(Published in the Business Standard, November 26, 2006)

Some Bond fans will never get over Sean Connery, the first completely convincing 007. Some Bond fans will never get over Casino Royale, the first and the best of Ian Fleming’s books about the world’s most famous fictional spy.

I read Casino Royale as a kind of guilty pleasure, illicit compensation for the overdose of tedious works of literary merit that were considered suitable reading for adolescents. The Bond of the films, with his gadgets and fancy cars, the villains seeking the relatively innocent goal of world domination and the Bond babes with their schoolboy-humour names (Plenty O’Toole, indeed), came later. Casino Royale introduced a cynical spy who, in the very first sentences, introduced and repudiated an apparently glamorous world:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of fear and greed and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

In his tangle with Le Chiffre, the bent, sadistic casino owner who is also a KGB operative, Bond is more vulnerable and far harder than he is in subsequent books. He reflects on the deaths it took to get him his latest designation; in a sadistic scene where Le Chiffre uses a carpet beater on the 007 family jewels, the blood from the cuts and bruises he sustains is more real than it will be in later Bond odysseys. He offers his recipe for the perfect Martini in detail, and offers the harshest epitaph for a Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, than he ever will again: “The bitch is dead.”

Raymond Chandler, an enthusiastic fan of Casino Royale, would write to Fleming commenting that none of 007’s subsequent adventures packed the power of the first book. But the Bond franchise was doing well and Fleming never found his way back to the harsh complexity of Casino Royale, where his spy could see his own cruelty and weariness reflected in the mirror.

Of the writers who took on the Bond franchise after Fleming’s death, the most interesting were Kingsley Amis and John Gardner. Amis, best known for Lucky Jim, was also a Bond fan who had published The James Bond Dossier in 1965. He published Colonel Sun under the pseudonym of Robert Markham in 1968, after Fleming’s death. His friend, the poet Philip Larkin, wrote to him: “’I look forward to your Bond. Don’t get bogged down in it, though, will you? One Bond by you would be fascinating, like Sons and Lovers rewritten by Samuel Butler, but more than one would keep you from your own incomparable work.”

Colonel Sun is set in Greece where Colonel Sun Liang-tan, a tall Chinese man whose irises are “pewter-grey”, plots to blow up a Russian summit and leave the corpses of Bond and M around in order to implicate the British. Amis’ Bond has recovered from a gin-and-tranquiliser-fuelled period of darkness of the soul, and graduated, much to the horror of Bond fans, from the Martini to rose wine and ouzo. Ann Fleming, Ian Fleming’s widow, was scathing: “Amis will slip ‘Lucky Jim’ into Bond’s clothing, we shall have a petit bourgeois red-brick Bond…he will end as Philby Bond selling his country to SPECTRE.”

When John Gardner took over the franchise, it was Amis’ turn to vent his spleen. Gardner had been an alcoholic, a drama critic, a drummer in the army and a priest before turning author. He had brought Moriarty back from the grave in two books and created the “cowardly” Boysie Oakes, accidental and not-so-secret agent, as a deliberate Bond parody. His fourteen Bond books still read well, though Amis didn’t think so: “Perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming.”

For diehard Casino Royale fans, though, perhaps the perfect post-Fleming Bond is to be found in Raymond Benson’s short stories. Benson did passable screenplays for the Bond franchise (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough). But his most interesting work was in the stories he wrote for Playboy–in ‘Blast from the Past’, for example, he had 007 contemplate the death of his son (by Kissy Suzuki) in an unusually dark and bitter riff.

Who could pick up the Bond franchise today and make it work? Charlie Higson does a nice job with the young James Bond series. But how about a new 007, illuminated by the twisted vision of an Iain M Banks, or the bitter humour of early James Ellroy? That would leave the Bond books, dormant for so long in comparison to the films, shaken and stirred.