CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming

This week’s crime fiction we love is submitted by long time fan of the genre Ayo Onatade whose contributions to the crime fiction community include reviewing and interviewing authors at Shots: Crime and Thriller eZine


CASINO ROYALE – Not quite my favourite crime novel but pretty close!

UK First Edition cover 1953

When I am asked about my favourite crime novel, my first response normally would be to say FAREWELL MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler. No question about it. However, there is another book, which at one time would have surpassed FAREWELL MY LOVELY as my favourite crime novel. As it is, the book will always be in my list of top five favourite crime books. The book in question is CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming.

First published in 1953 CASINO ROYALE introduced readers to that suave Secret Service Agent Commander James Bond also (and some would say better) known as 007. The story is to a certain extent quite uncomplicated. Bond is sent to Royale-Les-Eaux in order to take down Le Chiffre who is the treasurer for the French Union and an agent of SMERSH by bankrupting him in a tense game of Baccarat Chemin-de-fer. Bond soon finds himself in over his head. He is assisted by a three main people in his quest. Vesper Lynd from Station S, René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau and Felix Leiter of the CIA. I will not say anymore, but suffice to say what we have in CASINO ROYALE is a battle of wits, a love affair which goes tragically wrong and a torture scene that even I would not wish on my worst enemy.

The 1955 edition saw the first picture of Bond - James Bond

The 1955 edition saw the first picture of Bond – James Bond

But why do I consider CASINO ROYALE to be one of my favourite crime novels? For a number of reasons. I have always been a fan of Ian Fleming and to be honest, as with Raymond Chandler I did not start reading the Bond books with the first book in the series. I started with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956). This of course piqued my interest and I went back to the start of the series and read CASINO ROYALE and fell in love. I fell in love with not only the character of Bond but also the series. Bond in CASINO ROYALE is much different to the Bond that we read about in the later books. In CASINO ROYALE, he is very different; he is naïve, not sure about what he wants with his career. When reading CASINO ROYALE one of the things you realise is how snappy the dialogue is. I am not sure that everyone will agree with this comment now but at the time, CASINO ROYALE was written this was in my opinion the case. His sense of place is vivid even from the start –

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” (CASINO ROYALE, Chapter 1: The Secret Agent)

This edition tied in with the first movie starring Sean Connery

This edition tied in with the first movie starring Sean Connery

Even when he is describing Bond and his fondness for gambling he does so with such an appreciation of his surroundings that on reading it yourself you are easily immersed and think that you are there with him –

“Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffles of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of card-rooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants. He was amused by the impartiality of the roulette ball and of the playing cards –.” (Chapter 7: Rouge et Noir)

One only has to think of the baccarat scenes as well to appreciate what is going on. The most specific one that comes to mind for me is the following and it takes place at the baccarat table as his final showdown is taking place at the table with Le Chiffre.

“This is a gun, monsieur. It is absolutely silent. It can blow the base of your spine off without a sound. You will appear to have fainted. I shall be gone. Withdraw your bet before I count ten. If you call for help I shall fire.” (Chapter 12: The Deadly Tube)

One might think that Fleming dwells too much on the minutiae of things but for me that is all part of what makes CASINO ROYALE so good.

For me also, Bond has always been exciting, sexy, at times ruthless but in my opinion terribly cool. Furthermore, he is an uncomplicated man when it comes to his sense of style and food when he is at home. It is only when he is away that his fastidiousness comes to the fore. I mean cast your mind back when we are first introduced to the drink, which he later names “The Vesper” after Vesper Lynd.

“‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘ One. In a deep champagne goblet’…

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon’.” (Chapter 7: Rouge et Noir)

in the 2000's a new movie demanded a new tie-in cover

in the 2000’s a new movie demanded a new tie-in cover

Moreover, CASINO ROYALE is in my opinion the most atmospheric of all the Bond books. It is certainly the most grim and brutal when one considers the rest of the series. In fact, it is the most vicious and we see Bond at not only his coolest but also when he is at his most ruthless.

