My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming is the book that launched James Bond‘s career and his iconic following ever since has enchanted countless readers and moviegoers.
At baccarat, a game of chance, James Bond attempts to bankrupt Le Chiffre, who is an agent for the evil organization called SMERSH. Several attempts are made on Bond’s life, but Bond survives, defeats Le Chiffre, and gets the girl. But there is so much more to this classic Bond novel than one might imagine. After all, it was the beginning. What really makes this James Bond novel special is Fleming’s treatment of Bond’s psychology as both a spy and as a man.
Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale is instant realism and a huge leap away from the more Minimalist approaches to novel writing. In Bond we have a man who is willing to be a man’s man, which includes drinking, spying, killing, fighting, gambling, smoking, knowing how to order a meal, and not being overly sentimental. That is, until Bond falls for Vesper.
The first few words we know the story writing is going to be sharp and vivid and interesting. At the time of its publication in 1953, much of Britain was still recovering from World War II and Bond’s world of fancy casinos and expensive dinners is almost quite fantastical for the readers of that time period (and one could argue the same during these times as well).
”The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. The soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired” (p 1).
This initial scene is as bold and as exotic today as it was sixty years ago.
Fleming also chooses to show the reader a deeper side to James Bond. Bond isn’t just a dull lacky working for British intelligence, and Bond is quite refreshingly given a depth to his character not often shown in the early James Bond films.
Here is Bond sizing up one of Le Chiffre’s men: ”Bond guessed that he would kill without interest or concern for what he killed and that he would prefer strangling. He had something of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but his inhumanity would not come from infantilism but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond” (p 93).
Bond is clearly an intelligent spy who is not only good at what he does but he is precise and well-read. And the reader gets a closer look into Bond’s psyche after he is tortured to the brink of death by Le Chiffre. Afterwards, Bond recovers in a hospital and talks with his friend Mathis.
Bond says, ‘History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts” (p 170).
A little later, Bond adds:
” ‘Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes–representing the deepest black and the purest white–and we call them God and the Devil. But in doing so we have cheated a bit. God is a clear image, you can see every hair on His beard. But the Devil. What does he look like?” Bond looked triumphantly at Mathis.
Mathis laughed ironically.
‘A woman’ [Mathis said.] .”
At the end of Bond’s little speech, Mathis can only reply: ”Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles” (p 175).
Somehow I know exactly what Mathis means.
At times, but only briefly, Fleming does begin to creep around the thin edges of those mawkish moments. Fleming’s temerity, however, keeps the reader grounded in Bond and that reality he has created around himself.
Le Chiffre is dead. Bond and Vesper are in love and staying at a seaside inn and having a wonderful affair. Bond has decided to retire.
”Vesper looked at him thoughtfully.
‘People are islands,’ she said. ‘They don’t really touch. However close they are, they’re really quite separate. Even if they’ve been married for fifty years.’
Bond thought with dismay that she must be going into a ‘vin triste’. Too much champagne had made her melancholy” (p 204).
Fleming’s deft hand at intelligent storytelling balances those precious moments we long for in reality and in fiction without completely crossing over into maudlin or bathetic scenes we so despise. Not an easy task at all for the writer.
What surprised me most is how Ian Fleming created in James Bond (in Casino Royale, that is) an insightful and deep character that is able to cross genres. Casino Royale is not only a story of espionage but a psychological debate of good versus evil and the book is also a love story between Bond and Vesper.
The film version of Casino Royale came out in 2006 with Daniel Craig, and I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Fleming’s Casino Royale, however, is a far better treatment of Bond and his profound character. Therefore it is with a strong conviction that I recommend that you read the book and then go watch the film and make up your own mind. After all, Bond would not want you to miss out on all the fun.
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers