Retro review–Casino Royale, Fleming’s first James Bond novel

By C.J. Bunce

In March 1952, on his estate called Goldeneye in Oracabessa, northeast Jamaica, ex-British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming finished his first spy novel, penned over the past two months.  As the 60th anniversary of the birth of James Bond approaches, what better time to read the twelve novels and nine short stories written by Fleming?  Casino Royale was a collection of Fleming’s ideas and experiences, and the result of a long-time desire of Fleming to write his own spy novel.  The character of Bond was a compilation of several spies Fleming had met while in the military.

Can the Bond novels hold up after 60 years?  Even considering Bond’s 1950s era womanizing that has been to one extent or the other in 24 Bond films (the original comedy plus the 23 films including the forthcoming Skyfall) the Bond of 1952 is as familiar as the current Bond.  The James Bond novels remain in the top 25 best selling novel series of all time.

As theatrical adaptations go, Casino Royale is very faithful to the original novel.  But there are enough twists and turns that anyone who has only seen the Bond films will find new elements to enjoy in the original novel.  It begins with a dossier read by head of the Secret Service “M,” on one Soviet agent, Monsieur La Chiffre, who “stole from the till” and lost on bad investments over time and with a bounty on his head he is in need of millions of francs to save his own life.  La Chiffre has cleared out accessible bank accounts to turn that money into greater wealth come June at the casino at Royale-Les-Eaux in France, and La Chiffre is reputed as a formidable player.  The recommendation: “the finest gambler available to the Service should be given the necessary funds and endeavour to out-gamble this man.”

Despite that seemingly silly premise, readers can look forward to tight writing, great characterization, and well-plotted action.

What doesn’t come through in the movies is Bond’s inner thoughts.  Modern audiences see Bond as polished and perfect.  The original Bond story shows a different man.  This could reflect a character not yet firmly established or the fact that the character himself was only recently made a 00 agent, the designation of a British agent who had made two kills.  His inner-workings are fun–at one point he plots to rob the bank at the casino and how many men it would take to do the job successfully, simply as an afterthought between pondering how we will proceed next in his actual assignment.

Bond is a renaissance man.  Sure, in the movies he is portrayed as suave and knowing what drink to order, but in Casino Royale we see Bond fluent in French cuisine and culture.  And he is also fluent in subtlety.  His extreme paranoia, required to keep a spy in the danger game alive comes across over and over.  No rest for the weary?

It’s difficult not to approach Bond novels without reference to the corresponding films.  Thankfully Fleming’s first Bond novel can now be compared to the first Daniel Craig Bond film, as opposed to the funny 1967 comedy spoof version with David Niven. In that regard the movie reflects the novel with familiar characters M, head of the Secret Service, assistant Moneypenny, René Mathis, from the French service, CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Vesper Lynd, assistant to the head of the S (Soviet) branch of the British intelligence.

Unlike James Bond of the movies, James Bond of the novels is self-correcting.  He may have classic womanizer thoughts or presumptions, but does not hesitate to adapt or change his mind and act against his baser instincts, something we rarely see in the movies.  Hard-hearted is not yet the established Bond as featured in Casino Royale, and he is a bit more likeable, more personable, apologetic, less automaton.

The plot revolves around a game of baccarat of the highest stakes (literally in the game they break the world record for high stakes play), with Bond strategically placing himself opposite La Chiffre, and they become the key competitors despite a dozen other players.  Bond withstands a few attempts on his life, including one at the table, and ultimately loses millions in the first round of play.  American Felix Leiter comes to the rescue with an endless pot of CIA money, that Bond uses to re-enter the game and finish the job.  From there, Bond and assistant Vesper Lynd are kidnapped as part of a trap, and La Chiffre attempts the most brutal torture to exact the money from Bond, money Bond hid at the hotel.

Iam Fleming’s writing is evocative of the time and place: “Bond lit a cigarette and settled himself in his chair.  The long game was launched and the sequence of these gestures and the reiteration of this subdued litany would continue until the end came and the players dispersed. Then the enigmatic cards would be burnt or defaced, a shroud would be draped over the table and the grass-green baize battlefield would soak up the blood of its victims and refresh itself.”

Negatives?  Readers may encounter a few quirks.  One may be nits like over-use of the word “ironical” once preferred to the modern “ironic,” which after several uses grates a bit.  Fleming also has Bond over-explaining his actions to Mathis in the last chunk of the novel.  And there is a long sequence that is not so much the modern Bond tongue-in-cheek encounter with the “Bond girl” of the week, but reads a bit like a scene from a Harlequin romance novel.

But certainly there is more of what you’d hope for than not:  Bond’s love of wine and food.  A fast car (here a Bentley).  Bond’s vodka martini (the “Vesper”).  A heightened awareness of surroundings.  Pleasure in relationships with other agents.  Pursuit of the beautiful woman of the moment.  Calculated risks.  Confidence to the point of over-confidence.  A car chase.  A crash.  A hand-to-hand fight.  A card game.

A W carved on the back of Bond’s right hand is a curiosity–carved by a Soviet agent who chooses not to kill Bond, but brand him with the symbol of the Russian word for spy.  (Did this come up later in the series?)

There is also much explanation that makes sense of Vesper’s role in the card game and aftermath, that was rather rushed in the film adaptation.  And the ending fully explains why readers were eager for the next and subsequent James Bond spy thriller.

No question–Casino Royale is a fun read, and although it may be obvious, it explains why the successful franchise got off to a good start.

One comment

  1. Nice post. One of the great pleasures of popular culture is every so many years, sitting down and rereading the Bond novels. One particular favorite is “The Spy Who Loved Me” told from the perspective, not of Bond, but of a young woman to whom circumstance brings him to rescue. In it, we finally get an outsider’s perspective of the character. Ironically enough, Fleming was said to have disliked the finished novel.

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