Monday, June 27, 2016

Casino Royale (James Bond #1)

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.


allan said...

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;” ...

You'll like this Kids In the Hall sketch.

Matthew said...

I tend to think of this as Bond's "origin story" to use a term from Comic Books. This is what created the Bond from the later novels.

You mention you don't think of Craig as Bond. There's a fan theory that James Bond is just a code name of different agents. This explains Connery, Moore, Craig et cetera being different. Obviously, it only works for the movies and not the books.

Gene Phillips said...

Hi Joe, found your blog thru GROOVY AGE.

I think you're right that Fleming hadn't yet found his voice with respect to portraying Bond as a "tough guy." One book claimed that Fleming was also a big fan of Somerset Maugham, and there have been many times when Bond seemed less like Mike Hammer and more like one of Maugham's effete characters.

I reviewed CASINO a few years ago in the light of so-called political correctness; check it out if you've a mind.

Drew Salzen said...

The thing to remember about Fleming is that as well as Spillane, he was heavily influenced by Dornford Yates, whose snobbishness is reflected in Fleming's use of non-English languages and expensive brands. This makes for an odd cocktail that didn't really come into focus until a book or two down the line. With no pulp or mushroom jungle paperback past, and no journalism or magazine stories at his back, Fleming and Bond did their growing up in public, which may account for the initial uneveness and imbalance of this book. The positives Fleming drew from Yates were the coolness of his prose, and his way with a car chase - the chase in Casino Royale could have come from one of Yates' pre-WWII thrillers. I used to like Yates, but the accrued snobbishness got too much for me in the end - however, his action scenes are excellent and I learned a lot from them.

Been reading the blog for ages, by the way, but have only just set up my Google account (technology is not my friend). I loved mens action paperbacks as a kid, came back to them in my 30's, and spent the best part of two decades earning a living from them. They're a habit you just can't shake. You do splendid work here, but you're going to cost me a fortune by the time I've picked up everything I want after reading about it here!

Zwolf said...

Excellent review! And thanks for the plug! :) Tony Randall as Bond pretty much nails that book.

I still haven't moved on to any other Bond books yet. I'm thinking I should probably skip over to Thunderball, since it sounds good, but so far I haven't gone for it. It is pretty tough to get a lot of "action" out of a gambling book. The only books I've read that managed to wring any intensity out of card games were Lucky At Cards by Lawrence Block (amazing book, that one) and Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis. I'm hoping Fleming will toughen up later on down the line, because that Bond just won't cut it. Nick Carter and Matt Helm would play keep-away with his lunch box.

I don't mind the Daniel Craig Bond so much... he's not perfect, but they at least brought some grit back to the thing. No Roger Moore in a clown suit stuff. But, Sean Connery's still the guy to beat.

By the way, just in case you hadn't seen it yet, there's another "Soft _____ for the (insert evil and depraved thing here)" sweat-mag reprint volume out - That one snuck up on me and I just spotted in the other day. Haven't got it yet, but it's in the mail...

Gary R. Peterson said...

Outstanding review as always. I actually enjoy longer, expansive, NYRB-style reviews to capsule reviews, so you're A-Okay by me.

I enjoyed CASINO ROYALE waaay more than you or Zwolf did. I am not a gambler, but was swept up in that worlds and the tension Fleming effectively created. Of course I brought a lot of positive associations to my reading, having seen most of the films before actually reading a Fleming novel.

Just have to comment on your reference to "sanpaku-eyed" Le Chiffre. I read William Dufty's book YOU ARE ALL SANPAKU years ago and can't stop seeing sanpaku-eyed people everywhere, usually on the news after horrible crimes are committed (e.g., Omar Mateen--sanpaku). Nobody I know seems to be aware of the concept, and are skeptical when I describe it, so it was heartening to see you mention it.

Kurt said...

If I remember right, after the attempt is made to blow Bond up on the street goes awry he goes back to his hotel room and orders a massage. Nothing like a nice massage when your cover is blown and people are trying to kill you! I think Live and Let Die is right after this one and that was a pretty good book if memory serves. I haven't read it since high school though, when I read all of the Bond novels.

halojones-fan said...

Tim Powers's "Last Call" did some fun things with gambling, although strictly speaking it was more about Tarot.

Brian Drake said...

You're not wrong about the flaws in the book, but it's probably my absolute favorite for the conversation Bond has with Mathis about the nature of good and evil. Here's my take on the book:

Stephen Mertz said...

