MI6 reviews the haunting debut James Bond novel, "Casino Royale", published by Ian Fleming in 1953...

Casino Royale: Reviewed
19 August 2009

Introducing James Bond, the secret agent with two kills on his hands. "Casino Royale", Ian Fleming's first novel - published 13th April 1953 - is a short and bitter introduction to the world of espionage from the British author that would become an international household name. Written from his Jamaican home, Goldeneye, Fleming's fantastic agent journeys to Royale-les-eaux and does battle with the repulsive SMERSH agent Le Chiffre at the card table. Accompanied by some of the most capable allies of all 13 novels, Bond's mission is far from the straight forwards affair he takes it for.

This novel shows James Bond as a trusting and occasionally foolish British agent, but as the most capable card-player the Service has on offer, he has won this high-profile case to bankrupt Le Chiffre (The Number) and leave him for dead.

In many ways, "Casino Royale" is a learning curve for both author and character. Whilst Fleming experiments with his newfound love of fiction (having been a factual reporter much of his working life) James Bond is in the process of becoming the harsh and cautious man we recall. He is somehow more trusting but less self-assured when he deals with the emotional race Royale offers.


Above: First edition cover art by Richard Chopping.

Save one flashback to the grey offices of MI6 in Regent's Park, London, the story is set entirely in Royale - a fictional Côte d'Azur town, blessed with a high-rolling casino to keep the tourist trade alive. The grand casino Fleming describes in reality does not exist, but inspiration drawn from his time in Navy Intelligence offices really does give the now-famed author an insight into the world of espionage. Bond is joined in Royale by: Mathis - a competent French liaison whom 007 has reportedly worked with before; Felix Leiter - an American representative of the CIA who is currently posted to Paris to liaise with NATO; and Vesper Lynd of his own agency. Vesper, as secretary to Head of S, has joined 007 on his mission much to his disgust as he regards women as the kind of people who only disrupt a good mission.

"But surely it is Monsieur Bond?' Mathis's voice behind him was full of surprised delight. Bond, appropriately flustered, rose to his feet. 'Can it be that you are alone? Are you awaiting someone? May I present my colleague, Mademoiselle Lynd?'"


Bond - perhaps unwisely - allows Vesper to become his 'right hand man' and when the mission is deemed a success hopes to bed the tall, dark and mysterious assistant. Much of the action takes place at the high-stakes card table, where the game is Baccarat (or Chemin de fer, they are one and the same). The choice of the game is left to Le Chiffre, the villain of the piece, attempting to recoup lost Soviet Union funds at the gambling tables or face death by SMERSH assassination. The object of the game is to earn a score closest to nine (picture cards count for naught and any score over ten counts only for the final digit) with two cards and an option for a third. To play the game, a gambler must meet the banker's bet with a call of "Banco". Le Chiffre is the host of the high-stakes table and the banker. Fleming explains all of this with a true passion for the odds but almost a sickening disgust for gambling on the whole. As if a vice of the rich man, gambling is something to be understood, undertaken but never enjoyed.

About two thirds of the way through, the tempo of this first Bond novel changes. Bond realises the fool he has been to allow Vesper a part in the operation and finds that she is his Achilles heel - he does not yet know how pertinent that will be. A brutal torture scene ensues, where the true villainy of Le Chiffre comes to light. Prior to this event the character of the desperate gambler is flat and silent but when given the upper hand - mainly having Bond tied naked to a chair ready to be tortured - this character comes to life. His sick, twisted, outlook on life and his desperate need to recover his lost funds make Le Chiffre a truly evil opponent.  When Bond is saved by the uncharacteristic mercy of a SMERSH agent the book takes its second of two gigantic turns.

007 is now left to his own devices, after his recovery from brutal torture of course, to pursue the lovely but oddly distracted Vesper. For several chapters of this novel, Fleming spends the time developing the character of James Bond, allowing his rough and ready secret agent to fall in love and desire to marry the girl from Section S.

"'I've got the corpses of a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm to thank for being a Double O. Probably quite decent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world...'"

For its short length, this novel packs in a lot of mystery, detail, intrigue and emotion. In many ways "Casino Royale" explains to the world how James Bond hardens; how he grows up to become the man we remember from the Fleming canon.  The ending is ultimately bittersweet, but by the final page, the final line even, the character we come to accept and remember James Bond as is complete. Just when you think you've paged nervously through the climax of this novel, "Casino Royale" throws another punch.


Above: 2008 artwork for "Casino Royale" by graphic artist Michael Gillette...

MI6 Rating

Capsule Reviews
A superb gambling scene, a torture scene which still haunts me, and, of course, a beautiful girl
- Raymond Chandler

The first part of the book is a brilliant novelette in itself, dealing with the unlikely but imaginative plot to ruin a Communist agent by gambling against him for high stakes... But then he decides to pad out the book to novel length and leads the weary reader through a set of tough clichés to an ending which surprises no one save operative 007.
- New York Times

Casino Royale has action, suspense, even romance - yes, Bond falls for that "bloody woman" - but most interesting and valuable, it provides a fascinating glimpse into a world long gone. It was a mostly Anglophile world, although you might spot the odd Yank, like Bond's CIA agent friend Felix Leiter, of whom "Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.
- April Chase

Don't miss this. A sort of Peter Cheyney de luxe, with everything of the very best and most expensive.
- The Observer (Maurice Richardson)

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