Casino Royale Book Review

Casino Royale is the first James Bond novel and was originally published in 1953. Post war readers were thrilled by the Fleming mix of colour, escapism, sadism, sex and food and both the author and his creation went on to become world famous.

The plot of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale involves a Soviet agent named Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is connected to SMERSH - a ruthless organisation similar to the KGB. Le Chiffre has taken control of a number of brothels in the west with SMERSH money. He knows that he is a dead man unless he recovers the money he has used funding his bad habits and therefore comes up with a plan. He will use his considerable gambling abilities to make up his losses at baccarat in the casino of Royale-les-Eaux. The British cannot take out Le Chiffre for fear that his death will be used for propaganda purposes agaisnt them. Instead they decide to use MI6 agent James Bond. Bond is the best gambler in the service and is assigned the task of playing agaisnt Le Chiffre at the gaming tables. If Bond beats him then Le Chiffre will be ruined and quickly eliminated by SMERSH. Covert Soviet influence in France will be greatly damaged...

The first Bond novel is more restrained than many of the books that followed. James Bond himself comes across as a slightly jaded but urbane cold war warrior. He isn't a one-man army engaging in free-running chases through construction sites here. He is a 'blunt instrument' used by the British government to protect their interests. A slightly mysterious and sophisticated loner with the darkly handsome looks of a film star, Bond is a man of many vices who has cultivated expensive tastes through his job and missions. 'An expense account snob' as he was described once by someone who escapes me. Despite the urbane charm he can project in the appropriate circumstances, Bond is also a trained assassin - we learn that he became a Double-O with two kills on missions during WW2;

"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"

Apart from his baccarat skills, Bond is also chosen for the mission because he is notorious for being 'tough'.

Casino Royale doesn't have a huge amount of action but it unfolds in an entertaining manner. Early on there are attempts on Bond's life and although the events and different characters can be a litle confusing at first the book captures the paranoid feeling of the cold war where everyone is looking over their shoulder and making sure their room isn't bugged. While his prose could be simple at times, Fleming was known for being a very descriptive writer - especially when describing things he loved like gambling and food. While this sometimes veered a bit too close to 'padding' in some of his books it was also a strength of his writing and one of the reasons why his books were so loved. If James Bond sits down to dinner Fleming will tell you exactly what he's having with the relish of a Restaurant critic. This fastdious approach to food is something I'v enjoyed about the books. "You must forgive me," Bond says to Vesper. "I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink." Bond's attitude to life is linked to the knowledge that in his job every single day might be his last. Even if you don't know your Taittinger 45 from your Blanc de Blance Brut 43 it's fun to enter this world.

In the book Bond is teamed with another British agent named Vesper Lynd, although he isn't very happy at first to be working with a woman ("Do they think this is a bloody picnic?"). Lynd, the original Bond girl, sets the template for many of the women that Fleming would write about in his books - gamine, beautiful and slightly messed up. Felix Leiter, an American working for NATO, is also on hand to help Bond. Leiter is used to illustrate the Atlantic alliance and the ties between Britain and the US.

Although a short book with a simple plot, Casino Royale is structured around some vivid set-pieces that provide the twists and suspense. The baccarat showdown is relished by Fleming and his knowledge of the subject leads to some very descriptive and absorbing passages. The high stakes, desperation, risks and euphoria of a winning hand is skillfully conveyed. I won't give away the last sections of the book but Bond is put through the mill as the mission becomes more complex and dangerous. I think Casino Royale grips the reader more as it progresses.

Fleming's Bond took his share of good hidings and, a bit like Indiana Jones, it was part of the fun of the character. We knew he would take his punishment and live to fight another day. The Bond of Fleming's Casino Royale reminds you of Phillip Marlowe. A flawed man who needs a few whiskies to get him through the day and is constantly being beaten up! Like Marlowe, the Bond of the books is required to do more old-fashioned detective work than the cinematic Bond. The romantic aspect to the novel is used well to imbue James Bond with an introspective quality. He is often gazing out to sea or questioning his loyalties and life. This makes the character more human and enigmatic than his cinematic version.

The fun of Casino Royale and Ian Fleming's work in general is in being taken back to another era and having it lovingly described. The decor of hotels and casinos, the cars, food, clothes and style. Everyone smokes constantly and drinks like a fish, meals are lavish. James Bond is a fantasy window into another world that is fun to escape into now and again, although Fleming's work would not pass too many PC tests today.

Although the most restrained and human of the Bond novels, Casino Royale serves as a stylish introduction to perhaps the most enduring hero of them all and remains an entertaining and important book for anyone that loves popular culture.

- Jake


c 2008 Alternative 007