Casino Royale was published in 1953. It's a dry, dark, suspenseful novel and one of the best of the Bond books, a story in which 007 is still a work in imaginative progress, a slightly ill-defined sketch of the spy who would go on to fill 13 other books by Ian Fleming, an oeuvre that would completely overshadow Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But there you are.
James Bond, a literary creation 60 years old, has thus six years on me, his avid - though now slightly jaundiced and bemused - lifetime re-reader. I've read these books, in a loose counterpoint to the passing years, since I was close enough to the full flush of puberty for them to hold a furtive, almost transgressive pleasure. That's long past, replaced by a deeper knowledge of this odd, awkward and comprehensively broken character. I came for the thrill of the danger, girls and guns, stayed for the brisk complexities of the chase, and am fascinated now by the depth of the man's underlying tragedy.
The Bond of Skyfall is the logical extension of the Casino Royale Bond, a man damaged, decayed, aged, and doomed.
I can't think which of the books was my first. There's a vague sense it was the second, Live and Let Die, a feast of politically incorrect racial stereotyping, violence, zombies, barracuda, and booze. Bond was a slightly more considered and complex amalgam by then: a coldly cunning, physically brave, sociopathic, sexist, racist, drunk with an absurd fondness for scrambled eggs and rather damp scotch and sodas who would become my occasional but reliably constant literary companion. For the record he was 37 in Casino Royale, a veteran of various unspecified wartime horrors in Naval intelligence, who tools his battleship grey Amherst Villiers supercharged 4.5-litre 1930 Bentley coupe to Fleming's imagined casino at the fictional Royale-les-Eaux.
James Bond - gallery
Sean Connery as James Bond. Photo: Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation
His mission, to match wits at cards with Le Chiffre, AKA Die Nummer, Mr Number, Herr Ziffer, a man who went by a Eurozone of various other pedestrian permutations of Number and Cipher, paymaster of the Syndicat des Ouvriers d'Alsace - a French trade union controlled, of course, by SMERSH, Fleming's elaborate fantasy of sinister cold war infiltration and control.
Le Chiffre was simply a powerfully vain, thuggish, communist plant in 1953. By the time the movies had finished with him in the Daniel Craig Royale of 2006, he would have added actor Mads Mikkelsen to his string of aliases and be weeping tears of blood. But that's Hollywood.
Back in the book, there were to be two contests between Le Chiffre and Bond, the first, Bond's intended encounter across the cool baize of the casino. The plan was to strip Le Chiffre of funds due to SMERSH and thus ensure his quick and strategically useful demise at the end of a Soviet bullet. The next encounter would see Bond as his naked captive in a ''large bare room, sparsely furnished in cheap French art nouveau style'', his exposed lower half wedged through the ruptured seat of a cane chair, his arms and legs lashed down tight with the inevitable electrical flex. The knots were good. There was no possibility of escape.
The object of Le Chiffre's subsequent torturous attentions would be Bond's genitals. This is not so much a subtext of homophobic anxiety as a full fledged case study prepared for peer review then publication in some leading journal of sexual psychology. Through the tail end of the book we chart the recovery of Bond's battered manhood, an organ nursed back to full, priapic utility by the gentle ministrations of the ill-fated Vesper Lynd.
Things had gone better for Bond in the casino where Fleming had chosen Chemin de Fer as the means to Le Chiffre's end, a card game that is as dumb an exercise of empty chance as you'll find, but is amped up by Fleming into a test of wit and daring … typical Bond, typical Fleming, investing the mundane with the gloss and glamour of an imagined moneyed world, a strange sleight of hand in which he made Bond simultaneously sophisticated and familiar, with his fetishised scrambled eggs, his fondness for a constant string of scotch and sodas (he scoffs 21 in all the books, his most popular drink) and for the instantly recognisable, but quite passable, Gordon's Gin.
There's something a little nouveau suave about Bond and his tastes: refined, not inherited.
