I bought Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, at a used bookstore yesterday, thinking it would be a nice brain-free read. Then I got a third of the way into it, and realized it was making me think. Ian Fleming is a terrible writer, but he's good at making himself seem like a decent writer. He arranges words so that they flow remarkably well, even while conveying racist, sexist, or ableist sentiments, or saying literally nothing in a half-page paragraph.
It did have moments that caught my eye in a positive way, particularly when Bond doesn't act like the ultimate macho that popular culture thinks he is. Like when the two assassins sent after him get blown up by their own bomb, and turn into a graphically described rain of gore, he struggles not to throw up where the average Call of Duty player character wouldn't even blink. And then towards the end, when he's in the hospital recovering from repeated groin attacks, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole spy thing and produces a brilliant paragraph or two about how political attitudes change over time.
I was all set to write about how this book was occasionally clever by accident, and to relate the part about politics to the stupid and scary things that have been happening recently in the UK. Then I read the last chapter, and Casino Royale abruptly turned into A Farewell to Arms.
Bond falls in love with the capable-in-spite-of-sexism female spy. Then she starts getting shifty and stops trusting him. Things get better briefly, and then out of nowhere she commits suicide. The note she leaves reveals that she was a Soviet double agent and her boss had sent someone looking for her. Bond calls MI6 headquarters and reports that "the bitch is dead."
If you've read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (I did in high school and have not forgiven the teacher who assigned it), you'll be familiar with this kind of ending. The Lieutenant falls in love with a woman, gets her pregnant, and then loses all capacity for emotion when she betrays him by dying in childbirth. I can just see these two men walking away from their respective duties to society in Hemingway's famous rain, stopping only to make eye contact and share a totally anachronistic fist bump before continuing on their separate ways to become the heartless machos that popular culture thinks they are.
Rating: I read the whole thing, and then threw it at the wall.