Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965 Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1953)
Sometime in the summer of 1986, when I was 11 years old, I got bit by the Bond bug. Seemingly overnight I became obsessed with the world of James Bond, rushing to the local video stores to rent any of the movies I could. I still remember the first Connery movie I saw, Diamonds Are Forever, and thinking to myself – now that guy is James Bond! (Just imagine how I felt when I watched one of the earlier, less campy ones!)
At that time a British author named John Gardner was the official novelist of the Bond canon, Ian Fleming having passed away over twenty years before. I read all of Gardner’s books (five at the time) and began seeking out the originals by Fleming. Most of them were pretty easy to find, Berkley Books having reprinted them with silhouette covers that in retrospect positively scream “1980s.” However in those pre-internet days some of the Flemings were harder to find than others, Casino Royale, the first book in the series, being one of them. This is the first time I’ve gotten to read it.
Before I go any further, I must point out Zwolf’s excellent and pithy review, which so very conciscely captures my own feelings on this overhyped novel. Luckily Ian Fleming went on to write better Bond novels, because this first one really tried my patience. Admittedly I knew going in I wouldn’t be crazy about it; even as a kid I was aware that Casino Royale featured a mostly-pedestrian gambling plot as its central storyline, and even then I found gambling stories boring. But still, it’s James Bond, right? And you read all these online reviews claiming this is the best Bond novel ever… But then, we live in a world where people praise Daniel Craig as “the best Bond ever,” so there goes that.*
Anyway, I’d read most of the Bond books as a kid; Doctor No and You Only Live Twice were by far my two favorites, the former in particular. I’d never really considered reading them again, but then this past October I was in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and for some reason I kept thinking of these novels. Gradually I realized why – those old Bond hardcovers always stated that Ian Fleming wrote in Jamaica (his home, GoldenEye, is now a mega-expensive resort – and it isn’t even all-inclusive!), and of course a few of the books took place there. I decided then to finally read the series in full, including the volumes I’d missed as a kid; as fortune would have it, I later scored the entire ‘60s Signet paperback run for a pittance.
About the only good thing I can say of Casino Royale is that it’s short. As Zwolf mentions in his review, word has it that Fleming wanted to create a British Mike Hammer – Fleming was a fan of Mickey Spillane, who was incredibly popular at the time (the irony being that today Bond is by far more famous than Hammer). While Fleming captured this vibe in later volumes, in this first one James Bond is for the most part a foppish dandy; to quote Zwolf, he’s “basically an ineffectual victim who only survives by the kindness of his enemies and gets fooled by double agents.” (Plus he also plans to get married!! Some tough guy!)
Fleming’s writing has that clinical feel typical of British pulp; “all manners and no grit,” to again quote Zwolf, who as usual succinctly sums things up whereas I go on and on. I wrote “pulp” but really the novel has pretensions toward literature; here you will find many ruminations on the color of the sky or the beautiful flowers of the French countryside and whatnot. To be sure, Fleming’s writing is good, and he effectively captures his scenes and surroundings. Perhaps if one were to read Casino Royale without the accumulated baggage of six decades of the James Bond franchise, one might think differently of it. And I did attempt this, but still, the novel fails…it seems to build toward something, (anti)climaxes too quickly and too soon, and then spends the final quarter in a listless freefall.
What’s fascinating is that Fleming wastes no pages on world-building or scene-setting. When we meet James Bond he’s already in Royale-les-Eaux, a posh resort in France. Word of warning: Casino Royale is one of those novels where practically every page is peppered with French words and dialog. This only serves to make it seem all the more stuffy and snobbish. The now-familiar formula of Bond meeting with M. and being briefed on the assignment, armed by Q department, etc, is only later relayed via brief flashback. The book is lean and moves fast – it just doesn’t go anywhere, unfortunately.