Casino Royale defined Bond, as one might expect a first book would. But beyond Fleming's precise, slightly cold, tightly drawn character, the book also established a less obvious set of psychological subtexts, and set the man's tragic flaws in stone. I read him for years tuned to one, oblivious of the other.
For me it was always just the books, the Fleming books (though I will admit a quiet fondness for Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun). The films post Sean Connery and before Craig are either ludicrous burlesques or straight-down-the-line action thrillers. The worst are the seven films starring Roger Moore, a man who played Bond like a louche golf pro according to one quite perfectly observed assessment, and kept doing it, girdled and absurd until, in A View To A Kill, he was 57. Fleming hated the choice of amateur bodybuilder Connery for the first of the franchise films, Dr No: an uncouth Scot, too much the peasant to pull off his urbane 007. Fleming wanted David Niven, an actor who fitted his mental image of Bond and who would play him, bizarrely, as an ageing VC winner from the siege of Mafeking in an out-of-cycle version of Casino Royale in 1965.
Connery served as my mental image of the spy for most of the years of my readings. Fleming's too, eventually, and the 007 of the books came slowly to acquire characteristics of the screen persona.
My other reading habits were normal enough: an overwhelming taste for fiction over anything serious and true, but with a defiant sense that fiction might tell as much about the human condition as any factual narrative. Still, serious people read non-fiction; I've always been bothered by that, felt something of a failure, somehow ill-informed. And serious people never read and reread, well, trash.
And for me that trash has always been Bond. In moments of exhaustion, or jaded ennui, or just randomly between books, I've reached for one of the 14 Fleming Bonds - in a Pan Paperback edition, of course. It never much mattered which, as I've read and reread, without any sense of shame or awkwardness at this strangely adolescent literary stasis. Well, not much. There's a sense of secure certainty in the familiarity with every little detail of books so well-thumbed they've nothing new to give. I've all but exhausted them.
I'm sure other people do just this with the serious canon, rereading Joyce and James, or Gibbon. I'm not in that class I guess, but Bond gives a strange sort of nostalgic connection to boyhood, youth and younger manhood lost, an easy constant that spans the years. I'm a bit the same with the Hornblower books, though in C.S. Forester's tales of Napoleonic honour and seaborne daring, a rather different moral code drives the hero, a man who teams ascetic denial and constant self doubt with almost accidental valour and heroic achievement. An anti-Bond really, though both share a blindly courageous thirst for actively seeking confrontation with the enemy, of pushing forward into danger and risk, of taking on ridiculous odds just to provoke reaction and perhaps create opportunity; to follow their duty. They are brave men who accept the odds stacked against them unflinchingly and without question.
And both delightfully written in their way. Fleming's tales still purr with his easy driving flow, models of tightly plotted suspenseful fiction. The things most people take for the essence of Bond, the cars, the drinks, the clothes, the eggs, they're all just embroidery really, adornments that were played up in the films and then reflected in the later books as Fleming began to draw on the 007 presented on the screen and threw some of that heightened cinematic character onto the printed page. The essence of the books is the tense thrill of the mission, circumstances that are never quite in Bond's control, but always within the scope of his blind confidence. There's the easy embrace of the good life, of exotic locations, the cut of a lapel, a woman's scent precisely identified, the burble of a well-tuned exhaust. Sexual overconfidence too, enough to turn heads, sometimes even entire sexual identities: if ever a woman was suited to a life of eponymous Sapphic indulgence it was Pussy Galore. Bond changed her ways.
But all of that is the jolly hockey sticks reading of the character, the blithe spirit who has his way, indulges his whims, orders his life to suit. That was not the Bond that had his genesis in Casino Royale. That Bond was a darker, more troubled fellow, a man almost incapable of sexual empathy, a man of crippled relationships, filled with fear and hate.
