All the recent excitement that’s been going on in the press about Skyfall served to remind me that I had a couple of James Bond novels sat on the bookshelves. Sometimes my decisions as to what to read are very informed and intentional, whilst other times, like here, all sorts of factors can end up influencing what I read.

It is not as though I am a great Bond fan. I mean, I have seen most of the films years ago, as they ran a Bond series on television when I was about ten year old, but as an adult (with the exception of the two Daniel Craig films I’ve seen), I find them far too clichéd, too cheesy and generally too predictable. Anyway, the thing is that some time ago someone at work was giving away their copies of Casino Royale and From Russia with Love, and as they were both elegant black and white Penguin Modern Classics editions, I thought: Well, why not?

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

And so earlier this week I sat down to find out what Ian Fleming’s famous spy was really like in his books. And boy was I in for a surprise! Certainly in this novel, the character of James Bond is very different to the screen version portrayed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and the like. There are no corny one-liners here, whilst James swans around from cocktail lounge to pool. Here 007 inhabits a very real, and very dangerous world. Within the first few pages of the novel, one description of Bond reflects more what his character is like in Ian Fleming’s original vision:

…his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.

Here Bond is hard and mean. He is fundamentally insular and independent, resenting having to work with others. He is a man with significant baggage and despite his evident strength and quick brain, he comes across as something of a broken and troubled individual.

There is a fascinating section, towards the end of the novel, where Bond is recuperating in hospital (after very nearly dying) where he starts an unusually open and frank discussion with his French colleague, René Mathis, expressing some of the turmoil that is going on in his head:

‘You see,’ he said, still looking down at his bandages, ‘when one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult.

[…] History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.’

The old Bond movies I saw never hinted at this kind of inner turmoil or the grief that we sense in Bond through many of the pages of this novel.

As for the plot of this thriller, in this first Bond tale, our British Secret Service agent finds himself on an unusual assignment. He has been sent to Royale-Les-Eaux, a fictional resort town in northern France, with orders to out play the enemy (Le Chiffre) at some high-stakes casino games. Le Chiffre, we learn, is both a member of the Russian Secret Service, as well as a fraudulent treasurer for a large French union. As he has managed to lose millions of francs of the union’s money, his one chance of survival is to make it back on the card tables at Casino Royale before his masters find out.

As a thriller Casino Royale is excellent. Le Chiffre is a formidable and truly nasty enemy. There is a superb scene in the casino where Bond and Le Chiffre pit it out head to head over several hours for some staggering sums of cash. There is also a good car chase, a rescue attempt that goes badly wrong, a chilling torture scene where poor Bond looks like he might be truly defeated, and there is the beautiful lady. On this front too, the book’s femme fatale, Vesper Lynd, is so much more intriguing and complex than the inane eye-candy of the Bond films.

In fact, it is the final scenes between Bond and Vesper that are perhaps the most powerful in the book. I would not want to give any plot spoilers away here, but I shall say that for all his bravado, arrogance and even overt misogyny, Bond does come to form a deep connection with Vesper, and their parting evidently cuts Bond deeply.

So, my first experience reading a James Bond novel was certainly an eye-opener. I had feared I would simply find the cheap thrills of the 1970s movies in book form, but happily I found a narrative that was much more complex and intelligent. Here James Bond really is a shadowy and intriguing character.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster or John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.