Another reason why CASINO ROYALE is one of my favourite crime novels is the fact that at the time it was written, it combined two types of novels. The first is what one could describe as being a traditional and classic British thriller and the other a noir novel that has a more credible and cruel approach in the mould of Chandler and Hammett. In that sense I am not surprised that CASINO ROYALE is one of my favourite books.

If there is a downside to CASINO ROYALE that it is with his characterisation. I freely admit that aside from Bond himself his characterisation of the others in the book could be improved. His characterisation does however get better as the series progresses.

A Swedish edition from the 60's

A Swedish edition from the 60’s

While Bond’s misogynistic attitudes towards women leave a lot to be desired, one cannot but help feel sympathetic towards him. As the book progresses especially at the end and specifically as the series progresses one can understand (but may not agree with) his attitude towards women. It is only in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE that things change and not for very long.

Therefore, what can I finally say about CASINO ROYALE that will truly explain why it is one of my favourite crime novels? How about the fact that it is a well-paced tensely written thriller. It is filled with what one could only describe as an edge of your seat quest combined with sex and intrigue. There is also a sense of indulgence and excitement all the way through the book. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

And oh by the way, did you know that when CASINO ROYALE was released in paperback in the US in 1955, it was done under the title of YOU ASKED FOR IT? I am not sure, why as in my opinion CASINO ROYALE is a much better and appropriate title don’t you think? I certainly do. Moreover, he does introduce himself as “Bond – James Bond”.

So while FAREWELL MY LOVELY will always be my favourite crime novel, CASINO ROYALE comes second and could have quite easily been my favourite.


Book Details:

author: Ian Fleming (learn more at his official website)
original language: English
publication date (UK):  April 1953 (Jonathan Cape)

Contributor Details:

Ayo is a clerk for a judge in the Court of Appeal, a book reviewer and a major fan of athletics and American football living in London, England. She is the Special Crime Reporter at Shots Ezine and also is an associate member of The Crime Writers Association (CWA) of Great Britain. You can read many of Ayo’s reviews and interviews from her page at the eZine, or follow her on twitter for a great stream of crime fiction news and views.

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NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK by Ernesto Mallo

This week’s favourite is submitted by an American book blogger who has a taste for translated crime fiction.


NeedleInAHayStackMallo2083_fNEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK takes place in Argentina in 1979, during the Dirty War where the military junta leading the country disappeared thousands of alleged subversives. The case at the center of this novel begins when Superintendent Lascano is called to investigate two dead bodies, but he finds three dead bodies instead: two were obviously executed by the military, but the third is a different sort of murder. The murder investigation does not take up the bulk of the novel. Instead we jump back in time to meet all the characters who are involved in the crime and the investigation.

The set-up is interesting: how do you work as a homicide detective under a regime that cuts off investigations of murders it itself commits? How do you fulfill your mission then? The setting is absolutely nightmarish: military patrols, people yanked from their homes, and murders. Mallo details the corruption throughout the society, from the criminal justice system, the military, and the church.

Besides the handicap of working for the police in a totally corrupt and violent regime, Lascano is also battling depression after the death of his wife less than a year before. He’s a damaged individual. He’s not the only character with a rough past: his friend Fuseli the pathologist is also a widower who also lost a child. It’s a book full of people with difficult pasts living under the military regime. Because it’s such a brief book (coming in under 200 pages), I don’t want to give away much more about the characters and the plot. Though it’s a short book, Mallo develops everyone’s backstory pretty thoroughly.


Book Details:

author: Ernesto Mallo (the multilingual among you can learn more about him at his website, the rest of you will have to make do with this page)
original language: Spanish
translator: Jethro Soutar
publication date (UK): 2010, Bitter Lemon Press (original Spanish edition 2006)

Contributor Details:

Rebecca Kreisher reads and blogs from the US via her nick-name inspired blog Ms Wordopolis Reads

THE LIGHT OF DAY by Eric Ambler

This week’s contribution is from crime writer Leighton Gage whose own series of novels is set in Brazil where Gage lives for part of each year.


