet."
Indeed, the only double agent I can find is Vesper Lynd, who obliges the Secret Service and Bond by committing suicide ("The bitch is dead now.") Just as wogs begin in Calais, the villains are always foreign: Russians, Bulgars, Germans, Koreans, Mexicans, Corsicans, Chinese, Yugoslavs, Americans. And they are always memorable: Doctor No with his metal hands and a heart on the wrong side of his body. Auric Goldfinger with his flaming red hair and mania for gold. Blofeld with his clinical love of death in all its forms. Sir Hugo Drax with his country manners and cheating at cards. Some of these villains try to pass themselves off as British. They always fail.
When Ian Lancaster Fleming (1908 - 1964) built a simple house he called Goldeneye above a private cove near the tiny banana port of Oracabessa on Jamaica's north coast, he was hardly a writer. After a respectable war career in Naval Intelligence (his duties resembled M's more than 007's) he settled down to the London world of journalism, with the proviso that he be given two month's leave each winter. He would spend every winter at Goldeneye from 1946 until his death. "Would these books have been written if I was not in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it." It was on his seventh sojourn that Fleming conjured his secret agent, the man of action who was really a vicarious dream self.
Of Scots ancestry (like Bond), Fleming had been a top athlete on the playing fields of Eton (like Bond) but never graduated (ditto). Without his father around -- killed in WWI -- and outshone by his elder brother Peter (the explorer who wrote one of the great travel books of the Thirties, Brazilian Adventure), Ian had a reputation for women and cars by the time he dismissed himself from Sandhurst, England's West Point. In the Austrian Tyrol, then Munich and Geneva, he skied and played at being a young intellectual on the way to a career in the Foreign Office -- but failed the exam. He went to Moscow as Reuters correspondent. By 1933, he was back in London, as a stockbroker. He stayed there until the war.
Despite later claims made by Fleming, his career in Naval Intelligence, as assistant to Admiral Godfrey, was mainly administrative. A colleague recalled him in the war years as "a young fashionable man about town... fastidious about dress, which the old salts of the Admiralty viewed with scorn." After the war, he landed a plum job, as Foreign Manager for the Sunday Times.
The same fastidiousness flavors the novels; part of their success was the cultivated veneer of sophisticated knowledge. This was Fleming the journalist at work, going to experts for his information, for as many friends pointed out, it was hard to think of any subject on which he could be called an expert.
All this time, he was known for his philandering ways: he was far less protective of women than was Bond. His brother's success and his own past as something of a black sheep still followed him.
If he could not quite be a successful man of action, he would invent one. As John Pearson puts it in his perceptive biography of Fleming, "When [Bond] looks in the mirror, we see how closely Fleming identifies himself.... James Bond is Ian Fleming daydreaming in the third person." Pearson makes this point firmly: Bond is essentially "this odd man's weird obsession with himself."
When Fleming finally fell, it was for another man's wife, Lady Anne Rothermere. Soon Fleming was nicknamed "Lady Rothermere's fan" in Fleet Street circles; her husband was a newspaper magnate. And in late January, 1952, with ten weeks of Jamaican sunshine before marriage and the end of his bachelorhood, he sat down in front of a battered Royal typewriter and brought James Bond to life. Can it be a mere coincidence that just as Bond dreams of asking Vesper to marry him, she frees him by committing suicide?
Casino Royale, utterly unplanned, took Fleming barely two months to write. The hero's name was appropriated from "one of my Jamaican bibles, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, an ornithological classic," he once wrote, "I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find. James Bond seemed perfect."
Casino Royale's immediate successors fared as well as the original: sales were moderate until, following the 1956 Suez Crisis, the visit of soon-to-be-resigned Prime Minister Anthony Eden to Goldeneye brought a flurry of attention in the UK, and the snowball began rolling. A similar exposure occurred in 1961, when President Kennedy named From Russia, With Love as one of his favorite books.
In our time, it's hard to see how the books could have shocked: they pall before the vindictive sadism of, say, Mickey Spillane, and Bond takes his fair share of the suffering. A list of 007's injuries would include nerve poisoning, having his genitals mangled, his hand carved up, his little finger broken, a shoulder gnawed by a barracuda, and his spine rubberized by a traction machine, plus assorted knife wounds, burns, and the odd bullet.
