Tour de Bond: Introduction, and Casino Royale (1953)

Because I obviously need yet another project to occupy my time (especially an unpaid project driven by my inner fanboy), I’m ripping offtaking inspiration from Ken Hite’s 2007 blog series and 2008 book Tour de Lovecraft, to cover the James Bond canon of Ian Fleming.

Ian Fleming is my favorite author, and has been since I first discovered him when I was 10 or so. By that time I was familiar with the James Bond films (they had formed a fair number of my parent’s early dates), but reading the books, completely different from the films, was like opening a door in my head. My love of Fleming, Bond and spies in general led to my first gaming experiences (when my friend John Cochrane gave me a copy of the 1st edition of TSR’s Top Secret for my 12th birthday), leading to other games, and my chosen profession, and well, everything. I named my son Ian.

So what is the Tour de Bond? Just some commentary and thoughts on the novels, in their publication order. No heavy literary criticism (it’s been done), or a lot of time spent on plot synopsis –although the reader should be aware that my comments may at times contain spoilers (I don’t feel particularly guilty about this, when the books are 50 years old and most plot elements have been used in the very well-known films). Nothing too long — again, just thoughts on the works, which I’ve read many times over the past 30 years or so. I’ll be shooting for weekly updates — every Monday, from today’s entry on 1953’s Casino Royale to the final entry for 1966’s posthumous collection of short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which should take us to the last Monday in November.

So here we go:

Casino Royale (1953)

This book, the first in the series, was also my introduction to the Bond novels. A dog-eared 1960s signet paperback in the various volumes of our living-room bookshelf. It caught my interest because it was a Bond story that wasn’t one of the movie titles (at the time I was unaware of the “groovy” 1967 parody film). It remains, by shared virtue of nostalgia and actual quality, my favorite of Fleming’s novels.

The pacing is what strikes me — this is a blistering-fast read. Fleming sat down and wrote the book at his vacation home in Jamaica as a way to get his mind off his pending marriage at age 43. As he outlined in this 1960 article on ‘How to Write a Thriller’, he would work for 4 hours per day on pure narrative, not stopping, not hemming and hawing over word choice — just go, go, go. In 6 weeks, he would finish a book and any problems would be ironed out during editing. It shows in the text — no other author I’ve read has the mastery of pacing that Fleming demonstrates, with the possible exception of Robert E. Howard. Fleming hurtles along from event to event, with details left as touchstones for the reader to expand into a full tapestry (he was especially fond of brand names, which he felt immediately carried not only detail but context and emotional content on the part of the reader — hence the very specific mention of Bond’s clothing, food, drink, gear, etc.).

The plot of this novel is perhaps the most straightforward espionage tale of the Bond canon, inspired directly by events that took place during Fleming’s career with British Naval Intelligence during World War Two. A fairly direct and simple plot — an enemy agent who has gotten in over his head with his organizations’ money, holding a card game in order to win it back. Bond’s assignment is to bankrupt the agent, so that his masters will discover the transgression and eliminate the agent. The tension is built from the very first line of the novel: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”

The plot structure is even a bit odd — the main thrust of the action (bankrupting Le Chiffre, the enemy agent) is pretty much resolved two thirds of the way through the fairly short book. The rest of the novel is taken up with the consequences of those events, which actually lends more of a realism to the proceedings: a modern thriller would build to a “boss fight” in the final act.

Bond in this novel is nothing like the hypercompetent superspy of the films (or, some might argue, the later books). He’s a dark, complex character — a consummate professional, called in simply because he’s the best card player in the service. Fleming has him fail, in fact — victim of a betrayal which leads to one of the most harrowing torture sequences ever written, where he’s strapped naked to a seat-less wicker chair to have a carpet beater used on his genitals. This changes the character, makes him darker and more cynical, which carries over to the subsequent novels that follow perhaps the best final line of any novel I’ve ever read:

“Yes, I said was- the bitch is dead now.”

…and with that, we’re off. Next week: Live and Let Die (1954).


I was a bookish child and adolescent.

A large part of my near-constant diet of reading were “trash paperbacks” — the last gasp of the pulps. The pulps of the 30s and 40s morphed in the post-WW2 years into the Men’s Adventure magazine, but gradually those magazines evolved into skin mags with the loosening of decency laws, and the pulp jumped into another format: The paperback.

The pulp paperback was the realm of hardboiled detectives, action heroes, horror, fantasy and science fiction — a lot of it, initially, reprinted from the classic pulps, alongside a wave of original content. Much of this was never published in the more “respectable” hardcover format — the pulp fiction paperback was disposable entertainment. In many ways, they were like comic books for grown-ups.

Through the 1960s and into the 1980s, the pulp paperback was found in every drug store, grocery, stationery store and newsstand — a spinner rack of cheap entertainment. A lot of it was pretty bad (pretty much just like the pulps — let’s be honest), but some of it was good. All of it was fun. It was in these pages that I first encountered Doc Savage and The Shadow, first thrilled to the adventures of Modesty Blaise, and more.

Unfortunately, as time went on, paper costs rose and publishing became much more expensive — perhaps too expensive to “waste money” on disposable fare. The pulp fiction paperback essentially died out. (Some might argue that today’s genre paperbacks are the successor, but I’d disagree — those are not really the same thing. For one thing, publishers charge a comparatively hefty price for them. Some of the serial, “disposable” lines still exist, but it’s nowhere near as ubiquitous as it once was.

Recently, I’ve been reading J.A. Konrath’s blog, where he talks about his success in the electronic publishing market (specifically for the Amazon Kindle). He writes thrillers, and contrary to the trend among publishers, he prices his releases as impulse buys — often less than $2.00 each. Many of his releases hit the genre best-seller lists for the Kindle, driven by the convenience and the pricing.

It got me thinking.

I’ve spent 6 years now in the electronic publishing field. I’ve learned a lot. Most of what I’ve learned, I’ve put into practice. Some things, however, I’m still too much of a coward to try full-time. For example: twice per year, in November and March, I hold one-week sales on the products that I release through Adamant Entertainment. I drop the prices of every PDF in our entire catalog to $1.00…. and here’s the thing: I make more in those two week-long sales than I do in 4 months of regular sales.

It’s something I’ve considered doing full-time — but it scares me. One, I’m worried that the phenomenal results of those sales are because of the narrow window, and that making it a constant would negate those results. Two (and this is the big one): If I’m wrong, I could end up not only killing my own income, but also devaluing the entire PDF segment of the RPG industry, killing other folks’ incomes as well. So I shy away from it, and stick to the two sales per year model.

And yet….

It occurs to me that Konrath’s experience could be combined with what I’ve seen in the past half-decade-plus of electronic publishing. Impulse-priced adventure entertainment. The return of the pulp fiction paperback, reborn for the digital age.

Adventure fiction, thrilling tales (ahem), easily purchased, easily downloadable. Hitting the quick-reading sweet spot: somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 80K words — perfect for the EPUB format… and most importantly, priced to move. A novel for the same price as a monthly comic book.

It’s worth trying, I think.