It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.

TheLightOfDayThus begins Eric Ambler’s 1962 novel, THE LIGHT OF DAY. The narrator, we immediately suspect, is a man loath to shoulder responsibility for his actions. The bad things that happen to Arthur Abdel Simpson are always someone else’s fault.

Abdel? Yes, Abdel. Ambler’s protagonist, it turns out, was born in Cairo. He explains that his middle name, Abdel, is a concession to his Egyptian mother.

But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British.

 

My father rose from the ranks. He was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Buffs when I was born; but in 1916 he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Quartermaster in the Army Service Corps. We were living in officers’ married quarters in Ismailia when he was killed a year later. I was too young at the time to be told the details. I thought, naturally, that he must have been killed by the Turks; but Mum told me later that he had been run over by an army lorry as he was walking home one night from the officers’ mess.

You notice how much I’m quoting from the book? I didn’t intend to when I began writing this piece. But then I reached the conclusion that the best way to convey Ambler’s genius is to let Arthur speak for himself. I deleted everything I’d written and started anew.

I was too young when my father was killed to have known him well; but one or two of his pet sayings have always remained in my memory; perhaps because I heard him repeat them so often to Mum or to his army friends. One, I remember, was “Never volunteer for anything,” and another was “Bullshit baffles brains.”

Arthur calls himself a journalist, but in reality he’s a thief, a pornographer, and a pimp, all of which he reveals in the course of self-serving explanations such as this:

Is it a crime to earn money? The way some people go on you would think it was. The law is the law and I am certainly not complaining, but what I can’t stand is all the humbug and hypocrisy. If a man goes to the red-light district on his own, nobody says anything. But if he wants to do another chap, a friend or an acquaintance, a good turn by showing him the way to the best house, everyone starts screaming blue murder.

With lines like these, we know from the get-go exactly what kind of a fellow we’re dealing with. And yet, such is Ambler’s skill that we find ourselves warming to Arthur Simpson–and, by the end of the book, we’re downright fond of him. Ambler helps us along in this regard by making the other baddies in his novel much worse than Arthur. In THE LIGHT OF DAY’S early chapters, it isn’t so much a case of liking Arthur as a case of disliking the people plaguing him. It soon becomes evident that all of them are capable of violence. Simpson, on the other hand, is a criminal of another ilk, a coward viscerally incapable of harming his victims. Yes, he’s a crook, but one, he tells us, who’s “only been arrested 10 or 12 times” in his whole life.

As this story begins, our (anti-)hero, down on his luck, as usual, is scrambling for cash. The rent is due, and his demanding girlfriend, Nicki, has been dunning him for more new clothes. We find him at the Athens airport trolling for tourists. His scam of the moment is to offer foreigners his services (as the driver of his own car) and subsequently burgle their rooms. He makes the mistake of approaching a mysterious man named Harper:

He looked like an American … Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American; plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it … He arrived … on a plane from Vienna. He could have come from New York or London or Frankfurt or Moscow and arrived by that plane–or just from Vienna. It was impossible to tell. There were no hotel labels on the luggage. I just assumed that he came from New York. It was a mistake anyone might have made.

Arthur first takes Harper to his hotel, then on to an appointment at a house of assignation called Madame Irma’s. Thinking his pigeon occupied, Arthur then hastens back to Harper’s room to rifle the luggage.

But Harper turns the tables. He’s been hunting for a man like Simpson and has laid a snare to entrap him. Catching Arthur in the act, Harper forces him to sign a confession, then threatens to denounce him to the Greek police unless Arthur ferries a car from Athens to Istanbul.

Simpson, whatever else he is, is no fool. No one goes to the trouble Harper has gone to unless there is something in the assignment that doesn’t meet the eye. Arthur suspects that it’s a scheme involving drug or arms smuggling, and as soon as he’s safely out of Athens, he pulls to the side of the road and gives the automobile a thorough going-over.

