Ian Fleming’s first novel and James Bond’s debut. Soviet agent Le Chiffre has embezzled agency funds into failed business ventures and fears discovery. He travels to the Royale-les-Eaux casino in northern France where he plans to win back his losses in high-stakes baccarat. The British Secret Service dispatches Bond to beat him in the big game.
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.
With that hook, Fleming ushers in a pop-culture icon. He paints Bond as a man in complete command of his body and mind. Driven by a cold laser-focus on the job at hand, but able to savor fine food and drink. Fleming suggests a Hollywood likeness, but it wasn’t the then-unknown Sean Connery or the then-unborn Daniel Craig.
‘He is very good-looking. He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael…’
Not what I expected, but I liked this less glamorous image. Indeed, despite Fleming’s sometimes obtuse writing, I preferred this version of Bond. The story lacks spy gadgets or large action set pieces (the closest it gets is a car chase) but delivers a lean thriller with a compelling lead and ample atmosphere.
But about the writing. I can’t imagine reading it without the Kindle translation feature, as Fleming litters the book with bits of French he assumes the reader will understand.
There’s also the hurdle of British idioms. Such as “directly” meaning “as soon as”. Consider:
… They would probably have thrown it out themselves directly they saw him appear on the steps.
I believed the first few instances to be typos until I used the built-in dictionary. Ditto the at-the-time laughable:
Bond turned his head. Sure enough, a quarter of a mile away, a black saloon was coming after them at a good pace.
Saloon is British for sedan. But the mental image of a super-wide tractor trailer carrying a western bar made me cackle. Speaking of unintentional laughs, consider this description of one of Le Chiffre’s goons:
He had something of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but his inhumanity would not come from infantilism but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond.
Despite these speed-bumps, Fleming provides some memorable turns of phrase:
In his mind he fingered the necklace of the days to come.
And he nails the dramatic beats of the baccarat match, which, as a fan of gambling books and movies, I adored.
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- 14 Jun, 2022Finished