Vesper Lynd is the object of his desire and strangely stunted affections, a fellow agent - a Soviet double as it turns out - foisted on him by headquarters to Bond's dismay, but a woman who Bond comes inevitably to desire. Not that he can breach some intangible gap between them.
Bond senses - perhaps desires - this distance, and in the most chilling and telling phrases of all the books, realises with arousing delight that every conquest, every sexual encounter between them, ''will have the sweet tang of rape''.
And there, that man, that damaged emotional cripple, that dark, obsessive, violent drunk, that's the creature of my late-life reading of the books. A man ill-equipped for much but this dissolute parade of empty Bourbon pint bottles, discarded women, corpses and spent cartridges.
For a resolute fan of the book Bond it's odd, but I came to this sense of his true character through Daniel Craig's portrayal in the latest Bond film Skyfall - it really should be the last, such is its sense of bleak exposure and resolution. Here is the logical extension of the Casino Royale Bond, a man damaged, decayed, aged, and doomed. This was the dark shadow of Fleming's spy, the brooding, cruel-mouthed killer created in 1953. And that's why after all these years, and all these rereadings, Bond still works, still holds a grim and disturbing fascination. It is precisely because he is damaged, and bad. Because he is tragically fated to an ugly, misogynist, racist, homophobic, and ultimately lonely decline.
I never really saw it before Craig, never picked it for all the gloss of fast cars, vintage champagne, and phlegmatic daring.
Fleming never let his character truly confront the consequences of his demons and his delusions and undoubtedly his deep psychological sickness. He never made them more than a subconscious subtext to the books, one that I now see runs like a deep, dark thread, revealing a complex and often ugly shadowland beneath the bubbly prose and gripping action.
Fleming never explored that tragic possibility or made it plain, because, perhaps, those fatal flaws, those signature human inadequacies, were Fleming's too.
The spy who set the scene
Smooth suits, fabulous frocks, eye-popping locations and gobsmacking gadgets have been features of the Bond films from the first, Dr No in 1962. Designing 007 – Fifty Years of Bond Style, which opens at Melbourne Museum next month, brings together costumes, storyboards, props and photographs that helped shape the cinematic legend that is James Bond.
The exhibition explores how the world's most successful film franchise has influenced culture, design, technology and fashion.
In a catalogue accompanying the exhibition, curator Bronwyn Cosgrave recounts the transformation of "uncut diamond" Sean Connery into the debonair British agent via the efforts of Mayfair tailor Anthony Sinclair. Over the years, designers of every ilk have added their vision to the Bond look in costumes, sets and gadgets. Gone are the days when budget restraints forced Lois Maxwell to wear her own clothes to play Miss Moneypenny. Top-drawer designers including Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani have contributed to the costume racks, while modern techniques carry on the work of legendary production designer Sir Ken Adams, who set the scene in the 1960s and '70s.
Among more than 400 items on display are: Roger Moore's white tuxedo from Octopussy; the orange bikini worn by Halle Berry in Die Another Day; Daniel Craig's sky-blue trunks from Casino Royale; Scaramanga's glittering weapon from The Man with the Golden Gun; Oddjob's steel-rimmed bowler hat; the prototype of Rosa Klebb's flick-knife shoes worn in From Russia with Love; Tee-Hee's metal arm from Live and Let Die; the steel teeth worn by Richard "Jaws" Kiel in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977); storyboards for Diamonds are Forever (1971); the Anthony Sinclair overcoat worn by Sean Connery in Dr. No (1962); the poker table from Casino Royale (2006); the attache case given to Bond in From Russia With Love (1963); the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 that returned to the screen in Skyfall; and Pierce Brosnan's BMW motorcycle and state-of-the-art Ericsson mobile phone from Tomorrow Never Dies.
■ Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style is at Melbourne Museum from November 1.
■ Jonathan Green is a writer and broadcaster. He hosts Sunday Extra on ABC RN. His new book is The Year My Politics Broke (MUP).