He’s surprised to find that the car contains no contraband, at least he thinks it doesn’t. Confidently, he continues on his journey. But, unfortunately for him, there are incriminating items in that vehicle, concealed in a place he has completely overlooked. And though Arthur couldn’t locate them, the Turkish border authorities do.

It’s a time of political instability in Turkey. The Turks suspect Arthur’s involvement in a coup d’état. But they want to round up the whole gang, and so they force Arthur to continue to play along. That way, they’ll be able to get the goods on his employers.

It turns out they’re wrong about the coup, but it isn’t until we’re much further along in the book that we finally discover what Harper and his cohorts are really up to. Meanwhile, we are not quite sure what kind of a book we’re reading. Is it a spy story? A political thriller? In the event, it turns out to be neither one.

Now, if you’ve never read this novel, but you’ve seen Topkapi (a 1964 film based upon the book, in which Peter Ustinov plays the role of Simpson), then you already know what’s afoot. But I rather hope you haven’t seen the film, or if you have, that you can’t remember it.

One thing I can assure you: if you read THE LIGHT OF DAY you won’t ever forget Arthur Abdel Simpson. And, if you like him as well as I do, you can find him again in another book that Ambler wrote five years later, DIRTY STORY

In that one, Simpson is still in Athens and still up to his old tricks. Very early on in the first chapter you’ll find a great line. Ambler put it in Italics: “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens, is a shit.

God, I wish I’d written that.


This essay was first published at The Rap Sheet (reproduced with the permission of the author)

Book Details:

author: Eric Ambler (learn more at Wikipedia)
original language: English
publication date (UK): 1962

Contributor Details:

Leighton Gage is a crime writer who has lived in Australia, Europe, and South America and travelled widely in Asia and Africa. He visited Spain in the time of Franco, Portugal in the time of Salazar, South Africa in the time of apartheid, Chile in the time of Pinochet, Argentina in the time of the junta, Prague, East Germany, and Yugoslavia under the Communist yoke. He and his wife spend much of the year in a small town near São Paulo, and the rest in Europe and the United States, where they have children and grandchildren.

His series of crime novels, currently numbering 6 instalments, features Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police.

PRAIRIE HARDBALL by Alison Gordon

This submissions from a Canadian lawyer and baseball fan who was present at an event featured in the book!


PrairieHardballI love the book because it is set in rural Saskatchewan, has a baseball theme, focuses on the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame of which I am Second Vice-President and features the induction banquet for the Saskatchewan women who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League which I attended in the mid-1990’s.

Over half of the 50 plus Canadian women who played in the league were from Saskatchewan. I examined every character in the book carefully but none resemble me.

In the book, Kate Henry has returned to Saskatchewan to accompany her parents to Battleford where her mother, Helen Henry, will be one of the inductees. She had played several seasons for the Racine Belles. Joining Kate is her partner, Andy Munro, a

Toronto police inspector on his first trip to Saskatchewan.

Gordon’s description of Kate’s hometown, Indian Head, is a perfect portrayal of small town Saskatchewan. She has been a skilful observer of us.

At the banquet Virna Wilton creates a grand entrance by wearing her old uniform over 40 years after she last played baseball. (I can vividly recall the actual lady who wore her uniform to the induction banquet. She looked great.)

The banquet was Saskatchewan charming. It is hard for me to distinguish real life memories from Gordon’s description. It was a nice evening honouring a group of women who had never received the recognition due them.

In the book everyone is shocked when Virna is murdered. Andy is asked to help the local RCMP. The nosy Kate demands to know everything going on in the investigation. The probing of lives brings out secrets that startle and even shock Kate. Life in the AAGPBL was more complex than she realized.

The book goes into some detail on the AAGPL which existed from the early 1940’s to the mid-1950’s. The movie, A League of Their Own, with Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks was a Hollywood version of the league. It was not sensationalized as much as many Hollywood movies but Gordon’s description of the league is far more factual.

