June 23, 2014

Casino Royale (1953) Book Review

Plot: James Bond, Agent 007 of the British Secret Service, travels to a casino in Royale-les-eaux to bankrupt fifth-columnist Le Chifre, treasurer of a French union, member of the Russian Secret Service and master torturer. Bond teams up with Vesper Lynd, from Bond’s own Secret Service, Felix Leiter of the CIA (as Fleming puts it “…Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people, and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.”), and René Mathis of the French Deuxième Bureau. Intrigue, double-crosses and mangled testicles ensue.

Review: This is the first book to feature James Bond, debuting on April 13, 1953. Of course, the character went on to spawn 11 sequel novels as well as short stories, “continuation” novels beyond Fleming, comic strips, merchandise, and a legendary blockbuster movie series that goes on strong today. But it’s in Casino Royale that one gets a clear, pure, unfiltered sense of what Fleming’s initial James Bond concept and character was supposed to be.

In this first novel, James Bond is deadly serious. He grapples with his sense of duty and the very concept of good and evil throughout the novel. He also sports a large scar on the right side of his face and seems battle-worn by the time of this adventure. There’s a great aside where Bond sleeps in his hotel room and Fleming mentions that Bond’s joyful facial features regress into a dower, serious face as he loses consciousness, as though that is Bond’s true self and the joyous adventurer is the mask he dons for the rest of the world. Later, Bond struggles to define the forces he fights against as being “bad”, stating to an incredulous Mathis that if he were born in Russia, he would be recruited to fight the outside world and define them as villains as well, to which Mathis suggests that Bond should surround himself with everyday people beyond his dire reality of killing enemy agents for a living as people are “easier to fight for than principles.” Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd which, in the book, seems more like an infatuation than real love as he fantasizes about having rough sex with her and they barely know each other for a week. It’s as though Bond sees Vesper as a safe exit from his secret agent lifestyle.

The martini drink Bond is famous for is introduced as Bond’s own creation. There are more details to it, but it’s still shaken not stirred. Bond tells Leiter in an early scene that he’s trying to name the drink so he can patent it and the drink can become famous. Later, upon meeting Vesper, he names the drink after her. Casino Royale is also the debut of Fleming’s weird food fetish. Fleming seems to really have been delighted by fine food and so is Bond, with the character remarking to Lynd “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink.” Bond seems to love scrambled eggs, and toast is a big deal to him too. In later novels and short stories, Fleming would lovingly and explicitly describe Bond’s meals, especially breakfast. In Dr. No, there’s a scene where the villain serves Bond breakfast with mouthwatering descriptions by Fleming, Bond eats it and gets drugged while the reader knew full well it had to be a trap (I guess breakfast is Bond’s kryptonite). In the short story 007 in New York, Bond gives his recipe for scrambled eggs at the conclusion of the story. In Casino Royale, Bond makes a pig out of himself, eating every meal his hotel can offer with Fleming sure to tell you what exactly he’s eating. The practical reason for all of this is that Fleming was writing these novels in post-war austerity England. The average reader couldn’t purchase the food described in Fleming’s novels at the time and Bond’s opulent lifestyle was seen as a colorful escape.

As with most of Ian Fleming’s 007 books, Casino Royale gets a lot of flak for being politically incorrect. The books were written in the 50’s and 60’s by an Englishman in his 50’s and 60’s and Fleming tends to have outdated views of women and race. The observations made in the Bond books are more hilarious than infuriating nowadays. Bond remarks early on about having a woman in the way of his duty, referring to Vesper, and later in the book after Vesper is captured, Bond launches into a diatribe about how women should stay in the kitchen with their pots, etc. It doesn’t detract from the story, but it is a little eyebrow-raising. It was a different time. It helps to read the books with a crotchety old man “get off my lawn” voice in your head. Then it all makes perfect sense.

The torture sequence with Bond strapped naked to a chair with no seat while Le Chifre canes his balls is surprisingly more graphic and painful to read than it was to watch the movie adaptation of this scene. Fleming describes the moment vividly without ever mentioning genitalia, yet it’s all very excruciating and amazingly clear. Worth noting too is the scar in the form of Russian letters that one SMERSH agent carves into Bond’s hand toward the end of the book, which is addressed later in the series. Le Chifre himself is a suitably menacing villain with the SMERSH agents being an even more menacing bigger fish to Le Chifre.

Fleming manages to ratchet up tension by having Bond’s mission end half-way through the book, which leaves the wide expanse of the rest of the pages as a vast unknown of surprises (of course, if you saw the movie, you know what happens). Bond’s search for happiness through the book is answered toward the end of the story where he punctuates his epiphany on his role in life with one stark sentence that closes out the book.

Casino Royale is a serious, taut thriller that brought a vivid reality to the secret agent game, countering the pulp fiction of the years leading up to this book. While Fleming wanted to go more serious with the other books, adventure and fun would prevail for the rest of the series after this story with Bond doing his duty at peace with himself while only occasionally questioning his job. Fleming’s colorful and entertaining descriptions of the scenes and surroundings peppered with curmudgeonly observations make the Bond books fun to read, and Casino Royale is no exception.

About the Author

My love of action, horror and b-movies is an unhealthy sickness. Is it wrong to turn off the news and pop in an episode of the Mister T cartoon instead? Probably. Who cares?



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