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“Dirk Pitt of the National Underwater Marine Agency.” The voice was quiet and deep, but there was nothing evil or menacing about it. “This is an honor. I have followed your exploits over the years with some interest and occasional amusement.”

Among certain friends of mine I am notorious for my love of terrible films. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Shay Casserley and James Bennett’s Fatal Deviation – these are classic examples of trash cinema, that I nevertheless love irrationally. Now Breck Eisner’s Sahara is nowhere near as terrible as these two Ed Wood-like classics, but it was pretty bad.

Guess what. I liked it. It is certainly not a good film, but it has its charms. Matthew McConnaughy’s performance as Dirk Pitt is nothing to write home about, but the banter with Steve Zahn as best friend Al Giordino makes the film for me. I hoped that I would find this book by Clive Cussler as enjoyable.

Six months after a prototype nuclear submarine, the Starbuck, disappears somewhere in the Pacific, Dirk Pitt’s afternoon on a deserted beach in Hawaii is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a bright yellow cylinder just over the waves. Inside he discovers a series of messages from the captain of the missing vessel, hinting at a horrific underwater tragedy. Pitt drives straight to the office of Admiral Leigh Hunter, commander of the 101st salvage fleet, whose startled reception of this stranger wearing little more than bathing trunks is silenced when he presents the cannister. As he happened to discover the information on the lost vessel, Pitt is seconded from the National Underwater Marine Agency to Hunter’s command, on a mission to locate the Starbuck.

The night before he is due to depart Pitt finds himself in a hotel bar being literally fought over by two women, with the winner then turning on him and attempting to poison him with a hypodermic needle. A second attempt on his life is made by an assassin who tries to drive him off a mountain road. Despite his sudden popularity with exotic killers, Pitt proceeds with the mission to recover the submarine. Partnered with Commander Boland, Pitt discovers that their vessel, the Martha Ann, is actually a disguised naval vessel that resembles a rusted salvage ship. Boland proudly reveals the sophisticated equipment on board, only to be slightly deflated when Pitt claims to already be familiar with most of it through his work with NUMA. The ship sets off and thanks to Pitt’s intuition they quickly discover a graveyard of vessels on the pacific floor. To their surprise, not only do they locate the Starbuck, but there is no sign of the crew and the nuclear engines are intact. But the longer the Martha Ann stays in the region, Pitt fears they will all suffer the same fate of every vessel claimed by the ‘Pacific Vortex’.

In many ways, Cussler’s novels seem related to the Flint movie series, which portrayed an American version of Ian Fleming‘s James Bond character. Unlike the British government assassin, all ice-cold professionalism, Pitt is rambunctious and a risk-taker. However, he shares Bond’s libido, even casually threatening to rape a female assassin at one point in order to intimidate her. Given how avuncular he seems during his interactions with the navy officers, this makes for an uncomfortable note of misogyny. He also takes the time to lecture a former lover on her sex-life shortly before she beaten, much to his amusement, by the same assassin.

In fan-fiction there is a term that fits here, Gary Stu. Pitt is good at everything, his instincts are never wrong and he can survive incredible physical exertion. He punches a shark! In short – he’s a Rambo on the high seas.

What I did enjoy was Cussler’s obvious love of maritime technology. The prose comes to life when describing the various ships sunk by the villainous conspiracy behind the pacific vortex and I understand the author has dedicated a lot of effort to recovering shipwrecks. Yes, there is a real-life NUMA.

I suspect that Cussler’s work is not for me, but as he has blitzed the best-seller charts with every book in the Pitt series there are plenty of other fans out there.

‘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.

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