Within the book Helen was a woman professional baseball playing pioneer and Kate was a woman professional baseball sports writing pioneer. (In real life Gordon was the first woman journalist to cover major league baseball in Canada.)

Those young woman who went South from Saskatchewan to play baseball were an intrepid group leaving friends and family to play sports at a time when travel was limited and society offered little support for women making any career let alone an athletic career. I met several of the actual players from Saskatchewan and wrote about them for the sports column I write in Melfort. They were as gracious and lively as the women described by Gordon.

The mystery flows well. I know I am enjoying a book when the pages glide by and there is no consciousness of time passing. It is the best rural Saskatchewan mystery.


This review was first published at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan (reproduced with the permission of the site owner)

Book Details:

author: Alison Gordon
original language: English
publication date (Canada): 1997, McClelland & Stewart

Contributor Details:

Bill Selnes is a practising lawyer who also blogs about crime fiction at Mysteries an More from Saskatchewan. His speciality is legal thrillers and/or Canadian crime fiction but he dabbles in all manner of novels and his blog includes some in-depth interviews with authors too.

BURIAL OF THE DEAD by Michael Hogan

BurialOfTheDeadMichael Hogan’s BURIAL OF THE DEAD is one of those rare books that gets almost everything right. I discovered it a few years ago, and it has become one of my most-recommended books. I should mention that I am an editor at an independent publishing house, but I was not the editor who originally found and published BURIAL OF THE DEAD. But I wish I had been.

I often think about, and sometimes blog about, the constraints of genre fiction. On the one hand, we (publishers, that is) like books that fit into a formula that is easily marketable. On the other hand, editors (like me) seek books that push the limits of the genre, that seek to do something new, different, bold, brave, exciting. It’s a tough balance to pull off, and it requires a special writer.

BURIAL OF THE DEAD is such a book. Fans of the genre can be assured that it falls clearly into the “mystery” category. Every single page, chapter, and part of this book is suffused with mystery. For every question that is answered, doubts are raised and new questions arise. We almost never know who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, and who’s allied with whom. When those questions are answered, the only result is more mystery as the reader must adjust everything s/he thought s/he knew.

The plot is, on the surface, quite simple. A wealthy older woman, owner of a successful funeral home and rich in her own right, has died. Was it suicide, or was she killed? Throughout the pages of BURIAL OF THE DEAD, we see a parade of characters, all of whom stand to benefit in some way by the woman’s death. There’s her long-lost great niece; her late husband’s business partner; various employees; and various policemen and politicos, all of whom have a stake in finding out what really happened, or in trying to hide the truth. Each chapter mystifies as much as it enlightens, and the result is a book that grabs you and won’t let you go, as layers upon layers are peeled back and revealed.

The setting is Connecticut, which is deconstructed in a rather alarming and brilliant way throughout. We’re treated to a slice of life in which every character is somehow linked to other characters in sometimes subtle and always mysterious ways. Many books, I think, can be lifted from their setting and plopped down somewhere else with little damage to the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here, which is testimony to the author’s abilities as a writer and social observer.

Of course, the book is not perfect. It sometimes falls into the “trying too hard to be literary” category, and occasionally feels self-indulgent. But these are minor quibbles.

I do not exaggerate when I say that BURIAL OF THE DEAD is one of the most provocative, intense, mysterious books I have read in the last decade. In its pages the author has perfected the art of deceit: staying three or four steps ahead of the reader at every turn. I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed being so thoroughly deceived.


A version of this essay was published at The Rogue Reader earlier this year (reproduced with the permission of the content owner)

Book Details:

author: Michael Hogan (learn more at The Rogue Reader)
original language: English
publication date (UK): Minotaur books, 2008

Contributor Details:

Agatho is the pseudonym of someone working in the publishing industry who blogs at Mysterious Matters: Mystery Publishing Demysitfied and offers genuine insight into the ever-changing publishing world. I find it a fascinating blog as a mere reader, I imagine it’s a must read for any author (hopeful or otherwise).