Bond has been picked for this task because he’s “the best gambler” in MI6; his assignment is to outgamble a Russian counterspy named Le Chiffre, a benzedrine-enhaling, sanpaku-eyed sadist who, MI6 knows, works for SMERSH, the executive branch of Russian secret service. But Le Chiffre screwed over his employers, as relayed via too many pages of excerpted documentation M. reads in that flashback portion. Swindling SMERSH of millions of pounds, Le Chiffre is now a dead man, unless he can win all of it back at Casino Royale here in Royale-les-Eaux. Bond’s job is to beat Le Chiffre at baccarat, a high-stakes game Bond specializes in.
Fleming’s secondary characters were usually more interesting than Bond himself, who is cold and cipher-like for the most part, especially in these early volumes. This time we have Rene Mathis, the most colorful of Bond’s comrades in this one, a French agent who briefs Bond on the local scene and acts as a radio seller in a humorous sequence. Next there’s Felix Leiter, CIA agent familiar from the films but never capably captured, though Joe Don Baker in GoldenEye was likely the closest, if a bit too old for the part. Leiter is a Texan and meets Bond for the first time here; the two become as friendly as spies can be, and Bond seems to have a jealousy/respect for Americans, which was very refreshing to read in today’s “America is the source of all evil” world.
Finally, and most importantly, there’s Vesper Lynd, a hotstuff brunette junior agent, for the most part an admin assistant, sent here by her station chief to assist Bond. Our hero is famously pissed at this, hating to work with women and spending most of the novel complaining about how they shouldn’t get involved in “man’s work.” Here I should probably insert the mandatory diatribes against the novel’s outdated misogyny and chauvinism and other such bullshit, as is apparently required for all modern reviews of the James Bond books, but I’m not going to do that. Bond has his sentiments and he’s entitled to them. The irony being, of course, that his deeds do not match his words – he only comes to harm in this book for trying to save Vesper.
Setting the standard for the “Bond Girls” to follow, Vesper is appropriately sexy and stacked; though Fleming doesn’t get as exploitative as he would in later books. Not that the Bond books ever really did, though the word “breasts” would appear more and more frequently, to the point where you wonder how much more salacious the novels might have become had Ian Fleming lived past 1964. At any rate Vesper is an okay character, but for reasons of plot she’s a bit withdrawn and distant, making Bond’s gradual falling in love with her a bit hard for the reader to buy.
The first half of the book is mostly setup for the big gambling faceoff between Bond and Le Chiffre. The villain himself doesn’t even appear, and the only bit of action we get is early on, when two Bulgarian assassins inadvertently blow themselves up instead of their target, Bond. Fleming doesn’t dwell on the gore much –again, the book has nothing on Spillane – and it’s interesting how upset and shocked Bond is by the atrocity. He is by no means the stone-cold badass of the films here; indeed he spends most of Casino Royale throwing various hissy fits and looking down his nose at everyone. He’s more Tony Randall than Sean Connery.
Fleming himself worked in intelligence in World War II, thus the novel is filled with a sense of realism; these are Cold War veterans and they treat their violent world with a casual attitude. I forgot to mention, but Bond has three guns this time, none of which he uses(!). The famous Walther PPK isn’t one of them; Bond wouldn’t begin to use it until Doctor No. He starts off Casino Royale with a .38 revolver, later has a Beretta .25, and finally has a Colt .45. But none of them are used, thus ruining the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. In fact all Bond does, action-wise, is kick someone in the shins and try to run away!
After a lot of buildup, Fleming spending more time on Bond trying (and failing) to score with Vesper, the “climactic” baccarat game is upon us before we even realize it. Le Chiffre like Vesper sets the standard for ensuing Bond villains, though he isn’t as properly exploited here. He’s got all the requirements – henchmen, a weird prop (the inhaler), a strange look (waxy skin, sanpaku eyes), and a fondness for torture – but he’s talked about more than he’s seen, and thus he’s got nothing on Doctor No or even Blofeld. The game, despite the high stakes, didn’t much resonate with me, mostly due to that aforementioned dislike of gambling stories but also because it’s mostly relayed via French dialog.
