Casino Royale Book Review
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then 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.
Thus begins Casino Royale and the literary record of the famous fictional secret agent codenamed 007. He’d soon introduce himself on screen in countless films with the immortal line, “The name is Bond. James Bond.”
No such line exists in Casino Royale, the first novel by British naval intelligence officer turned journalist turned author Ian Fleming. The James Bond in Casino Royale is not the same James Bond in Dr. No. I’m not promoting the James Bond is a codename theory, but I am instead pointing out that whereas the Bond films, which began with Dr. No, and later Bond novels reveled in high-stakes, over-the-top plots with nail-biting action sequences, Casino Royale is much more grounded, almost a character study of the British secret agent and assassin. While the premise of Bond’s mission is certainly far-fetched — MI-6 has sent their best gambler, 007, to bankrupt Le Chiffre, a communist financier, through a game of baccarat — Le Chiffre doesn’t have robot hands or an eyepatch. Bond has no gadgets and wields a Beretta instead of a Walther PPK. His car, a Bentley, doesn’t have machine guns or missile launchers.
This isn’t to say that Casino Royale isn’t exciting. It is a mark of Fleming’s skill as a writer that he managed to lend Casino Royale’s gambling scenes with a sense of tension. This is primarily thanks to Fleming’s own way with words. Indeed, Umberto Eco noted that Fleming “has a rhythm, a polish, a certain sensuous feeling for words.” The excerpt at the start is just one of many passages in Casino Royale where Fleming showcases powerful description that easily transports the reader to the eponymous casino. This style of writing must have certainly helped once the Bond series jettisoned all sense of realism in its more fantastical later installments.
As for the story itself, Bond goes through an appreciable character arc that is missing from the Bond films and the later novels. Without spoiling the plot too much, Bond transforms from the male chauvinist filmgoers know and love, to being simultaneously lovestruck with Vesper and disillusioned with MI-6, and back again to a male chauvinist disillusioned with both MI-6 and women in general. In many ways, Fleming seems to have been vicariously exorcizing his own anxieties through Bond. Fleming had previously mentioned to friends that he wanted to write a spy novel, it wasn’t until 1952 that he drafter Casino Royale to distract himself from his upcoming wedding. Fleming captures this naïve fear of making a commitment in the passage below:
[Bond] was honest enough to admit that he had never yet been made to suffer by cards or by women. One day, and he accepted the fact he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. When that happened he knew that he too would be branded with the deadly question-mark he recognized so often in others, the promise to pay before you have lost: the acceptance of fallibility.
This sort of rumination is unheard of in the Bond films (at least until the Craig era began with the cinematic adaptation of Casino Royale). All in all, Casino Royale may not read like something from the Bond universe, but it is still a fine book.
I give it four stars.