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‘Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.’

He laughed. ‘But don’t let me down and become human, yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine.’

I asked my dad about Ian Fleming’s novels when I was a kid. He raised his eyebrows as if to communicate a world of adult themes and dodginess far beyond my childlike understanding. Bear in mind this is the man who gave me The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to read when I was young, from which I don’t think I ever really recovered. I put aside any ambition to read the James Bond series until today.

I think I see dad’s point now.

The book opens with Bond singing the praises of casinos, the sights and smells that add to the sense of adrenaline when huge amounts of money are at stake. He has been assigned to embarrass and humiliate an enemy agent known as Le Chiffre in a game of baccarat. His opponent is known to have lost most of his money in a failed chain of brothels throughout France and this game, held at the Royale-les-Eaux casino, is his last desperate attempt to recover some of his lost capital. As the finest baccarat player in the British secret service Bond has been given the job of making sure that does not happen, in the hopes that Le Chiffre’s Soviet spy-masters will eliminate him once it is made clear he has squandered their funding.

Bond’s French contact Mathis is helping him maintain his cover as a Jamaican millionaire visiting the casino to play. A second British agent, Vesper Lynd, is also assigned to the case. As Mathis explains, how could a successful business man explain not having a beautiful woman on his arm at the casino? Finally, Bond is introduced to a CIA undercover operative named Felix Leitner, who assists him with the provision of additional monies when Le Chiffre has an unexpected run of good luck.

The majority of the book is occupied with the duelling games of chance between the two men. Aside from the scenes within the casino, Bond discovers that somehow his cover has been quickly blown. There is an attempt on his life by a team of Bulgarian bombers and a hidden gun is secreted onto the floor of the game itself when he becomes too much of a threat to Le Chiffre. A battle of wits ensues, with Bond attempting to outmanoeuvre the enemy both within and outside the casino.

Fleming’s prose oscillates rapidly between purplish excess and a dry, notational style more appropriate to an official document. Then there’s the waspish contempt for women that’s much in evidence, with Bond resenting Lynd’s assignment: On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. When she is kidnapped at one point by Le Chiffre’s goons he snarls that she is a ‘silly bitch’. Bond justifies himself by describing the life of a spy as an extravagant existence for the bachelor, hence his ornate drink’s orders and refined taste in food. He has spent a lot of time thinking about pleasure for himself. It is widely regarded that this was Fleming’s fantasy for the life he had left behind, as he wrote Casino Royale when he was soon to be married.

As a product of personal fantasy, the book is remarkably unusual. It depicts a Cold War being fought almost like a game in a gentleman’s club. The setting underlines this theme appropriately. Bond does not hate the men he kills. They simply lost to him. He dismisses the significance of his ‘00’, status by remarking it only required for him to kill two men. Even M admits to a peculiar admiration of Le Chiffre – a communist, embezzler and pornographer, lest we forget. Fleming’s villain is described as a concentration camp detainee – due to, it is implied, Jewish ancestry – who has taken his unusual moniker as he is only a number on a passport. The quote I chose above comes from an extended sequence when Bond and Mathis debate the morality of spy-work. He questions whether Le Chiffre is actually a villain (and this after having survived prolonged torture at his hands).

Casino Royale is almost neurotic in Fleming’s second guessing of his fantasy and an attempt at relativistic realism. It is a curious, unfathomable and perverse novel.

‘Women are the ones who know what’s going on’, she said quietly. ‘They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?’

There are days when I feel very grateful for the opportunity I have been given with this challenge. It has forced me to broaden my choice of reading, introduced me to writers I would not otherwise have encountered. This is one such example.

Alexander McCall Smith is an Edinburgh-based author, who came to writing from a successful career as Professor of Medical Law. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency he exchanges his Caledonian surroundings for the exotic locale of Botswana, with its dusty roads, diamond trade and the Kalahari desert and in Precious Ramotswe, female detective, he has created a quick-witted rival to Philip Marlowe.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is occasionally episodic, with chapters standing in for individual cases, or short stories. Precious inherited her father’s livestock when he died and used the money from the sale of the cattle to set up her own detective agency. After a slow start she soon discovers her gentle humour, observant nature and kindness place her in high demand. While the police are all too ready to barge in and ‘solve’ cases by bringing them to the quickest end. Precious takes her time, offers her clients red bush tea, stares at the ceiling and comes to the best possible outcome.

There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.

McCall Smith returns the detective novel to an earlier format, in having the private eye take the moral view on each case, which is not necessarily the same as the legal view. For one the law is not always on the side of the women of Botswana, with unscrupulous men taking advantage of tradition to mistreat their wives, or daughters when it suits them. Precious refers to herself as a modern woman. She has suffered much hardship in her life, much heartbreak and has learned that men can lie quite easily when they wish. Sometimes it is easier for the police, or doctors, or lawyers to look the other way when a woman is in need.

While the book is episodic, with Precious dealing with missing person cases, as well as a stolen car and the wandering eyes of husbands. It is the kidnapping of a child though, with the suspected involvement of witchcraft, that becomes a case that she cannot solve, lying at the heart of the novel. She is forced to turn down the traumatized parents when they come to her for help, as she can see no possible way of returning their child to them. Plus, though it is a taboo subject, if witchcraft is involved, the child is almost certainly already dead. However, Precious never stops thinking about the missing boy. She is haunted by the memory of her own child, who was lost to her due to an abusive relationship. When she discovers that the kidnapped boy’s fate is tied up with powerful and dangerous men, who could just as easily buy off the police if need be, the stage is set for a poignant and bittersweet coda.

McCall Smith writes with a generous simplicity. This is most pronounced in the chapter relating to Precious’ father and his experiences working in the South African diamond mines. The hardships of the men underground are described in a disinterested manner, which makes the stories of these miners all the more powerful. They tell themselves that they will each be eventually ‘swallowed’ by the mine, whether it be by death from rock collapse, or the choking of their lungs years later. There is a warmth and gentleness to the writing, reflected in Precious’ own personality. While she observes men hurting others, cheating and stealing, she does not give in to despair. Instead she sets up her detective agency to make a difference.

This is a wonderfully hopeful and engaging novel. I plan on reading the rest of the series when I get a chance. Recommended.

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