Ian Fleming's Casino Royale - A Review

"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

Published in 1953, Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel revolves around a baccarat showdown between Le Chiffre and James Bond. Le Chiffre is a Soviet spy working for SMERSH, a sinister but smaller KGB style organisation. He has used SMERSH money to finance ownership of a collection of brothels in the West. Le Chiffre has a taste for capitalism but knows that his Soviet paymasters will terminate him unless he covers his tracks. To recoup the money before SMERSH find out Le Chiffre, an expert gambler, plans to clean up at a French casino in the resort town of Royale-les-Eaux.

James Bond, also an expert gambler, is pitted against Le Chiffre by the British secret service. If 007 can beat him Le Chiffre will be eliminated by SMERSH and communism in France will be dealt a severe blow. Le Chiffre cannot be killed by the West for fear of him becoming a martyr. MI6 assigns Agent Vesper Lynd to aid 007 although he isn't very impressed at first ("What the hell do they want to send a bloody woman for?"). Rene Mathis of the Deuxieme Bureau and Felix Leiter, an American working for NATO,  also provide welcome aid for our hero through the course of the novel.

Casino Royale's first section is espionage heavy with bugged hotel rooms and explosive murder attempts. 007's cover is blown almost immediately. The baccarat showdown is skillfully and painstakingly described by Fleming. 007 eventually wins after Leiter bails him out with a further 32 million francs. Bond uses the money to wipe out Le Chiffre's remaining credit. He celebrates with Vesper but she is kidnapped. Bond is captured during his rescue attempt by Le Chiffre and tortured. A SMERSH agent kills Le Chiffre and saves Bond. He cuts 007's right hand but leaves him alive.

In the Hospital bond considers resigning from the service and thinks about Vesper but she commits suicide and is revealed to be a Soviet spy. Her suicide note explains that she feared SMERSH would have her killed. Bond had fallen in love with Vesper but now coldly remarks that 'the bitch is dead.'

Casino Royale is a short book with a simple plot. It moves along nicely and Fleming uses detailed descriptions to set up simple scenes. Bond enjoys eating alone and savouring his food and Fleming uses moments like this to project an enigmatic element into his creation. 007 does his share of navel gazing in Casino Royale. He questions his loyalty and the grey area in good versus evil. Here he is a more ordinary character than later novels, or the one man army of the cinematic series. He is a Commando trained killer but he does not enjoy it. He prefers a clean, quick kill. What does he look like? Well, Vesper Lynd describes 007 as 'Very good-looking'.

As the first introduction to James Bond, background details fill out the history of the character through the book. Bond drives a Bentley, purchased in 1933. He became a 'double-00' after killing a Japanese cypher expert in New York and a Norwegian double-agent in Stockholm during World War II. He has many vices but is thoroughly professional. There have been many articles written trying to explain the appeal of the James Bond books but perhaps the best explanation is to say they are fun and an escape. James Bond is someone who is paid to live out a secret life for real. We might not completely want to be this character with all his problems and dangers, but we wouldn't mind being him now and again, just for a while. Fleming takes us into this slightly enhanced reality with colour and style. Sections of the book are dated and un-PC in today's money, but Casino Royale is the place to start for Ian Fleming's James Bond.

- William Rogers


c 2007 Alternative 007