First off, I was surprised to see Fleming even cover in this blog. The literati may have called him trash but I would have to side with Raymond Chandler in that Fleming was an effective, elegant writer and, having read this novel several times, I'm surprised that you fault this one so yet praise "You Only Live Twice," which is a great travelogue with no plot until about the last 30 pages.Of course, differences of opinion are what make following blogs like yours so interesting. Hoping you like the next one, "Live and Let Die," which has far more physical movement than "Casino Royale." Thanks for the review!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Allan -- I enjoyed that sketch, had never seen it.

FreeLiveFree -- "Casino Royale" was the only Bond movie I ever walked out of, and I've never gone back to the Craigs. Lame modern revisionism at its worst. I was already prepared for annoyance when I saw the CR trailers, complete with buff Craig in speedos. I mean, when have the Bond films ever been about the exploitation of the male body? As I say, modern revisionism/catering at its worst. I'll take "Moonraker" over that crap any day. So that fan theory is fine by me.

Gene -- Thanks for the link to your review, I will check it out asap.

Drew -- Thanks for the comments on the blog, glad you are enjoying it! And that's a great way of looking at it, that Fleming and Bond did their growing up in public.

Zwolf -- All I could envision was Tony Randall throughout the book. Glad you appreciated that. Thunderball's another one I never got to read as a kid, though I wanted to -- the film is my favorite in the franchise. The book and the film are supposedly very similar, given that the story started life as a script in the '50s before Fleming turned it into a novel (without telling the guy he worked on the script with -- which is a whole 'nother story). Sadly though, sexy hitwoman Fiona is NOT in the novel. I have a feeling Doctor No will still be my favorite of the lot. It's basically the template for every other men's adventure novel that followed. (Plus it too started life as a script, I recall, though not for a Bond picture.) Oh yeah, and I have the new Pep Pentagelli book -- sadly, looks like there's only one Nazi She-Devil tale in it. Bummer!

Gary -- I'm flattered you mentioned the NYRB, as that's been my goal from the start -- what if the NYRB or the New York Times reviewed novels like this instead of Mailer and Updike and etc? And that's funny about sanpaku...ever since learning that word I too see it everywhere. If I'm not mistaken I believe the Japanese consider sanpaku people evil, or at least untrustworthy, so it IS pretty nuts when sanpaku-eyed people turn up in the latest atrocities! And thanks for mentioning that book, I'd never heard of it.

Kurt -- You're exactly right, and I should've mentioned that. Yes, tough-guy Bond goes and gets a massage after the bomb blast. And it isn't even from a sexy gal, as one might expect from the movies!

Halojones-fan: I read Last Call many years ago, and loved it. Might be worth a re-read someday.

Brian -- Thanks too for your review, will check it out asap.

Stephen -- I know Fleming isn't trash, but I figured I'd just toss the Bond novels in here along with my reviews of other suspense/spy novels of the day, mostly because I keep referring to them. And I should clarify I loved YOLT as a kid, when I was obsessed with ninjas. I suspect upon this re-reading I will not like it as much; I've read that it is, as you say, for the most part just a travelogue of Japan. But the finale always stuck with me. I mean James Bond the ninja, what's not to enjoy? Live And Let Die is another one I never got to read back then, so I'm looking forward to reading it this time.

Ystafell Gynghori said...

Anthony Horowitz is writing a prequel to 'Casino Royale', to be entitled 'Forever And A Day'.

Unknown said...

I don't think Fleming was a fan of Mike Hammer. Fleming's journalism actually contains some derogatory references to Spillane. Casino Royale was based on Fleming's wartime knowledge and experiences, with some influence from Dennis Wheatley, Peter Cheyney, Eric Ambler, Somerset Maugham, and Raymond Chandler. One of the book's biggest fans was Chandler himself, who told Fleming he'd disimproved with each succeeding Bond novel.
Personally, I have no interest in gambling, but I was riveted by the baccarat match. The New York Times reviewer was less keen on the book but singled out the gambling scenes as the best ones.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey, thanks for the comment, sorry I missed it -- interesting to hear that Fleming wasn't fond of Mike Hammer. Speaking of which, I'm nearly finished Diamonds Are Forever, and so far I like this one second-best of the first four Bond novels, after Live And Let Die. Still blows my mind that many people, like Chandler, consider Casino Royale to be the best Bond novel. But to each his own, I guess! I like the pulpier installments, and am really looking forward to re-reading Doctor No.

And thanks, Stephen, for the note on Horowitz's latest...I'm debating if I want to read his Trigger Mortis after I read Goldfinger. If for no other reason than to see the disparity between the real thing and a modern revisionism.