Common knowledge holds that the character of James Bond is vastly different in the books than he is in the movies, that the literary Bond is far more ruthless, cunning, and mean — a real bastard, if you will — while Bond even as played by Sean Connery is a bit more playful and whimsical. I decided it was high time I filled in the gaps and started reading the Fleming novels, and there seemed no better place to begin than with the first one, Casino Royale. In the end, Casino Royale would prove to be a bit rough around the edges — Fleming’s Titus Andronicus, if you will — but the seeds of what would become a long-lived worldwide phenomena are there. It begins with a simple but highly interesting idea: a Russian agent, Le Chiffre, with a penchant for the good life has “borrowed” a ton of money earmarked for the Communist party in France. And then he lost it all.
Unfortunately, he invested it in a chain of high-class brothels on the even of France outlawing prostitution (Communists just don’t make good capitalists), and now all the money is gone. This is not, apparently, his first transgression, and the Russian agency SMERSH — the secret police who police the secret police and assassinate any Russian agents gone sour — is becoming increasingly interested in Le Chiffre. If he is found out, they will kill him, even though it means a crucial blow will be dealt to the cause of Communism in France. Le Chiffre’s plan is to right his debt by winning the money back through gambling, at which he is exceptional.
News of this reaches London, and a scheme is hatched to beat Le Chiffre at his own game by sending in an agent to out-gamble him. If they simply assassinated Le Chiffre, he would become a martyr. Instead, they have to insure that he dies at the hands of his own people, disgraced and humiliated. So the British agent must travel to France and beat Le Chiffre at the table, dashing any hope that Le Chiffre will recoup his losses and save himself from SMERSH. And M, the head of British Intelligence, has just the man for the job: Bond. James Bond.
One of the things that makes Casino Royale such a remarkable story is how pared down it is. We’re used to a bloated Bond, a campy spectacle full of high-tech hijinks, smarmy quips, glamorous globe trotting, and convoluted, larger-than-life schemes. But in Casino Royale we have the simple story of a spy who has to beat another spy at a game of baccarat, and that’s it. Of course, the occasional enemy agent with an exploding camera case pops up from time to time to complicate things, but for the most part, the story in Casino Royale is lean and direct. Fleming’s prose is, quite frankly, unremarkable here in his first time out as creator of James Bond, but it’s solid and readable. Raymond Chandler is quoted frequently in support of Fleming, but Fleming’s writing isn’t in the same league as Chandler — though I’d place him soundly on the level of Dashiell Hammett. In fact, Bond reminds me of Sam Spade in many ways. Fleming has a tendency in this novel to launch into lengthy descriptions of various games of chance and gambling strategies, including detailed descriptions of James Bond’s roulette system. These descriptions can get a little lengthy if you’re not a gambling fanatic, but other than that, what Fleming lacks in elegant wordsmithing he more than makes up for with pacing and gusto.
Now let’s discuss the character of James Bond himself and the “common knowledge” surrounding him. Based purely on Casino Royale, you should forget all the commentary you’ve read about Bond being ruthless and calculating and vicious. He is these things form time to time, but the overreaching characteristics of the man in Casino Royale are doubt, emotionalism, a certain weepiness, and a tendency to wallow in self-pity. He’s an ace gambler, but a below-average spy. He fails to spot all but the most obvious of enemy agents, stumbles blindly into even the most obvious traps, and never really emerges victorious from any confrontation. He has moments of flash and cool, but for the most part, he’s a bit of a, well, chump. He’s arrogant, but he never justifies that arrogance in action. He’s humorless, and a bit of a prick — but not the likable prick he would become in later books. If you are looking for the cool-as-ice master agent, you’re not going to find him in Casino Royale.
At least not until the final page. Although Fleming didn’t write Casino Royale intending it to be the start of a series or the origin story of one of the single most recognizable names in pop culture history the world over, that’s what it became. What Casino Royale functions best as is a window into Bond’s soul, and the events that would turn him into the man popular culture recognizes. You won’t be getting this level of soul-searching and self-evaluation in the other books, nor will you get the Bond present here, one so willing to throw himself into romance (though he does decide several times that he could marry this girl or that, though he never does –well, not until On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Casino Royale is as much a character study as it is a pulp action novel, and Bond is deeply flawed.
In the final chapters of the book, we see a Bond who, emerging from having endured a graphic torture session at the hands of Le Chiffre (intent on getting back the money he lost at the baccarat table), begins to question the very nature of the spying game, of good and evil and the perception that one side any more good or evil than the other. Some of this rumination is overly melodramatic, and it is during this scene where Fleming’s weakness as a freshman writer is exposed. In his element — describing the baccarat game or Bond’s creation of the eventual signature martini, Fleming excels, but when he wanders into the water of philosophy and self-examination, his writing becomes a bit ham-fisted.
Bond decides to get out of the spy business, settle down with the femme fatale of the piece (Vesper Lynn), and apply his energy to living. Of course, this doesn’t happen, and as we watch Bond dragged through an emotionally torturous final betrayal (oh come on — don’t say you couldn’t guess it) at a seaside bed-and-breakfast, we witness the emergence of a more recognizable character. The James Bond we’ve just read about, the somewhat emotional, easily duped, self-pitying man, dies, and with the final line in the book — “The bitch is dead,” — we witness the birth of the man we know as James Bond. And this — not the baccarat game, not the final showdown with Le Chiffre — becomes the entire point of the story.
Although the weepiness of Bond in Casino Royale may be a bit trying to some, it’s worth sticking with the story, since it’s a very good story, and one that plants seeds Fleming would later grow and harvest (specifically, a certain cord of insanity that seems the lurk beneath Bond’s veneer) as he realized he’d created a literary juggernaut. The supporting cast of the story is excellent. Vesper Lynd is perhaps somewhat shallowly drawn, but she’s an intriguing character never the less, especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, we in the present read the book just waiting for the point at which she’ll inevitably stab Bond in the back. We also get introduced to French agent Mathis — a likable and light-hearted character that, with my greater experience lying in the Bond films, I couldn’t keep from imagining as looking and sounding very similar to Pedro Armendariz’ amiable Turkish agent Kermin Bey in From Russia With Love. We also meet Bond series regular (in both books and film) CIA agent Felix Leiter. And the appearance of the mysterious and efficient SMERSH assassin is suitably creepy, just as his “you call yourself a secret agent” contempt for an amateur sucker like Bond is perfectly crafted.
I can’t say, however, that I fell in love with Casino Royale and James Bond as immediately as I did with my favorite literary spy with questionable cinematic adaptations of his adventures lurking around: Matt Helm. But then, Donald Hamilton was able to write his Matt Helm stories with the benefit of a couple Ian Fleming novels to already serve as sign posts. Where as subsequent spy novel characters would draw from Fleming, Fleming was drawing from the heritage of hardboiled crime fiction authors like Chandler and Hammett, as well as other pulp writers and his own experiences (though Fleming’s actual role in things like British intelligence during WWII seems to have been grossly exaggerate din some instances). He does, however, share something in common with men like Hammett and Hamilton that many other writers, especially more current ones, sorely lack — personal experience.
Casino Royale is a good book that, knowing what we know, becomes a phenomenal “origins” story, the foundation for a rich and complex world of double-cross, espionage, and beautiful but dangerous ladies.