Finally the novel kicks into higher gear when Bond, victorious in the game (his ass only saved by Felix Leiter’s last-second granting of extra cash), chases after an abducted Vesper. Here the reader thinks he’s finally about to see some action as Bond fondles his .45 and berates the fact that Vesper was indeed out of her league in a man’s world. Then he crashes his car, tries to kick a guy in the shins, and next thing you know he’s naked and tied to a bottomless chair. Prepare for some unsettling stuff as Le Chiffre spends some time, uh, whacking Bond’s balls with a carpet beater. I broke out in a empathetic sweat as I read this, which should be testament alone to the occasional power of Fleming’s prose.
But as Zwolf pointed out above, Bond is saved yet again(!), this time by an anonymous SMERSH assassin who not only kills the two thugs guarding Vesper (off-page) but also kills Le Chiffre (anticlimactically at that, just shooting him between the eyes). And this guy doesn’t kill Bond only because he wasn’t ordered to!! Berating the red tape of his own system, the SMERSH assassin nonetheless goes to the trouble of carving “SMERSH” on Bond’s hand, which only begs the question why he doesn’t just kill Bond, given that he knows he’s a British secret agent – I mean, if this guy wasn’t ordered to kill Bond, then surely he wasn’t ordered to carve SMERSH on his hand. But that’s that, the SMERSH guy leaves, and the story is pretty much over, but there’s like 40 or so pages to go.
Here Casino Royale goes into freefall. After convalescing in a hospital for several weeks, where a visiting Vesper is his only source of daily joy, Bond finally checks out and goes on a vacation in the French countryside with Vesper. His big concern is whether he’ll still be able to have sex, and when Vesper finally gives herself to him it all happens off-page, this being 1953 and all. But we’re to understand the lady enjoys it and Bond discovers to his joy that all his parts still work. Oh, and he’s decided he’s going to marry her! This decision comes in an effectively-written scene where Bond goes swimming; Fleming was a dedicated swimmer and the parts in these novels where Bond scuba dives or snorkels are always highlights.
The final pages are given over to the growing bitterness of this new relationship, as Bond catches Vesper in a lie – he spots her sneaking off to call someone, though the girl won’t say who and keeps trying to underplay her deceit. It sort of drags on and on, as if we’re suddenly reading a different novel. Bond doesn’t make a good showing of himself, coming off like a simpering, heartbroken lug in his debut novel. Despite all this, Fleming still manages to gut readers with the last pages, in which Vesper, after spending another night with Bond, overdoses on sleeping pills and leaves a heartwrenching suicide note in which she admits she was a secret agent for SMERSH but fell in love with Bond and now begs for his forgiveness from beyond the grave.
“The bitch is dead,” Bond tells his contact; the last line of the novel, and a sign of the Bond to come in future books. It’s almost as if this first book was something he had to go through to become the Bond of later novels, but at the same time you figure Fleming could’ve come up with a more gripping and thrilling story. As it is, Casino Royale just sort of limps along for the duration, yet strangely enough the reader is compelled to keep reading despite the lack of thrills. The only other writer I can think of who can accomplish this is Harold Robbins, and again that brings me back to the ruminations above…I wonder what sort of James Bond novels Fleming would’ve written once authors like Robbins had broken the prudish boundaries of sex in print?
As mentioned Fleming’s writing is good, though he seems to be obsessed with the words “ironical” and “directly.” The latter in particular shows up about every other page, ie, “Directly Bond paid the bill and left the table,” and so forth. It’s almost as if Fleming just learned the word before writing the book and became fascinated with it, as in a skit I once saw back in the ‘90s on a show called The State (the word that writer just discovered was “and;” I only saw the skit once, and I was likely drunk, it being college and all, but I still thought it was hilarious).
Otherwise the book shows the promise of much greater things to come. I didn’t much enjoy Casino Royale, but I don’t regret reading it, and if anything it’s made me eager to continue with the series and appreciate how much better it became. I’m definitely looking forward to re-reading Doctor No.
*Personally I don’t think Daniel Craig is James Bond – he’s just playing a character of the same name.