Unlike today's screen hero, when Bond gets hurt, he goes to the hospital. In the course of his adventures, he is hurt so repeatedly, it is a wonder he could please any woman, much less one as demanding as Pussy Galore, Solitaire Latrelle, Tiffany Case, Honeychile Rider, and Tatiana Romanova. The books' heroines are always integral to the plot, not a mere adjunct; several times they save Bond's life. Though beautiful, they usually have a qualifying flaw: a broken nose, a limp, a difficult past, which arouses Bond's sympathy along with his lust. (His behavior is invariably gallant and gentlemanly.) They are of a type: usually a "bird with one wing down," often semi-naked on first encounter, outdoor girls or elegant dressers, independent yet needful of Bond's protection, and aware that he is a man which they cannot hold. He is almost always either the first real man in their lives, or their last.
After the first seven books, Fleming began to "run out of puff." This was part ennui and part ill health. But it was no coincidence that the books' decline in energy commences around the time of the first Bond films. Fleming had dreamed of bestsellerdom; when fame came, it exhausted and rankled. In interviews, Fleming referred to Bond as "a cardboard dummy" or a "blunt instrument" and to his books as "piffle."
Fleming had long had his eye on the big film money, and for years offers came and went. Casino Royale was initially filmed as an hour-long American television program featuring an American secret agent named Jimmy Bond and his British associate Clarence Leiter. In 1961, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli formed EON Productions and acquired options on all but two of the books for a guaranteed payment of US$100,000 per film plus 5% of the producers' profits. It was, for them and Broccoli's heirs, a steal.
Shortly before Fleming's death, film-Bond began to replace book-Bond, in the powerful image of Sean Connery, as 007 became one of Britain's most successful exports of the '60s, rivaling the Beatles and the miniskirt. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of these movies, the most popular film series ever, and not just financially. In every man born after 1930, there almost surely exists some part of his psyche which wants to be James Bond.
Fleming died of his second heart attack in August, 1964, mere months before the release of Goldfinger, when the Bond boom exploded, and paperback sales multiplied many times over. It was estimated at his death that he had earned close to US$3 million from the books. The sale earlier that year of a controlling interest in his private company, Glidrose Publications, for a tenth that figure meant that his heirs would miss most of the really big money over the succeeding decades.
The Fleming empire tried to satisfy readers' lust for more Bond. By far the most successful sequel appeared in 1968. Colonel Sun by "Robert Markham" (really Kingsley Amis, a friend of Fleming's). Despite its success, no other Bond appeared until 1981, when Glidrose brought British mystery novelist John Gardner in to take up the mantle with Licence Renewed. This effort has been followed by, at this moment, 13 others by Gardner and an additional six by American Bond-phile Raymond Benson, and has overtaken Fleming, at least in shelf-space. One does not have to read far, though, to appreciate the original. Their Bond really is a cardboard dummy, and they owe more to the film tradition. Though Fleming's self-confessed goal was making money, his books don't read that way; Regrettably, Gardner's and Benson's do.
Often, the popular myth of a writer's life overshadows his work. Bond, however, has almost totally erased Fleming; it is through the films, rather than the books, that 007 saga provides a worldwide image of a man of action. (Perhaps, after a suitable time has passed, the films will have aged like Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes series, and we may live to see them nostalgically refilmed for future generations.) Still, the books have gone in and out of print in recent years (Penguin recently reissued them in the UK, with US trade paperbacks due later this year; Penguin's website will ship them anywhere in the world.)
What, in the end, makes book-Bond more compelling than film-Bond? Can it be simply that he is more like us, even while against overwhelming odds? That, like Sherlock Holmes, despite his many victories, he carries with him the possibility of failure? For the last word, let's turn to the man himself:
"Bond had always been a gambler.... He liked it that everything was one's own fault. There was only oneself to blame. Luck was a servant and not a master. Luck had to be accepted with a shrug or taken advantage of up to the hilt. But it had to be understood and recognized for what it was and not confused with a faulty appreciation of the odds, for, at gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck. And luck, in all its moods, had to be loved and not feared."
There are many sites devoted to Agent 007. Unfortunately most are devoted to the films. There are some, however that give the books their due.