Jeremy Duns reassesses Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale
That said, the novel has its own weight of influences. It is, of course, impossible to know all the books Fleming read and what he thought of them, but we can piece together some of it. It is often said that Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond was one of the primary models for Bond, but an interview Fleming gave to Playboy shortly before his death refutes that:
‘I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument and to let the action of the book carry him along. I didn't believe in the heroic Bulldog Drummond types. I mean, rather, I didn't believe they could any longer exist in literature. I wanted this man more or less to follow the pattern of Raymond Chandler's or Dashiell Hammett's heroes - believable people, believable heroes.’8The final phrase, ‘believable heroes’, is Casino Royale's real innovation. Prior to its publication, there had been plenty of unbelievable heroes in spy fiction, and plenty of spy thrillers featuring believable characters – but they hadn’t been heroes. By merging the existing two schools of spy fiction, the heroic and the believable, Fleming forged an entirely new kind of spy thriller.
The ‘believable’ school had been born in 1928, with W Somerset Maugham’s collection of short stories about the British writer-turned-agent Ashenden. This was the first piece of fiction to present espionage as a sordid and shabby line of work: until then, its depictions had been closer to propaganda (and in many cases were used as such). Ashenden is sceptical of the spying game from the start, when a colonel in British intelligence known only as R. tells him a story about a French minister who was seduced by a stranger in Nice, and lost a case full of important documents in the process:
‘“They had one or two drinks up in his room, and his theory is that when his back was turned the woman slipped a drug into his glass.”Ashenden laconically notes that such events have been enacted in a thousand novels and plays: ‘“Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?”’ R. insists that the incident happened just a couple of weeks previously.
‘“Well, sir, if you can’t do better than that in the Secret Service,” sighed Ashenden. “I’m afraid that as a source of inspiration to the writer of fiction it’s a washout. We really can’t write that story much longer.”’9Writers did continue to create variations of the story, of course, and Casino Royale is one of them. With the Ashenden stories, Maugham changed the rules of earlier thrillers – works by the likes of William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim, whose romantic tales of derring-do had been best-sellers in the run up to World War One. Both writers were fond of aristocratic heroes with refined tastes who saved England, usually from German plans to invade.
Another master of the heroic vein was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, although his heroes were not usually professional spies, but gentlemen adventurers thrown in at the deep end. More relevant to Fleming, and Casino Royale in particular, is Dennis Wheatley, who wrote a string of Buchan-esque thrillers from 1933 until his death in 1977. Wheatley, like Fleming, worked in intelligence during World War Two, and had a fondness for the bizarre: as well as spy thrillers, he also wrote occult novels, and even merged the two genres in Strange Conflict (1941), which one can easily imagine a younger Fleming eating up:
‘“I was right about the lobster-claw piece of coast that Marie-Louise and I saw – it is a portion of an island – and I believe that the Nazis have got hold of a High Priest of Voodoo to work them on the astral. The island is the Negro Republic of Haiti, in the West Indies, and if we’re to stop this menace to British shipping, we’ll have to go there.”’10
'Probably most of the heavy bracelets that loaded down her white arms were fake, but you cannot fake clothes as you can diamonds, and he knew that those simple lines of rich material which rose to cup her well-formed breasts had cost a pretty penny. Besides, she was very beautiful.
A little frown of annoyance wrinkled his forehead, catching at the scar which lifted his left eyebrow until his face took on an almost satanic look. What a pity, he thought, that he was returning to England the following day.'12
All of this is a long way from the ‘believable’ image of espionage depicted by Maugham and his successors, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, none of whose protagonists could rightly be called heroes, and who are more likely to think of their collection of rare stamps than beakers of champagne. And yet Casino Royale's prose style is far closer to the believable school than it is to Buchan and Wheatley, whose writing tends to be flat and heavy-handed. In a letter to Fleming in 1953, Maugham wrote that he had enjoyed the novel immensely, in particular the baccarat battle between Le Chiffre and Bond.16 Before Bond, there were dozens of thrillers featuring debonair spies who win the day – Casino Royale was the first that was written with real flair. Wheatley, Buchan and the others could keep you reading – Fleming keeps you re-reading.
But he wasn’t the first to try the trick of merging these two styles. From 1936, Geoffrey Household wrote several vividly written thrillers that added a dose of toughness and realism to the Buchan model. Fleming was a great admirer of Household – we know he sent at least six copies of his 1937 novel The Third Hour to friends,17 even though Household would not become famous until two years later, with the publication of the classic Rogue Male.
The narrator’s denial that he has acted out of patriotism immediately sets this book apart from the romantic tradition - and yet his ‘cold-drawn grief and rage’ is painted in a heroic light. In Casino Royale, Fleming took this idea a step further. The word ‘cold’ is repeatedly used to describe Bond in the book’s early stages – at the end of the first chapter, he is depicted almost as a villain:
‘Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.’