David Mazzotta reviews Ian Fleming's debut novel - Casino Royale - and asks, what was it like in the beginning?

Casino Royale - Review
7th February 2005

Fifty years ago, Ian Fleming produced an unassuming espionage thriller without the slightest notion that he was spawning an unparalleled entertainment franchise and a mythology that continues to pervade popular culture half a century later. What was it like in the beginning?

The plot of Casino Royale is straightforward Cold War cloak and dagger. A despicable villain known as LeChiffre is in trouble. He has used good deal of Soviet/Commie-backed Union money to satisfy his own grotesque personal needs and, because his brothel business has been legislated away, he turns to gambling to get the money required to make his re-payment. LeChiffre is desperate, knowing full well that should he fail to come up with the required cash, he will be dealt with by SMERSH, a Soviet Agency Far More Secret And Dangerous Than The KGB. The Good Guys - meaning British Intelligence with help from French and American allies - aim to destroy LeChiffre and scandalize the Soviet/Commie-backed Union by sending their best gambler, James Bond, to bankrupt him at the game of baccarat.

As the birthplace of Bond, Casino Royale can provide us with the definitive answers to some burning questions that have trouble mankind for many years. Specifically: he does introduce himself as "Bond - James, Bond"; the car is not an Aston Martin or a BMW - it's a Bentley; and the drink is not a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) - it is: three measures of Gordon's Gin, one of vodka, and half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake very well until it's ice-cold, serve in a deep champagne goblet, and garnish with a large thin slice of lemon-peel.

But what can we say of the novel Casino Royale once we divorce it of fifty years of cultural baggage?

The first thing that strikes you is the vast difference in the mores and manners expressed in the book compared to contemporary society. That is not to suggest that Casino Royale is intended to be a realistic portrayal of the times, but the idealized milieu of the 1950s is quite different from what its contemporary counterpart would be. Dress is overly formal. Everyone smokes - all the time, everywhere. They drink pretty much constantly, too; a behavior now generally confined to college campuses.

Above: British Pan paperback edition.

It will surprise no one that Bond is an unrepentant misogynist. When finding himself paired with a female agent - the lust-inducing Vesper Lynd - he is disgusted in spite of his sexual attraction to her. Bond firmly maintains that women are only "for recreation", and declares her to be a "stupid bitch" - although not to her face, gangsta rap having yet to make that fashionable. Yet, as a chivalrous woman-hater, he is compelled to go on a dangerous pursuit when she is kidnapped by the Evil Villain. This act of overt male heroism ends with Bond getting tortured by having his genitals beaten so badly that it takes him weeks in a hospital to recover. Upon recovery, he is consumed with a desire to bed Vesper Lynd in an effort to prove he can still, ahem, perform as man.

Otherwise, Bond comes off as a comparatively genuine and human. For example, unlike in the movies, his peccadilloes are not the result of supercilious snobbery. He is condescending as he gives detailed instructions to a waiter for the preparation of a meal, but subsequently explains to his dinner companion that he does that because he usually eats alone when he is working and it makes the meal more interesting. Bond is cold and carries many distasteful personality traits, but he is not unsympathetic.

Above: American Popular Library paperback edition - the publishers renamed the novel to "You Asked For It" in an attempt to boost flagging sales.

The supporting cast doesn't fare so well. CIA agent Felix Leiter, perhaps reflecting British sentiment towards Americans, comes across as relatively useless but a good man to know if you ever need money. Vesper Lynd is said to be capable, but shows little skill beyond being attractive. The villain LeChiffre is a cookie cutter creation.

Although Fleming occasionally spends a bit too much time dwelling on the minutiae of dress and d�cor, for the most part the novel is well-paced and tautly written, in contrast to your average Tom Clancy boat anchor.

The story can be cleanly divided into two parts. The first section is the standard espionage fodder of bugged hotel rooms and assassination attempts, with the exception of an extended sequence on the fateful game of baccarat, both an overview of how the game is played and the description of the Bond/LeChiffre showdown. This is a wonderfully written section - the card game is more exciting than the bombs and car chases. It will make you want to play baccarat next time you're in Vegas.

The second part of the story follows Bond's recovery from the above mentioned torture and is oddly melodramatic and romantic; certainly not the sort of thing one expects from an action oriented genre. It is a difficult task for a novelist, to maintain reader interest through character development after spending the first half of the book portraying bombastic daring-do. Fleming makes a solid attempt, but the senses are already overwhelmed and any delicacy and subtlety seem anti-climatic. Eating steamed broccoli may be healthy, but it still tastes bad after a chocolate sundae.

Another shortcoming is the lack of humor or irony - there are no clever gadgets, and no witty repartee. In fact, the only humor is unintentional. When speculating what motivates a LeChiffre henchman to be a cold ruthless killer, Bond decides the answer is drugs - probably "Marihuana" (the 'h' is not a typo). One wonders what prompted Fleming to eventually settle in Jamaica.

Fifty years on, Casino Royale is a passable espionage thriller. A fair companion for a cross-country flight or for reading a chapter or two before you go to sleep. Darker and more serious than pop-Bond, but not more entertaining.

Prepare Yourself For Casino Royale In 2006!

Penguin USA
Paperback - $9.75

Penguin Modern Classics
Paperback - £6.39

Penguin UK
Paperback - £5.59

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Review first published by kuro5hin. Republished with kind permission of David Mazzotta. Click here to visit his blog.